PARIS: Museums Feature the Art of Dining

appeared in The Globe and Mail

by Jacqueline Swartz

When it comes to museums, Paris is experiencing a Great Reawakening, with one museum after another reopening after what seemed like ages of renovation. With the visual art has come the art of dining, whether it’s in a serious restaurant or a smart cafe. You can still get simple fare and sit unhassled over a coffee while you rest your weary feet; terraces lure you outside to meditate over stunning views. But the new eateries, both casual cafes and Michelin-star aspiring restaurants, present a certain awareness of their location in temples of art. Some of the restaurants have lives of their own and are open evenings, when the museum is closed.

It’s doubtful that most the media scenesters who dine and dance at the Café de l’Homme have ever been to the Musee de l’Homme. Its all about Anthropology and education while the Café is about celebrity watching and decor - dark wood Art Deco panelling, gold highlights, and glass beaded chandeliers that cascade down from two storey ceilings. No museum hours here - you can dine on sea bass tartare or chanterelle mushroom risotto and dance until 2am.

Musee du Quai Branly, home to 300,000 artifacts from the civilizations of Africa, Asia and the Americas, is the largest museum to open in Paris since Musee D’Orsay 20 years ago. Branly, as it’s called, is the megastar of both new museums and new eateries in Paris. From the summer day it opened its doors, the complex of buildings was immediately heralded for its design by architect Jean Nouvel, who also designed the restaurant, Les Ombres, down to its last plate. Described by the architect as the carapace of a tortoise, the sixth-floor rounded space is capped by a domed ceiling with ironwork that’s supposed to echo the Eiffel Tower beyond. The rest of the wraparound vista covers much of the inventory of Paris landmarks: the Arc de Triomph, Sacre Coeur, the Pantheon and Invalides.

The dark oak tables suggest a low key almost rustic atmosphere, but the food and service are haute cuisine with a contemporary, multicultural touch. Starters include lobster and leek en gelee, fresh sardines with spinach leaves stuffed with almond pesto; main courses include lemon grass flavoured mullet, calves sweetbreads with leeks and a bean ragout; desserts feature Mille Feuilles with Tahitian Vanilla on an apricot coulis. Parisians don’t even think of booking less than two weeks in advance at this, the hottest new restaurant in town.. Fortunately, there’s also a no-reservations ground floor cafe.

Across the river on the right bank is the redone Musée d'Art moderne de la Ville de Paris. It was built for the International Exhibition of l937, which may explain the building’s gargantuan size. The museum has major collections of works by Georges Rouault, Robert and Sonia Delaunay, Raoul Dufy, Marcel Gromaire and several monumental paintings including the Henri Matisse triptychs of La Danse (1931-33), and La Fée Electricité (1937) by Raoul Dufy.

Closed for two years, it reopened with a new café. You buy your food inside a cramped cafeteria, step outside, and voila, an oversized terrace invites you to sit and watch the changing weather around Eiffel Tower.

In the next building, which shares the same address, is the Palais de Tokyo, Paris’ answer to edgy: exposed concrete, contemporary installations , and a restaurant called Tokyo Eat that has attracted the art and fashion crowd since it opened in 2002, along with the reopening of the Palais de Tokyo. Not a sushi bar, Tokyo Eat serves French food with hints of Asian fusion. It’s best known for it’s decor - oversized coloured globes suspended from the ceiling, an open stainless steel kitchen, and tables decorated by some of the contemporary artists who have shown at the museum. “The food is better than the art”, sniffed one French newspaper.

Is there a newly opened museum café or restaurant without a breathtaking view of the Eiffel Tower? Yes, if it’s in a former railway station. At the Restaurant in the Musee D’Orsay, epi-center of the Impressionists, diners marvel at the ceiling frescoes of blue and pink cherubs.. Reopened after major improvements (the kitchen was redone, the walls re-gilted), the Belle Epoque grandeur now contrasts with new square stone tables and light-colored wooden chairs.

(complete article on request)

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