Let's Do 'Luncheon'
Wednesday, April 12, 2006
On the summer days when impressionist painter Pierre-Auguste Renoir and his friends lingered over long lunches at the Maison Fournaise on the banks of the Seine, the restaurant served up eels and crayfish to patrons hungry after a morning of boating.
These days there are no eels left in the Seine, many of Renoir's favorite recipes have been banned by French health officials as unsafe and most of the lunch clients have spent their weekday morning not rowing on the water but seated behind desks in the high-rise office buildings on the opposite side of the river in the western suburbs of Paris.
But even on a chilly, drizzly spring day, 39-year-old chef Jean-Pierre Corroyer strives to give harried business executives and office workers an epicurean flashback to the era romanticized in the Phillips Collection's most famous painting, Renoir's "Luncheon of the Boating Party." It's a languid scene of sated young men and flirtatious young women lounging on the restaurant terrace in the dappled shade after a lunch with many bottles of wine.
"The food is placed on the plate as if it were in the frame of a painting," said Corroyer, a stocky man with a face ruddy from the hot, steamy kitchen. "And of course I play with the choice of colors and arrangement of the various ingredients -- in the manner of the impressionists."
"Boating Party," painted by Renoir in 1880-81, returns to the Phillips Collection in Washington for public viewing Saturday after a four-year worldwide tour.
Most of the bucolic countryside that once surrounded the Maison Fournaise has been transformed into a monotone urban landscape. Rowboats are banned on the Seine because of dangerous commercial shipping traffic. But the restaurant remains an oasis from another century. Set amid flower gardens and screened by a giant maple tree, it has been restored to its mid-1800s detailing -- down to the orange-and-white-striped awning that shaded the characters at the luncheon.
Sitting at a table on the same terrace where Renoir set the painting, diners can see the old railroad bridge -- just beyond the new concrete bridge -- that Renoir included in the corner of the masterpiece. Inside, the restaurant walls are covered in the original murals that artists painted as payment for their meals in the 1880s. The murals were discovered under decades of wallpaper when the restaurant was restored in 1990 after an 84-year hiatus as a dining establishment.
Between 1868 and 1884, "You could find me any time at Fournaise's," Renoir wrote to a friend. "There, I was fortunate enough to find as many splendid creatures as I could possibly desire to paint."
The creatures Renoir would find to paint today would be quite different. Instead of the young woman (who would become Renoir's wife) cuddling a tiny dog atop the table, he'd see an intense businesswoman clutching a cellphone. In place of men in straw boaters and muscle shirts, he'd see businessmen in dark suits and young workers in turtleneck sweaters. The tables would be littered with more empty mineral water bottles than wine bottles.
And today's fare is not quite the same as the dishes served 125 years ago.
"Some of the recipes are no longer possible to create," said Peter Ruiter, the effervescent 47-year-old Dutchman who runs the restaurant.
In the 1800s, the cook simmered bones and vegetables over very low heat for 36 hours to make intense stocks and stews. Modern-day health regulations prohibit that.