A French Impressionist of Tuscan Wine
By Steve Herte
A good shot of culture is always welcome in New York. When I entered the Village East Cinemas they didn't appear ready to receive anyone, much less a home-printed ticket but I waited patiently and was served.
The theater itself didn't have more than 25 rows of seats and the screen was placed rather high but it was comfortable. I thought there was a problem with the sound system but when the previews started and the 10 of us were nearly blasted through the back wall, I changed my mind. The volume on the movie was good – thank the powers that be. Dinner was a unique occasion, but I say too much. Read on.
Renoir (Goldwyn, 2012) Director: Gilles Bourdos. Cast: Michel Bouquet, Christa Theret, Thomas Doret, Vincent Rottiers, Michele Gleizer, Romane Bohringer, & Laurent Poitrenaux. Color, 111 minutes.
The year is 1915 and the place is Cagnes-sûr-Mèr on the Côtes d’Azur in the south of France. Far away World War I is in its second year. A beautiful young red-headed girl named Andrée Heuschling (Theret) rides her bicycle along twisting turning roads to the home of Pierre August Renoir to become his latest (and greatest, per the master) model. She sees a young boy running in the wooded area nearby and calls to him. He introduces himself as Claude (Doret) “but everyone calls me Coco” and an orphan. “My mother is dead and my father might as well be.” She asks about Monsieur Renoir and he takes her to the kitchen entrance of the house. There she meets the four women who run the house, cook the food and tend to “The Boss.”
Pierre Renoir (Bouquet) is chair-bound with a crippling case of rheumatoid/arthritis, but he continues to paint even though he must bandage his hands against the skin irritation the work causes. We learn that Claude is the youngest of his three sons. Jean (familiarly Jeanot) is fighting in the war and Pierre is somewhere else. Pere Renoir longs for the day all three are home again.
Andrée poses nude for Renoir and proves to be the inspiration for several paintings, even though she later complains about the low payment and the feeling that she is prostituting herself. However, this is not obvious when she’s “working.” She wants to be an actress in American movies. When Jean Renoir (Rottiers) returns home to recuperate from an ugly wound to his right leg (from which the field doctor had to remove two inches of bone) she becomes attracted to him. Jean wants to make movies and promises to help her achieve her dream. But, after his leg heals and he’s able to walk again he decides to re-enlist in the air force (after taking her for a ride in a plane) to “help my comrades.” There is much emotion, she stays away from her posing job, Renoir thinks he’s lost his best model and the women of the house are glad that there won’t be any more of her tantrums.
As you might guess, Renoir is a French film with English subtitles.
The scenery and photography is lush and beautiful – so beautiful I wanted to stop the movie several times to create portraits. The cinematography itself is art. The costuming and make-up is flawless and impeccable down to the tiniest detail. Renoir himself looks like he just stepped out of one of his self-portraits and several of his paintings are re-enacted wonderfully by the cast. At an hour and fifty-one minutes the movie is a little long, but this does not detract from its sheer loveliness.
The dialogue is best appreciated if one has a working knowledge of French (although conversations between Andrée and Jean are oft times mumbled) and has many memorable lines. Andrée tells Jean “he paints me way too fat,” and Jean responds, “he paints me to look like a girl.” The women of the house explain to Andrée, “a woman comes to this house as a model and becomes a maid or comes as a maid and becomes a model.” When Jean offers black paint to Renoir’s palette Pierre says, “We Renoirs do not paint the world black. There is too much poverty and misery for that.”
At the end of the film before the credits we learn that Renoir dies on December 3, 1919, Jean becomes a noted filmmaker, Pierre an actor, Claude takes up ceramic painting and Andrée (whose acting career never happens) dies in poverty. Though definitely not a movie for children, Renoir is a dreamy, wonderful insight into a great artist’s mind and his relations with family and staff while at the same time being visually stunning. Rating: 4 out of 5 Martini glasses.
East 12th Osteria
197 First Avenue (12th Street) New York
This two-month-old Northern Italian bôite occupies the northwest corner of 1st Avenue and 12th Street in New York’s East Village. The charming exterior floor to ceiling windows, which all open to the street, and the Italian details on the menu were what attracted me to this 14-table gem.
Having miscalculated my time by 15 minutes I completely missed the front door and walked in through one of the windows, surprising no one (thank goodness). The two servers, one an enthusiastic young man, and the other a slinky-slim goddess in form-fitting black crowned with cerise hair and sporting a key tattoo in the center of her back (her picture is on the website) both greeted me warmly and offered me my choice of tables (only one was occupied at the time).
I chose one halfway from the back and facing both walls of windows so that I could watch the street and pedestrian traffic outside. A note about the East Village, though no longer being the hippie capital of New York City, I was still a bit over-dressed by wearing a necktie. Noticing that they did not have a full bar (no liquor license yet) I asked the young man to bring the wine list and stated my preference for full-bodied reds.
Speaking of reds, the only color accent in this airy space were the tomato red banquettes and matching shades on the swag lights. I had not had a cabernet in a while and he suggested the Tuscan Prelius and offered a taste, since they had a bottle open. A good nose, mouth-filling flavor, accents of fruit and a little spice and I had ordered a bottle. The surprise came with the year – 2011! I thought for sure this wine was at least three years old.
A server brought a glass of water and the breadbasket while I perused the two-page menu. Three shapes of bread were in the basket, rolls, thin breadsticks and paper-thin crisps I later learned was Rosemary/Sea Salt bread, usually made on a grill to look like sheet music with notes. It was delightful. My server explained that their kitchen is probably the only all-convection (and thus, green) one in New York and therefore has no grill (or any open flame), so the “notes” didn’t show on the bread.
Back to the menu: The categories were listed as Boccocini per Cominiare (Starters), Antipasti, Insalata, Zuppe (Appetizers, Salads, Soups), Primi, (first courses/pastas), and Secondi (Main courses). I decided on a three-course dinner once my server assured me the pastas can be made in smaller portions. My starter was one of the things that first attracted me, Fiori di Zucca Croccanti – crispy battered zucchini flowers stuffed with sheep ricotta. The light batter on the outside was translucent and delicate and the flavor sweet from the cheese and a little tart from the zucchini. (This sure isn’t Tony’s Di Napoli, Joe! This is classy Italian.) There were only two, which made me remember them as a possible side dish later on.
The second course was Gnocchetti Imperiale di Granchio – potato pasta mixed with shredded crabmeat in a creamy chili pepper/tomato/brandy sauce. These half-inch cylinders melted on contact in the mouth and started a party there that I didn’t want to stop. The rolls provided the perfect medium to get every last drop of that beautiful orange sauce. When asked how I liked the dish, I jokingly told them it was revolting.
My main course was L’Antra e L’Arancia – Duck in orange sauce served two ways (sliced and on the bone) with Mandarin orange slices as garnish. The sliced duck was tender and juicy and medium rare (perfect) and surrounded by a moat of sauce. The meaty leg proved the maxim “the darker the meat, the sweeter the treat” and was sinfully delicious. The wine wove through the entire meal like gold threads in a sari. Upon finishing the main course I was no longer considering another order of zucchini flowers. I was ready for dessert. My server brought a pre-dessert of Minierdises – little soft cookies and miniature chocolate cannoli. They were gone in no time.
(Girls, hold on to your boyfriends!) The Fondente al Cioccolato – a “molten” chocolate cake the consistency of a fine soufflé erupting with dark chocolate sauce and sided by homemade almond ice cream – was pure dining eroticism. Why the ice cream was pea green, I’ll never know. My server told me they sell the ice cream to go. I was amazed.
Then a double espresso and a glass of after-dinner fortified wine and my experience was complete. I congratulated both servers on two months and wished them many more promising a return visit some time in the future and left East 12th Osteria very happy.
Also, check out the unique sink in the restaurant's little restroom.
Finally, an enormous wisteria in full bloom climbing up a three-story brownstone near the restaurant caught my eye.