Chers Révolutionnaries, I apologize for the delay with these editions. I have been in Paris, garnering from hither and thither all sorts of ideas for more recipes for you. Please, accept my apology. Here is the promised Bastille Day post…stay tuned for some short Parisian tales…
It was the best of times. It was the worst of times. And while the last few years may seem like some of the worst, I had some of the best times in the midst of the worst, anyway, at a restaurant in the meat-packing district of New York called Florent. And so, as I wrote last week, it would be entirely inappropriate not to write an edition of French Revolution on Bastille Day, I think it’s best to tell you the story of last year’s Quatorze, rather than this year’s, which I spent alone with a pizza and Sex and the City in a small dorm room in England. In that sense, I must disagree with dear Dickens. For it was in England, and not in France—or America—where I passed the worst time I’ve ever had on 14 Juillet!
My experience with Florent was something like eating a basket of their frites: I have had many, but at the end, I still wished there were more fries in the basket. Florent was always a respite. I remember one particularly grueling evening—grueling in the Manhattan way, anyway—when I left the bar at the top of Hotel Gansevoort with three friends, and plopped down at one of Florent’s aluminum-rimmed tables. We had left the land of pretense, a mingling of exhausted twenty-somethings corseted by ties and stilettos, gawking at how many $11 Red Bulls we had managed that evening. Thankfully, after so many expensive cans of caffeine, Florent was open, according to them, 24 Heures. There, I literally kicked off my shoes, and tucked into the most perfect grilled cheese sandwich and frites, the whole of which cost half than just the mixer in one of our drinks. And so the dawn rose on another New York morning, and it was ironically in a little French diner where we Americans were finally able to relax and enjoy a little joie de vivre.
That was what was so revolutionary about Florent: its incredible irony. This perfect French restaurant was situated in the old R & L Diner, the picture of Norman Rockwell Americanism, but like a Russian doll of contradictory juxtapositions, that Normal Rockwell diner was located, when it opened in my childhood, in a district of New York populated with beef carcasses by day and transsexuals hunting for a bit of meet themselves at night. Florent was at once so very American, so very New York, and so very French all at once without admitting any contradiction or hypocrisy. After all, the menu listed crab cakes (American), steak (so New York), and moules frites (ooh la la!). It was, frankly, the incarnation of what I try to do with my food: tempering a delicate mixture of French cuisine with a healthy helping of American irreverence.
Aside from all the Franco-American delicacies that populated the menu, Florent’s bestselling dish was certainly the joie de vivre that we four imbibed that night after the Gansevoort. On my twenty-fourth birthday, there in the teeming Florent that sparkled under industrial lights amid the din of so many corners of New York tucked away into so many corners of the little restaurant, Florent went dark. No, it was still a year and a half before Florent would lose its head to the Reign of High Rent Terror. But all of a sudden, silence fell over the restaurant, and for the moment, this one little speck of New York was what no other specks of New York were: dark and quiet and breathless. Suddenly, I saw a twinkling of light coming from one corner of the pitch room, and then noise broke, but not the same. “Happy birthday to you, happy birthday to you, happy birthday, dear….” And finally, as the sun had dawned on our grilled cheese abandon months before, it dawned on me that the twinkling light was the candles from a birthday gateau, and the noise was first the waiters, all penises and pearls, and then the entire restaurant, standing and singing a very, very happy birthday, to me. I know it has been centuries since Copernicus decided that the Earth revolves around the Sun, but for those stolen moments, I was quite sure that Earth had changed her course, and found a new axis, and for a slipping instant, had turned around me. And for that, Florent, I must say, Merci. For, for a girl who had spent her life as one in a city of millions, it was truly, in both senses of the word, revolutionary.
It was a while before I found myself in Florent again, but the next time was to be the last: 14 Juillet 2007. Of all my twenty-five Bastille Days, that was the best of times, for Florent threw the most fabulous 14 Juillet anywhere, even in France. One man dressed up at Marianne, and another as Marie Antoinette. Can Can dancers spread their wares up on the counter. I can’t remember, to be fair, whether or not they were “sans culottes.” It was its own little revolution, full of some of the most irreverent pieces of party possible. But it was a real celebration of the day. Revolutionary. Untraditional. Impertinent. Riotous. And about time. I coveted the little tee shirts of the waiters, with a drawing of Marie Antoinette with the “please detach here” line of old grade-school permission slips sketched across her gracefully plump neck. Somewhere between my artichoke vinaigrette and my moules frites, I went inside and joined the lines.
But as with so many revolutions, the pendulum, of time and of sentiment, swings ominously back and forth, and with this reaction and that, it seems that the revolutionaries themselves put into motion their own demise. For it could be said that Florent, who had brought so much life to the district that was to evolve from an area of, again in every sense of the word, the flesh, to an area of fashion, started the meat-packing revolution that raised the rents that finally proved too much for it to sustain. Florent shut its great doors, or rather, little glass diner door, on Gay Pride Day, 2008, before this last Bastille Day. It was revolutionary, and visionary, and is much, much missed.
I say that last Bastille Day was the best of times, but when it came to Florent, as Nancy Mitford would say, “Dulling, one always thinks that. Every, every time.”
Florent, in New York City
The drawings and photographs in this edition are from Florent’s website: www.restaurantflorent.com.
The New York Times‘s article on the closing of Florent.