Another late start, as is usual for me on Saturdays. First, I stopped by my old company’s offices in Tamachi to drop off some paperwork – technically, I’m still a part-time employee there, even if it’s one (1) hour a week – passing by a group of Japanese Christmas carolers inside Akabanebashi Station. Not completely fluent – no surprise – and while I have no proof, I suspect this wasn’t a Christian thing, but a hobbyist thing, kind of like people in the U.S. who sing Latin Masses for fun even if they’re not churchgoers.
Paperwork dropped off, I went on to the GA Gallery in Yoyogi to see another architectural show. The GA Gallery is the bookstore/exhibition space for a publisher of big glossy books and monographs on modernist architecture – in a small modernist building, of course – and they regularly put on exhibitions displaying models, conceptual drawings, and presentation posters for contemporary projects and proposals. A few months ago, for example, they had one on the latest work of French architect Jean Nouvel, highlighting his designs for the huge new Quai Branly Museum in Paris and the new Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis. Today, it was a catch-all covering recent proposals/projects by modernist Japanese architects. This included a competition entry proposal by architect Arata Isozaki for a massive mixed-use development project in Ho Chi Minh City (aka Saigon), Vietnam. The project, called the Diamond Island New Urban Quarter Development, I quite liked the look of, including the look of how some of the residential units were stacked on top of it each in oddly overlapping ways.1
I headed back to Yoyogi Station and did my biweekly browsing of the magazine rack at the big Kinokuniya Books nearby (bought three) and browsed the travel guides for Italy – I’m considering a Spring vacation there – and by the time I was ready to leave it was dinnertime and I was hungry. I crossed the pedestrian bridge to check out the new Krispy Kreme doughnut shop on the other side, maybe to buy a snack or a box to bring to the office on Monday but it was still jampacked with an incredibly long line. Still, the sign on the door said they open at 7 AM, so if I really wanted a doughnut, I should come back early Monday morning as a long detour on the way to work.
So, wanting dinner and not wanting to wait until I got home, I headed back in the direction of the GA Gallery, to check out a place I’d passed earlier, a French bistro calling itself Bistro d’Artemis. It’s small stand-alone building – rare enough in this densely built urban center – tucked on an odd-sized lot under a highway not far from Yoyogi Station. Maybe 20 seats total, informal-looking, open kitchen, windows and walls covered with an assortment of authentic-looking bistro signs, menu in French. Seeing this had given me a bit of a craving to try cassoulet2, so, stymied in my attempt to buy a doughnut, I went back for that. You might ask, “A choice between some sugar-laden American fat bombs and what is probably authentic (this being Japan, probably disturbingly so) French bistro food? You had to think about this?” Yeah yeah, I know.
Inside the Bistro d’Artemis, it was very Gallic – though I don’t know if the average Paris bistro has a four-meter (15-foot) tall glass-enclosed wine rack with attached ladder built into one wall. In any case, I ordered what I believe was some variant of Navy Bean Soup (as I say, the menu was in French) steak tartar, and cassoulet, along with a small carafe of red house wine. I’d never had steak tartar (it was good) and the cassoulet was pretty much how I’d remembered it. Of course, I’ll need to run further experiments to be sure, or maybe I can try some of their other specialties, like boudin noir (blood sausage, if I recollect, but my French is more than a little suspect). I'll have to bring my friend Sonja, who is very much into French food, being, you know, French.3 I'm sure she'll love it.
1I looked it up when I got home, and sadly, it looks like the developers rejected Isozaki's proposal in favor of a much blander proposal by a German architect named Albert Speer. No, not THAT German architect named Albert Speer: this one is his son. Speer the Younger’s much duller proposal for the project, in my opinion, looks like it would fit in, say, Berlin – East Berlin, that is, before the Berlin Wall. Blah.
2A cassoulet is ”a rich, slow-cooked bean stew or casserole originating in the southwest of France, containing meat (typically pork sausages, pork, goose, duck, and sometimes mutton), pork skin (couennes) and white haricot beans” says Wikipedia. The first and only time I had ever tried this was during my vacation in Paris, and I was still unsure about how authentic it was. If that sounds strange (“How could you be worried about whether you got authentic French food in FRANCE?!?”), it’s because the cassoulet I had was frozen.
Really. Short version: while in Paris, I was listening with my iPod to an episode of the radio show This American Life (previously recorded, of course) featuring an American expatriate named David Sedaris who’d moved to Paris to be with his lover, not because of any inherent love of the place. In fact, he bragged that he’d never been to any of the obvious landmarks such as the Louvre (“Why go to the only place in Paris that won’t let you smoke?”) – which struck me as a really annoying reverse snobbery, but neverthemind. In the course of the show, Sedaris mentioned the Pantheon. Nope, never had been inside, but he knew about it because it was across the street from a frozen-food store he frequented.
Now, it so happened that a few years ago I had heard a radio news story about a relatively new chain of stores in Paris that sold frozen foods – but high-quality frozen versions of classic French dishes, or so the report had it. I filed it away mentally, but had no recollection of the name of the store or where to find one – now, with Sedaris’ mention, I now had a landmark and knew exactly where to find one: across the street from the Pantheon, just down the road from my rented apartment in the 5th. So late one afternoon during one of my rambles I aimed myself in that direction.
The Pantheon, it turned out, was fairly large, so “across the street” covered a LOT of territory, meaning that I had to almost completely circle the Pantheon to find it. But there it was: Picard, a modern and spacious store with wide aisles and nothing but frozen-food cases. I went in and browsed, but since the store also had one entrance and one exit (through the cashier stands), I felt somewhat impelled to actually buy something rather than run the risk of having to explain to a cashier I had to pass that no, I wasn’t actually shopping, I was merely playing tourist in a frozen-food store. So I picked up a frozen duck-sausage cassoulet, frozen broccoli florets, and raspberry sherbet for that evening’s dinner. And you know what? It was good.
3Okay, technically she's American, but her parents are French and she spoke French at home in rural northern California where she was raised. so it's pretty close.