Tuesday, March 17, 2009

On Hemingway, Hammaming, and Other Such Business

Wow- I’m a pretty bad blogger. I suppose I have no regularity to my posts whatsoever and for that, I apologize. I’ve decided to try to be better, so here goes my first attempt.

The past two weeks have been full of activity for the Houstons in Paris. We’ve had our first and second rounds of visitors, all of whom were lovely. Before the visits started, however, Jon and I spent an incredible evening celebrating my 30th birthday (I still cannot believe that I have entered the fourth decade of my life!). On February 21, we got dressed to the nines and went out for cocktails and dinner at the Ritz! In Paris! The Hemingway Bar was incredible. The bartenders (the head among them being one of the most famous mixologists in the world) dress in old-fashioned style white shirts. The bar is a tiny little space across the hall from the bigger Ritz Bar. Apparently, it used to be called the Little Bar in the old days, and was a favorite Right Bank spot of Hemingway and his cronies. When the Ritz was refurbished in the 1970s, the bar was redone in honor of Papa and is hence filled with all sorts of photos and memorabilia from the man’s life and works. It is a very cozy spot, all dark wood, leather, and candlelight. The drinks are strong and each comes with a fresh flower floating in it. I tried the Serendipity, a recommended concoction, and a champagne cocktail. Both were quite potent.

Lucky for us, Crystal and Brian wanted to see the bar during their visit, so Jon and I got to make a repeat visit a little less than two weeks later, where we tried more cocktails and got to meet the famous bartender, Collin P. Field, (http://www.ritzparis.com/jump_to.asp?id_target=1342&id_lang=2) who signed a copy of his book for Crystal. This time I decided to go back to my roots, and had the Ritz version of a bourbon and ginger- yummy! I also got to discuss the history of a Gin Fizz with one of the bartenders, who showed me the bar’s “Bible,” a heavily worn copy of some Barkeeper's guide that had been lovingly taped together more times than a teenager’s first Playboy. The thing that was so cool about this particular book was that not only did it give the history of every cocktail known to man, it also held within its moldy and ripped pages the cocktail recipes for all of the bar’s regulars since time immemorial. It was just the kind of thing I go for- an old book about booze? A perfect combo if there ever was one.

The birthday dinner in the Ritz restaurant, L’Espadon, was just as fun (if not much more elegant) as our pre-dinner cocktails in the Hemingway Bar. The space is an incredible and pleasant assault to the senses- all guilt and mirrored like one of Marie Antoinette’s chambers. The waiters are efficient and exact- able to meet one’s every need yet remaining in the background. They were buzzing busily around, yet they weren’t bothersome. We had the winter menu and ordered wine pairings with each course. The meal started with champagne, of course, and progressed from there. While I can’t quite remember exactly what we ate (more from the passage of time rather than drink. Honest!), I do remember that the food was delicious and the wine divine. It was an amazing experience- one that isn’t likely to happen any time soon (since I would have to put a future on the life of my first-born in order to be able to cough up that much cash for a meal again) which makes it all the more special. Thanks, Jonny, for a great memory!!

Our culinary adventure continued with the arrival of Crystal and Brian, as we dined with them at several of our favorite places in Paris and some of our not so favorites (like the Italian place where the pasta was homemade, but we sat in the roaringly hot basement next to a family with what seemed like fifty hooligan kids, but was actually made up of five children one of whom was a wild dervish who ran out from the table at random intervals to attack the legs of the waiter or throw spaghetti at his older, text-messaging sister). We also took a quick trip up to Alsace thanks to Crystal’s wine connections. She arranged a visit to the Paul Blanck et Fils winery, whose inheritor, Philippe Blanck, showed us an incredible time. Aside from getting to try the new wines right out of the barrels (sorry, Crystal, I don’t know the correct terms for them), he provided incredible bottles of his family’s vintages at each meal, including a 1983 Riesling that was to die for, and sent Crystal (and me for that matter) into spasms of joy. Philippe even sent us home with a bottle of wine he pulled right off a shelf of the winery cave. We’re saving that one for hot weather and a picnic.

This past weekend we finally got to repay Jamie and Steve for the years of hospitality they’ve shown us, whether it was crashing on their couch in Hoboken for weekends in NYC or cozying up in their London down comforters. While our rickety pull-out is no match to a cozy blankie (in fact I feel that with its decided downward tilt and creaking frame, the pull-out bed of our couch is a far cry from anything even remotely resembling the term “cozy”), I think we were able to show our dear friends a good time.

Jamie and I went to a hammam on Friday. Why we do not have these places in America, I have no idea!!! A hammam is a Turkish bath, but let’s just call it “Heaven on Earth.” Owing to the slight hot water problem we have in our apartment (as in, there really isn’t any), I haven’t been able to really be as completely warm and wet (minds out of the gutter!) as I want to be since moving to this town. I have found my solution! For a flat fee, Jamie and I gained entrance into a woman’s only bath, which was really comprised of an enormous room outfitted with showers along one wall, a huge heated tile dais in the center for lounging, a tepid plunge pool for cooling, a sauna in one corner, a steam room in another, and side rooms for gommage (body scrub), mud wraps, etc. It was a steamy, lavender-and-sea smelling paradise! We paid extra to try the gommage, so after an hour of lounging in the different areas of the bath, we subjected ourselves to the scrubbing prowess of the attendants who rubbed us down with enough force to peel the skin off an elephant, taking off God knows how many layers of good epidermis along with the dead stuff. While we turned as red as strawberries and questioned the intelligence of the decision to lie down on that table, our skin did glow (eventually) and Jon did comment on how soft my back was. So, I guess there really is some truth to the whole “Beauty is pain” concept. However, I think that when I hammam again (Jamie and I decided this had to be a verb), I’ll pass on the body scrub and spend more time soaking in the heat. Did I mention this experience is Heaven on Earth?

The rest of the weekend was just as much fun. Jamie and Steve met Olivier, who joined us for dinner on Saturday at Le 24, our absolute favorite place to eat in this city. We also took them to Le Nemrod, our local café, and to The Highlander, our favorite place to go to get a beer and hear some spoken English. We’re going back there tonight, actually, to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day. It’s funny- the Scotch and Irish don’t always get along, and I certainly wouldn’t presume to visit a Scottish pub on March 17th in the States. But here among the Gauls, the Celts tend to stick together- even in today’s 21st century world. So, I’ll drink a pint of Guinness tonight in a pub run by crazy Scotch women and feel a little more at home than I do anywhere else in Paris. Slainte!

P.S.- Pictures of all the fun stuff we did with Crystal and Brian are up on my Picasa album: http://picasaweb.google.com/kate.d.houston

P.P.S.- I'm really interested in who's reading my blog. If you don't mind, Kind Reader, would you please leave me a comment, even if it's only your name, to let me know you were here? Merci beaucoup!


  1. At long last, I hear about the Ritz birthday celebration! Each post makes your time in Paris seem more and more magical!

    My mom, obsessed with Coco Chanel AND Princess Diana, insisted on us having Afternoon Tea at the Ritz when we were last in Paris for Christmas 2005. So, on Christmas Eve, we dressed up a bit and wore pearls in honor of Coco and headed to the Ritz - where we came face to face with Woody Allen. As neither of us are Woody Allen fans, we didn't care too much, but it is fun to be able to report running into a celeb.

  2. We had a blast with you guys this past weekend.... I need to see if they hammam in london...... xoxo, jamie

  3. Just kidding! Thanks for the post. Glad you had an awesome 30th!

  4. I'm stalking you and read your blog whenever you update it. I'm just living vicariously through you and can't wait to come over! xoxo

  5. Love your blog! The Hemingway Bar sounds amazing!!
    miss you guys!

  6. Katie- I love the stories of your adventures!!!

  7. Hey, Kate
    Since you prompted us to check in, and I follow directions well....
    I've read a couple of your posts and thoroughly enjoyed them. It does sound like you are having quite the adventure! How nice it must be to see Paris without a swarm of kids in tow. Debbie, Todd and I are off to Chicago at the end of the month to attend a conference. Perhaps, I, too, will have an adventure to tell :) Take care. ciao
    PS Just think--two years ago today we were romping the streets of NYC in the SNOW!!!!

  8. You KNOW I read this...I still think you and Tim should write a book...you are so witty. While I enjoy your blog, my broken English I picked up in Georgia hasn't proven helpful in discerning your French. It is exciting to read words I don't know without comprehending them! Maybe I will get a Rosetta Stone CD for my 30th!!!

  9. Had such an amazing time with you!!

  10. Just came to see...found in a comment on Allen Todd's facebook page. My name is Eamon and I went to HS with Allen, and was working on an M.A. at the Univesite de Nancy once upon a time. God speed; enjoy your time in la France!

  11. Hi Katie!

    I found a link to your blog on Lora's blog. You look great-how wonderful that you are living in Paris! Kevin and I are still in sunny and hot Florida-the twins are almost 4 and we have another boy due any day now. Take care and hope to see you soon!
    Becky Gorman

  12. I was here. But, now I'm gone!