Saturday, March 30, 2013

Fever, fatigue, travel, magic

Last night, for no reason I can pin down, I fell ill.  My best guess is food poisoning, though a mild case because it's receding already.  High fever.  Stomach cramps.  Delirious near-dreams.  No sleep.  It absolutely sucked.  I saw every hour of the night as I fought to calm my stomach and break the fever.  With the help of some aspirin, the fever did indeed break, and I began to mend.  I still couldn't eat much, but that was okay, because I had decided to hit the road.

As happenstance would have it, a couple of weeks ago, a Zagat mailing noted that Easter in Florence was an amazing experience.  I figured, hey, I'll be in Europe, I could easily go to Florence, I should keep this notion in mind.

I did.

A long cab ride, some airport time, a two-hour plane flight, and a short cab ride later, I am indeed in Firenze, one of my favorite cities in the world.

I'm staying in the same hotel where Sarah and I stayed on her age-sixteen trip six years ago, so the whole area is so full of memories of her that I have to gently move them aside to walk the halls and streets.  That's okay, though; I have the world's best daughter, and fond memories of time with her are a huge treat indeed. Similarly, I can't think of Barcelona or hear the name without thinking of my time with Scott there.  I am also blessed to have the world's best son, so how could I not have a great time with him?  I planned the trips as treats to them, but in fact those weeks were huge treats for me.  Each trip was completely different, but each gave me amazing time with my kids.  I am very lucky to have had those times--and all the other times with my children. 

Bandwidth here is not a treat, in fact it's the worst I've experienced so far, so I'm not sure I'll be able to upload many pictures; we'll see.  Plus, I want to get some serious sleep tonight--I already took a three-hour nap--to make up for last night's total lack of sleep.  

For now, here's something you don't see every day in Florence.

As always, click on an image to see a larger version.

More on it tomorrow.

Here's something you can see every day here (well, you can see most of it, the Duomo, whenever you want to).

The two are related, as I'll explain in the next entry.

Friday, March 29, 2013

A few Paris moments, in snapshots

From yesterday, outside the famous little bookstore.

As always, click on an image to see a larger version.

In the middle of today's cold, bright afternoon, a newly married couple share a ride on the carousel across the street from the Eiffel Tower. 

The Parisian tubesteak, with fromage.

Even in Paris, Tesla finds me and taunts me!

The Arc de Triomphe, fronted by trees sporting pinkelponkers.

In a ritzy fashion district, this Aston Martin looks right at home. 

Finally, I am able to enjoy my favorite water, which I can no longer find a way to buy in the U.S.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Rounding out the three-star trio: Pierre Gagnaire

The winner of this evening's Van Name Culinary Endowment was another Michelin three-star establishment, Pierre Gagnaire.  After the disappointment of Arpege, I was hoping for a stellar meal, and I'm happy to report that it was.  Though not up to the dinner at Guy Savoy, this one was nonetheless delicious from start to finish, inventive, lovely, and entirely worthy of the accolades I've read about the restaurant. 

On paper, the tasting menu offered seven courses plus dessert.  Actually, there were five starter items, two of the seven courses featured two plates, and dessert included two small plates of "pre-desserts" plus five dessert plates.  Pierre Gagnaire does love his sweets! 

In other news, today brought the first 100% certain celebrity sighting here at the hotel of insane luxury:  Owen Wilson.  Hiding under a large-brimmed baseball cap and with his concentration entirely on his phone, his face was nonetheless unmistakable.  (Sunday yielded an 80% Howie Mandel sighting, but I can't go higher than that in certainty.)  Such excitement.

To be clear, I don't give a shit about celebrity sightings, and I never bother people who are just trying to live their lives.  It is fun, though, to have an odd thing to report.

A bigger sighting from today was the front of the wonderful bookstore, Shakespeare and Company.  Wandering its crowded stacks is, despite the many people always there, relaxing, soothing in the way that only a grand old bookstore can be.  If you visit Paris, have not been to this store before, and are at all a book lover, definitely go. 

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Arpege disappoints

On the plane from New York to Paris, a Frenchwoman claimed the window seat in my row.  Until she fell asleep, she was determinedly chatty, so we ended up discussing a variety of topics, most of them about her.  At one point, though, she brought up restaurants.  Her list of NY favorites was a perfect duo--Per Se and Le Bernardin--so I was concerned when I mentioned that one of the places I was hoping to eat in Paris was L'Arpege and she said, after a long pause, "Arpege disappointed."

How right she was.

The restaurant certainly does not lack for accolades.  Chef Alain Passard is a legend of French cooking. The place has earned three Michelin stars and is in the top twenty on the list of the top 50 restaurants of the world.  He serves organic produce from his biodynamic farm southwest of Paris, so everything is pure and fresh. 

With all of this going for Arpege, I expected a great meal.  Instead, what I ate--and paid handsomely for--was a so-so-at-best dinner, one in which the same vegetables in the same preparations repeated over and over, the portions were too large, and the supporting cast--bread (one type) and dessert (a bon-bon plate and a sad, dry but fancy little apple pie)--were mediocre at best.

The tasting menu certainly was heavy on the veggies, to the point that when the fish (turbot) arrived, I was thrilled to see a non-vegetable offerings.  By contrast, Guy Savoy's vegetable courses, of which there were several, each featured different ingredients in varied and evocative preparations. 

The service was also spotty, sometimes quite good and other times downright neglectful, to the point that I almost had to beg for the check.

I appreciate the ideas behind the food at L'Arpege, but I have to side with the Frenchwoman on the plane:  Arpege disappointed. 

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Paris perfection: Musee d'Orsay and Restaurant Guy Savoy

I'm sleeping a lot here, incredible amounts, ten or eleven hours a night, and still I'm tired, still I'm processing stress dreams over and over and over.  I figure this is all to the good, but I'm rather tired of it and ready for my psyche to get over itself.  Of course, the fact that I'm impatient with myself about the speed at which I'm destressing probably says a great deal about me.

On the walk to the museum today, I couldn't help but notice this woman striding speedily in front of me.

As always, click on the image for a larger version.

Note the shoes:  Yes, she walking at high speed on the uneven sidewalks of Paris in turquoise suede Louboutin boots with stiletto heels.  An amazing--and amazingly expensive--feat.

The Musee d'Orsay is my favorite museum, so going to it again was like visiting with an old, dear friend you haven't seen in entirely too long.  I should hasten to add that I know it's not the best overall museum, nor the one with the largest collection of anything, nor the grandest; it is simply the one I fell in love with when I first visited it and have fallen in love with again on each and every visit.

As I did today.  A snack in the stunning restaurant, a slow wander through the amazing Impressionist collection, and then my traditional pilgrimage to the small but stirring set of Van Gogh pieces.  Its Starry Night is not the one most people think of when they visualize the Van Gogh painting of that name, but it is a version that I love, one that up close vividly makes clear the passion with which Van Gogh was painting, the thick strokes and layers of paint, the simplicity of the brilliant image construction, and the power of his art. 

Dinner was at the Michelin three-star Restaurant Guy Savoy. I'd eaten some years ago at the Las Vegas restaurant of the same name, and though the meal was excellent, it was not quite up to that of its down-the-strip competitor, Joel Robuchon.  I'd heard from many people, however, that the Paris restaurant was another thing entirely.

Wow, were they right.

The tasting menu this evening was exceptional, the kitchen executed it flawlessly, and the service, led by Hubert, was superb.  This was a world-class dinner.  The food blended classical French techniques, with amazing sauces on almost every course, with a playful inventiveness that always kept in mind the spring season to which the menu was a tribute. For example, this lobster dish

evoked mist rolling off the sea in the morning, and then was utterly delicious.  

I could go on and on, but it's rather late here, so I'll leave it at this:  If you're willing to pop for the price, which is considerable, visit Restaurant Guy Savoy, choose the largest tasting menu you can afford, and prepare to enjoy one of the great meals available anywhere. 

Monday, March 25, 2013

The Paris/Louvre exercise plan

Before I get into the main topic of today's post, a couple of happy snaps seem in order.

Not far from the hotel, I walked by this little shop.

As always, click on an image to see a larger version.

I'm referring to the one with the small, silverish name:  Zimmerli.  It is a shop for the company that makes the world's best underwear, of which I own entirely too many pairs--underwear I bought, of course, in a fit of crazed four a.m. shopping.  I must never shop at that hour.

This year, Paris is celebrating the 850th anniversary of Notre Dame.  This shot is from the last row of seats, during a service today.

It is not the grandest cathedral, nor the most opulent, nor even the one that speaks most to me, but Notre Dame will always have a special place in my heart.

The big news for me today was just how incredibly out of shape I am.  Yes, of course I knew that intellectually, but I was nonetheless surprised by how fatigued and sore I was from today's activities:  strolling about two and a half to three miles, plus walking in the Louvre for nearly four hours.  Museum time is always mentally tiring, particularly time in a place as crammed with amazing art as the Louvre, and it is also physically a bit tiring, but I was entirely more wrung out from today's activities than I should have been. Where once I would have breezed through such a day without noticing it, now I am paying for it with soreness and fatigue.  I have much to do to improve myself. 

The two great personal issues I must address remain the same:  time and my health.  They are related.  I hope one product of this sabbatical is an ironclad determination to deal with both. 

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Napping, luxury, dinner, nothing

Despite my best intentions not to plan, I had developed a vague plan for today:  Arrive on time, sleep about six hours, wander, hit my favorite spot at dark.  In developing this itinerary, I'd assumed I'd be well rested after a week off work and a flight in first class.  Of course, the reality was otherwise:  I arrived tired and rather tight from cramming into coach.

So, in the spirit of the trip, I threw the plan out the window. 

Instead, I blogged, read a bit, then had a long nap.  I showered, ate a lovely dinner in the hotel's more casual restaurant, and will now read, perhaps flip through the amazingly varied TV channel selection, and then crash. 

Tomorrow, I will begin walking about Paris.  I expect I will feel quite rested; I am already much better than I was when I arrived.

In other news, this hotel has redefined luxury for me.  I've never stayed anyplace quite like it.  I knew I was spoiling myself with my first hotel selection, but I had no clue how much.  I highly recommend it (and I'll tell you later, maybe after I leave Paris, maybe before, where I am). 


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