A half-basement that WASN'T Rossino's, in an old house on West Pine, my kids learned to eat out in Rossino's. And here's more about it.
Autumn is a great time to visit Paris. Yes, there are some gray days - at that latitude, it's a given, they tell me - but there are plenty of positive things that offset the gray. For starters, the angle of the sun produces a golden light that makes lots more than the dome of the Invalides and the statue of Joan of Arc absolutely glow. The dead zone that is August is, of course, past and the town hops with activity. I've visited Paris in the spring and summer, too; while tourists are always there, autumn seems comparatively less crowded.
And the food - oh, my. Less daylight than in spring is offset by a far wider range of seasonal options.
But before we get to that, let me add a few touristy observations. The remodelling of the Musee d'Orsay is nearly complete. Alas, I feel like a once-dear friend has embraced some cult and seems like a stranger. Different layout, walkways like gerbil tubes, many rooms (including the cafe behind one of the trademark clock windows) far darker than formerly. They've put a dining room in a third-floor space on the west end of the building that does have fabulous light as well as art chairs called Nel Blu Dipinto di Blu. (Points if you recognize the reference.)
My friends and I stayed very near the Invalides, whose gardens make for some lovely morning strolls. So does the street market on rue Cler, the 7th arrondissement street of which travel author Rick Steves speaks so well. Pay attention in particular there to the seafood vendor who will almost surely have something to puzzle even the most knowing Anglophone food lover, like these, which are, I finally discovered, described in English as goose barnacles. Yes, edible.
I missed the re-done Picasso Museum, a fine excuse, not that you should need one, to visit the Marais neighborhood, and the new Frank Gehry-designed Louis Vuitton Foundation in the Bois du Boulogne, both of which opened while we were in town. Next time they'll head the list. I did pay a visit to the re-opened Musee des Arts Decoratif just west of and affiliated with the Louvre. Focusing on the very broad category of decorative arts, it may not be for everyone with its wide-ranging exhibits - I saw wooden toys, Dries Van Noten clothing and great furniture, including a room of nothing but chairs - but for many of us, it's fabulous.
Like most of my overseas postings, this one will be in several parts, but let's throw a couple of restaurants in here, and do more on the subject in the next installment. My usual habit in Paris is to aim for bistros. I love traditional French cuisine, am always eager to try more of it, and reserve the high-end stuff for the occasional splurge.
Perhaps this is the place to insert my disclaimer. I speak only "menu French". I can handle myself in a restaurant. But don't expect me to manage understand someone giving directions to the nearest Metro station. For that I relied on my pal Mr. T., who insists he has forgotten most of what he learned. Between us, we managed without anyone laughing at our attempts - except The Potato Queen, sometimes referred to as the Duchess of Escargot and married to Mr. T. Very early in the trip, my pals and I headed for Le Trumilou. The little place on the Right Bank of the Seine across from Ile St. Louis is a cozy neighborhood spot; on our Friday night visit, we seemed to be the only not-French there.
A fine slice of a country pate and some wonderful pleurote mushrooms in a creamy sauce kicked things off. We devoured duck with a tart but sticky sauce of prunes, shown above, sweetbreads cooked with good-sized lardons of bacon and chunks of potato, and a pork chop in a pan sauce of mustard, wine and a suspicion of rosemary. Dessert was an individual apple tart and what the house calls a pave du marais. Instead of a slice or small brick-shaped piece of cake and mousse, this was scooped into a footed dish and topped with whipped cream. Nice contrast of textures and very serious chocolate flavor. Main courses are between 16 and 23 euros each.
84 Quai de l'Hotel de Ville, 4th arr.
Another old favorite, one I (and before that, we) have sent folks to for years, is L'Ambassade d'Auvergne. Focusing on food from the Auvergne region of France, the restaurant is between the Marais and the Pompidou Centre, it's a casual spot with tasty, interesting dishes - and servings in St. Louis-sized portions. Starters are called "entrees" on the menu or carte - don't be fooled, that's an appetizer, not a main course. My favorite here is a warm salad of tiny Puy lentils and bacon. But the truly remarkable dish here are the aligot potatoes. Whipped with lagouile cheese, which is similar to cantal, and just a hint of garlic, they're incredible. Here they are with a duck breast.
And just to explain about them, here's a photo of a waiter working with them.
We also tried some beef, which came with panfried potato slices and bone marrow.
Even if you're burned out on chocolate mousse - and I'm pretty much that way, this is the place for the jaded. A perfect consistency, superb chocolate, and a serving bowl so diners can refill their plates as desired. Bliss. There's a prix-fixe menu wherein you can get that salad, the duck and potatoes and the chocolate mousse for 33 euros. Delightful service, too, which we encountered a number of places.
22 rue du Grenier, 3rd arr.
That "open daily" is somewhat significant - that's not a given in Paris, especially on Sunday nights. The Auvergne website has an English version - watch for those little English flags as you go browsing to plan a trip to France.
I had wanted to go for years - I'm not a gardener myself but gardening is another form of architecture, which I do love, and this show is absolutely legendary. I wrote about it for The Ladue News, and you can read about it - plus see more photos - here.
Hie thee to the Boo Cat Club. Carrie Houk, artistic director of Sudden View Productions, has brought us a rarely-produced play of the very young Tennessee Williams, on the very stage where his work was probably first put on the boards. "Stairs to the Roof" is clearly an early work, romantic and dreamy and with some rough edges. But the language clearly shows his hand, elegant despite its occasional wandering.
Nevertheless, it's a worthwhile evening - and if you want to see it, get a move on; this is its final weekend. Fine performances by Paul Cereghino and Em Piro as the young married guy who's an office drone and the girl he meets, in the leads, for instance. Smaller roles for the wonderfully glowering Peter Mayer and the winsome Bob Harvey charm.
In the midst of this, there's a musical score by Henry Palkes and dancers. It almost becomes magical realism, especially when one takes into account the remarkable set by Marcel Meyer, who not only doubled on costumes, he tripled with choreography. Houck and the production director Fred Abrahamse have brought together some fascinating elements.
And then there's the building itself. Circa 1908 and originally the St. Louis Artists Guild, it's fascinating, although way not wheelchair accessible, unfortunately, unless I missed a sign and ramps to be whisked out. This is one of those structures that one drives by, thinking I wonder what that was. Now you can explore. Parking is on a lighted and monitored lot just north of the building, behind the church.
Tonight, Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m., Sunday at 3 p.m.
Stairs to the Roof
Sudden View Productions
Boo Cat Club
812 N. Union Blvd.
Am I the only one who was traumatized by the frozen pot pies from the early adventures of frozen food? Swanson and Banquet's renditions came quickly to be a mainstay of my working mother's repertoire, much to the dismay of picky-eater me. All that stuff mooshed up together. Pastry that wasn't crisp all the way through - without the redeeming quality of having blackberry or cherry juice as the wetting agent. Nope. Loathed 'em. The only redeeming quality was the little aluminum pie pan, washed and saved by my Depression-marked parents.
Now things are different. My tastes are vastly wider and they've come to be much better (and freshly made) stuff. Same thing, minus the wretched history, for shepherd's pie, the soothing mashed-potato topping welcoming on cold nights like these. Here's a few notes on the besties around. And a particular tip of the hat to the bakery elves at Sugaree for taking me past the heart-pounding face-off with a frozen one.
Nobody seems to make much of St. Louis' tradition of unpretentious family-owned Italian restaurants. But they click along with a good amount of regular clientele and without much fanfare. One such place is Frank Papa's in Brentwood, around for many years and with a full clientele of loyal regulars. So what happens to restaurants like that? Can their kitchens stay consistent?
It is possible that Frank Papa's was the first local restaurant to flash-fry greens, although information to the contrary is always welcome. Unlike the more delicate and commonly seen spinach, escarole is the green of choice here, and a good idea, a little more heft to stand up to the intense, pervading heat of the oil. The dish remains tasty enough with its shower of crumbs of cheese, but what was on our plate was far greasier than it might have been. Whether it was from insufficient draining or from oil that wasn't hot enough, it was hard to tell. Still, the plates left clean.
A fresh, crisp house salad wore its vinaigrette lightly. The menu said balsamic, but it's not a sweet dressing at all, and its slice of tomato was surprisingly good considering the time of year. One can argue over the inclusion of provel cheese shreds, of course, but provel's creaminess is a nice contrast to crisp lettuce and the faint smokiness a not-unwelcome note with a dressing's acidity.
Another signature dish is the veal Diana, named for Frank's wife. It's retained its distinction over the years, remaining one of the best veal versions around. The fork-tender veal, the sort of thing one reads about but seldom encounters, was swathed in a brown sauce based on a deeply flavorful veal stock punched up with tomato, mushrooms, basil and a hit of sherry, dark and delightful. Roasted potatoes, the usual side to the entrees, and a swirl of spaghetti squash, came along to wipe up the last of the flavors.
Over the years, I've eaten some excellent game from this kitchen. This is the time of year it seems particularly right, the big flavors appealing with the cooler weather. The game special was a pappardelle, the traditional noodle served with game sauces in Italy, with boar sausage. "A little sweet," explained the waiter - several times, in fact. And it was, indeed. The pasta in a broth (as are several of their pastas) held chunks of vegetables, the natural sweetness of the veges unfortunately flavoring it far more than the slices of the spicy, coarsely ground sausage. The proferred cheese helped some, but the overall effect was seriously underwhelming. The dish lacked the vigor that such meats and fowl almost always call for.
Service was first-rate, pleasant and attentive, water refills coming quickly, good explanations of things, and this on a busy night.
But with food varying from insipid to great, it's clear the back of the house needs to step things up.
Frank Papa's Ristorante
2241 S. Brentwood Blvd., Brentwood
"The willing suspension of disbelief" is a phrase still tossed around once in a while as an impediment to enjoying art, or even just entertainment. It's nonsense, of course, but sometimes you still hear it with plays like "Rembrandt's Gift". Tina Howe, a playwright who writes on the border of absurdism, is often great fun to watch, and if you're willing to watch Superman flying, why can't you watch Rembrandt appearing in a studio apartment in lower Manhattan?
Running through this upcoming weekend at Dramatic License Productions, which operates at Chesterfield Mall, it's a story of an actor and a photographer, married many years, who have left their professions because of his obsessive-compulsive disease and hoarding and her - well, her what? Co-dependency on his craziness, perhaps. The apartment, a wondrous set by scenic designer Cameron Tesson and costume designer Teresa Doggett, since most of what's visible is costumes from husband Walter's "collection", hanging from pipe racks, curtain racks and furniture, is madcap. "Looks like a college dorm room," murmured my pal as we sat down.
John Contini's Walter is by turns a late middle-aged man, an affectionate husband - and a garden variety loon driven by compulsions and the fear that interlaces with them. He's maddeningly inconsistent, it appears at first, leading the audience to need to watch him. Polly Shaw, whose early photography earned her major acclaim, is Kim Furlow, the Rembrandt fan in the family - it's all about the light, you know. Her transformation from frazzled to bedazzled charms. And then there's Rembrandt himself, the time traveller. Greg Johnston is the artist at the end of his career, impoverished and threadbare - but loving Walter's costumes - and stunned by the voyage he's made. Johnston's Rembrandt makes every attempt to be polite to the disbelieving Walter, and we can see him begin to take in the world around him. It's when he notices the poster of his self-portrait that things really begin to sink in.
Annamaria Pileggi directs with a sure hand, keeping things moving well, trying hard to handle a few odd spots in the script like the bursts of slangy synonyms with which the hosts try to explain certain things to the guest in the house. Lighting and sound by Max Parilla add a lot, especially to the unexpected arrival of the artist.
through November 9, 2014
Dramatic License Productions
"A Kid Like Jake" starts out like a New York magazine story: Manhattan parents obsessing about how to get their toddler into just the right private, expensive, exclusive school. Sure, we all want the best for our kids - but admission essays for parents? Come on. How many of us can identify with that?
Just wait. It'll be worth it. Currently running at the Rep Studio, the play, which is without intermission, is a series of mostly-brief vignettes. Jake's mother, Leigh Williams, is driven and stressed by the process, seemingly almost monomanaical about it. Dad , a psychologist played by Alex Hanna, appears calmer, but maybe it's because he's overwhelmed by the expectations of his much wealthier in-laws. We never see Jake, but soon enough we see Judy, Susan Pellegrino, who sounds like she's a friend of his parents. It turns out, though, she's his nursery school headmistress, to whom mom has cozied up and they seem to be besties.
At least until Judy suggests that they make some oblique referral in those essays to what she refers to as Jake's "gender identity situation". Jake likes girl things. A lot. And it turns out he's not totally happy with equipment that his body has provided him with, either. Mom says it's just a phase. Dad says maybe they need outside help.
Fine work from Williams, who epitomizes high-strung, and Pellegrino, the brash, New York-y boss who says what she thinks in carefully worded deliveries. Hanna's more nuanced character bears careful watching, showing what he's feeling in body language as much as words. Kudos, too, to Jacqueline Thompson, who plays a nurse, and speaking as someone who was a nurse for decades, I say she's perfectly authentic. (Except for the satin scrubs, which are explainable.)
But in that same light, let me complain about Dad, the psychologist, who talks about his patients way too much. Uh, patient confidentiality? That quibble aside, this script by Daniel Pearle draws us in to not one but two scenes of draining emotion that leave any thought of magazine stories behind. Nicely done, and a nod, too, to director Seth Gordon, and scenid designer Gianni Downs.
A Kid Like Jake
through November 16