World Dinner Club

World Dinner Club
World Dinner Club

Monday, September 13, 2010

Moveable Feasts III : 52 Martinis sec au Tanqueray s’il vous plait!

In honor of Anthony Bourdain's return to Paris for the 100th episode of No Reservations last week, I'm digging up notes I wrote five years ago, reflecting on my own first visit to Paris during a summer internship in graduate school.

On a Friday afternoon following a third day of munching on baskets of brioche and drinking many more thimbles of coffee, dark roasted and brimming with lingering chicory flavor, I was excused for the day.

“Yeah, we’re pretty much done hear. Just the arbitration clauses left. You can go.”
“You’re sure?”
“Yeah, absolutely… get out of here.”

I gathered my things and left our lawyers’ offices to stroll down the street and enjoy more of my surroundings. Small French cars whizzed by, their Gallic drivers only barely keeping to any semblance of vehicular order in a predictable way that is almost comforting in some twisted sense.

I eventual stumbled upon the Metro and thought I should give it a go. A hot, non-air-conditioned ride later, I was roughly in the vicinity of my hotel. Fortunately, the third time in a circle around the Opera, I finally found Rue Scribe and Intercontinental Le Grand Hotel. My slightly weathered, leather satchel seemed the only thing capable of gaining weight in France even faster than I could what with the nearly end-on-end feasting that characterized my stay. I dumped the bag and checked email briefly before hesitating momentarily, wanting to take off my tired-looking suit and leather-soled shoes, before I remembered something important. With a renewed sense of urgency and thrill, I put my jacket back on and slipped "Lonely Planet Paris" into a pocket.

A quick check in the mirror to adjust my tie and I was soon down the plush corridor and down the sweeping staircase. A nod to the doorman and a sharp left on the street and I headed across the square and down into the Place Vendôme. I strode into the elegant lobby of the Ritz and asked the bellman who held the door open where was “le ‘emingway Bar.” He told me to head down the hallway. I set off at a somewhat gentler gait, exercising as much self control as possible and remarkably not turning into a small child let loose in FAO Schwartz in New York or Hamleys in London. Here I was about to take a page from Papa’s own biography so to speak and make it my own.

You’d miss it, thinking it was someone’s den or study, if it were not for the gleaming, brass sign that tells you when you’ve past the seemingly endless side-corridor of display windows, hawking Brioni suits and Bulgari jewelry, that you have arrived.


And there it was. Like a temple or better yet, a shrine to a great soul. I remember seeing Michael Palin’s Hemingway Adventure, produced in 1999 by the BBC and broadcast in the United States on PBS to celebrate the centennial of Hemingway's birth. In this very fun program, we watch as Palin traces the Hemingway’s life around the world from Spain and Kenya to Cuba and Chicago, we see the truly extraordinary life that Papa, who hated the name Ernest, lived. Hemingway came to Paris a reporter and wrote in cafes staying warm through cold winters on glasses of brandy and handfuls of chestnuts and cool in summers on martinis and the company of Scott Fitzgerald as described in “A Moveable Feast.” As a young reporter, husband, and father there in Paris, Hemingway publishes "The Sun Also Rises."

I took a high level American literature class in college, where unintelligible, dreadlocked kids from Westchester wafted ridiculously about nonsense, refering to literature I'll probably never hear of to prove something to each other. Bullshit develops a rather distinct pungency in the afternoon that while others would do away with, is only appropriate to the confused and tortured mind of an English major. Most of the books sucked and I managed to avoid reading them and got the B+ I would have received anyway had I bust my ass, not that I was lazy, but because the books were unappealing. I was asking for trouble when I took that class with a persuasive roommate, who simply defied academia’s dictates our senior year to rarely, perhaps never, actually crack open a book and happily so. The only authors I read from the course with any seriousness were Fitzgerald and Hemingway, because they were good. I wrote what was one of my greatest papers in college on, yep, you guessed it, “The Sun Also Rises.” My thesis was quite simply put that mankind having satiated his basic need to survive was summiting Maslow’s hierarchical pyramid and then only like Sidhartha distraught afterwards. What was the point of it all? Death visits us all, like the bull in “The Sun Also Rises”. Some who walk and breathe among us have already “died.” Others have never “lived.” Like the matador, who is truly alive, we must “live,” in a contemporary sense, like a rock star.

I checked to make sure I was not wearing leather pants and looked unfamiliar to the readership of Rolling Stone. I then steped down into the room. walked past the small tables and modest booths to take a seat at the polished Oak bar. A white linen-jacketed barman placed a weighty looking napkin in front of me and we exchanged "bonjours." I often can't order drinks well in French and this evening was one such case. Granted it doesn't take too much to say bierre or whiskey sec (Scotch neat). Overcome, perhaps, by my surroundings I muttered something about Tanqueray and a martini in disjointed French that could have come from a bush taxi driver in Bafoussam, Cameroon. The barman dispensed with any more French for "Monsieur l'Etranger."

"O-liv, Monsieur?"
"No, perhaps a twist of lemon?"
"Yes Monsieur, Martini wiz limon"
"Yes, thank you."

A familiar green bottle was produced and enough of its contents poured into a shaker with a little vermouth and a after a moment of percussion of ice and steel, an art deco glass was filled with a crisp, chilled libation--a twist of lemon slipped in and decended to the bottom.

I had first read about this bar in Forbes FYI some years before. The bartender was a somewhat balding Englishman named Colin. Clearly, judging from the two rafish, woolly-haired frogs working there now, he was on leave. Perhaps he's in Key West or Havana.

I raised my glass and took that first timid sip that one takes with a cocktail. Not with beer, not with wine, not even so much with cognac--every bar and every bartender is different, and so we taste with more trepidation than we might hold out for other beverages. Remarkable. The bartender grined.


Clearly, this was a craftsman who knew he had a solid product. He had turned his attention to my right where two not quite middle-aged American women--one especially attractive for her years--were thinking about having a glass of wine. They wanted a chardonnay. He recommended a nice burgundy. They explained they wanted "char-don-nay." Too gracious or perhaps too fatigued to explain wine regions, he simply found the burgundy in question and poured tasting quantities of white wine.

"Oooh, that's good"
"Yes, we'll have that!"

I had been glancing around the room, taking-in the atmosphere and importantly the decor of this room as well as the neighbors. Around the shelves behind the bar were pictures of the Man. Some from his Parisian days, but most were from later years. The weathered face of a man spending his days fishing in Cuba and other weeks in the Spanish hills during the Civil War was more familiar. The Shelves on the adjacent wall had books and bric-a-brac, including a very curious CIA mug. Large fish hung on the walls and hunting photos looked as glamorous as taken from the pages of "Green Hills of Africa" Cigar smoke faintly wafted from the across the room. A Japanese businessman was enjoying the first of what would no doubt be many great evenings. He had just purchased four boxes of Montecristos, he said.

I ate some more almonds from the silver dish in front of me and took another sip of my martini. The bartender asked me if I wanted a newspaper or magazine.
 I decided not to be another cliché American in Paris, International Herald Tribune in hand, and declined; however tempting. “Ah, yes. Just want to enjoy a nice drink.” he replied. This made me think of the story of how Papa rode into Paris in a tank as a war correspondent after the Nazi occupation and set about liberating its cafes. He started with the wine cellar of the Ritz. Hemingway, his friends, and his fictional characters are usually found drinking all sorts of things. Brandy, grappa, Scotch, gin, Campari, the list is endless. Thinking about my “nice drink” I asked the logical next question.

“So, what did Hemingway drink here?”
“Hemingway? He drank lot of whiskey, CognacBordeaux and Tanqueray.
“In fact, when he liberated the Ritz, that night he is said to have drank 52 dry martinis!”

I gushed with pride. I finished my martini, paid the bill (let us hope I don’t find many other places where I’m willing to pay 25 euros for a drink), and headed out the door with a happy spring in my step. I walked south to les Tuilleries and headed left to the Louvre.

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