In Woody Allen's new movie, Midnight in Paris, the hero is time-machined back to Paris in the twenties (Woody never explains how, just a tolling midnight church bell and a certain Square), where he encounters many celebrated figures of that age. In one of those scenes, courtesan Marion Cotillard (beautiful and winsome), dreams of going back to La Belle Epoque, and by the magic of cinema we are transported to 1890 Paris. But I have always been transfigured by the prospect of visiting Paris circa 1750, and by the magic of The J. Paul Getty Museum (1200 Getty Center Drive, 310-440-7300, drive north on Sepulveda Blvd. from Wilshire to the museum), I was transported back to that unique Paris period on Saturday evening.
Why Paris in the mid-18th century? Well, as a sometimes student of French history, I know that this elegant world of Rococo Paris held a special status in the European culture of the time. The upper echelons of societies throughout the continent (England Germany and Russia in particular) were predominately Francophiles, imitating French fashions of dress and furniture in their daily lives. The J. Paul Getty Museum has mounted an extraordinary exhibition, Paris: Life & Luxury, which re-imagines through art and artifacts the complex and nuanced lifestyle of the elite society of Parisians who made their city the cultural epicenter of Europe. I recall wandering the Ile St. Louis and wondering about the intrigues and lives of the people who had lived in these grand hotels particuliers. Paris in that period was a time of invention in the culinary arts. As a sometimes student of French cuisine, I know that food was an integral part of the fashion and culture of the bustling city. Haute cuisine was developed at this time and place, and this aspect of the new Getty exhibition particularly intrigued me. They have brought together roughly 160 objects, a wide range of painting, sculptures, drawings, metalworks, furniture, scientific and musical instruments, clocks and watches (the installation here was sponsored by Breguet, the premiere watch brand founded in 1775), dress, books and maps. The exhibition has been gathered from 26 museums and private collections around the world. Charissa Bremer-David, the exhibitions' co-curator, told me a little about the food of the period. "The main meal was customarily consumed at midday, and a section of our exhibition displays paintings of the ingredients of such a meal. A still life painting by Jean-Baptiste Oudry of the four elements shows game, fish, poultry and vegetables."
Getty Executive Chef Mayet Cristobal and Restaurant General Manager Heather Ogg then took me in hand at a dinner featuring an adapted menu of the period. Chef Mayet told me that Francois Pierre de la Varenne is credited with the first French cookbook, one that sparked a culinary revolution -- transporting French gastronomy into the modern era. She explained that the heavily-spiced flavors from the cuisine of the Middle Ages were abandoned and foods' natural flavors were prized. Exotic spices were replaced by local herbs. Vegetables like cauliflower, asparagus, peas, cucumbers and artichokes were introduced. Special care was given to the cooking of meat in order to conserve maximum flavor. Vegetables had to be fresh and tender. Fish, with improvements in transportation, had to be impeccably fresh.
Every Saturday night until the exhibition ends on August 7th will see the Getty Restaurant offering a special prix-fixe dinner ($70 a person, $100 with wine pairings) roughly based on the cuisine of mid-18th century Paris. My guests and I then partook of the meal, and it was exceptional and delicious. First course was a Truffle and Potato Vichysoisse, with Dungeness crab, chive cream, and garlic croutons. (The traditional potato soup was customarily served in a sterling silver soup tureen such as those found in the exhibition. See photo above.) Followed by Moules Mariniere, steamed black mussels in white wine and fine herbs. The main course was Chateaubriand, the tender beef accompanied with a blue cheese potato aligot, Chanterelle mushrooms, spinach, and a perfect Béarnaise sauce. We ended this fabulous dinner with a cheese course and "Pets de Nonne," cream-puff fritters with orange blossom honey. Curiously, all California wines were served, although I would have thought they would go with fine French vintages. (Bon Appétit Management Company, which manages the restaurant and employs all of its people, told me later that they use only seasonal produce and locally sourced meat and fish, as well as local wines, which thus explains it.)
Restaurant Chef Matt Lee and Pastry Chef Charmaine Macrobon then joined us for a discussion of the food of France in the 18th century as compared to today. And we all concluded that French cuisine as offered in today's Paris still is unparalled anywhere in the world. They were suitably impressed when I told them that the wine of Moraga Vineyards, 12 acres just across the freeway in Bel Air and owned by Tom Jones, who had sold this property to the Getty, was the only American wine served at the venerable, legendary Taillevent Restaurant in Paris.
You don't have to be a student of French history to enjoy this exhibition and the Saturday night dinner... just someone who enjoys objects of great beauty and grace. And how many evenings in your life will begin and end with a fun tram ride up a hill? So may I suggest that you get to the J. Paul Getty Museum soon and take a time-travel trip back to Paris 1750. Woody Allen would be jealous.
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