Thursday, December 12, 2002
Photo: From France With Table--French chefs mix it up at Casanova (left); Van Gogh''s restaurant then (top right) and now (bottom right).
Photo (left) by: Randy Tunnell
I was invited to a recent press dinner at Casanova Restaurant in celebration of Vincent Van Gogh''s upcoming 150th birthday--a preview of dinners available to the public in December and January.
The premise was simple enough. Walter Georis, one of the owners of Casanova''s Restaurant in Carmel, befriended a fellow restaurateur while vacationing in France. The Frenchman made an unusual gift to his new American friend: Vincent Van Gogh''s table--that is, a table where Van Gogh took simple meals for the final 70 days of his life, as he lived and painted in the artist village of Auvers-Sur-Oise (near Paris) in 1890, sleeping in a modest third-floor attic in the Auberge Ravoux and dining in the restaurant.
Before going to France, Georis had been captivated by a book called Van Gogh''s Table, which combines history, art, recipes and biographical essays about the great post-impressionist painter. Walter decided to take his family to dine at Auberge Ravoux, where pilgrims now visit the small museum in the room where Van Gogh lived and died. (In his lifetime, Van Gogh only sold one painting.)
Walter fell in love with the Auberge, the staff, and the town. He and Auberge''s owner, Dominique-Charles Janssens, became fast friends during Walter''s three-month stay--and voila! The table arrived in November. And the Georis family has dreamed up an elaborate celebration around it.
For nine special evenings beginning this week, guests at Casanova (up to six per party) will be able to reserve Van Gogh''s table for meals prepared by a visiting chef from Auberge Ravoux, Christophe Bony, along with longtime Casanova chef Didier Dutertre. The menus will vary and be selected from among the regional, homestyle recipes offered during the Van Gogh era.
At first glance, the whole affair seemed to verge on camp. And indeed, it might be if it were in any other than the gracious, tasteful hands of the Georises. They were aware the table could be perceived (by the cynical media, for starters) as an indiscriminate commercial gimmick. So they have taken an understated approach.
There are no posters of Van Gogh''s art, no straw hats decorating the burnished cherry-wood table, no sunflowers, no kitsch. The table--set with linen, dishes, and glasses from Auberge Ravoux--is acknowledged as a symbol rather than a celebrity possession to be idolized. It represents the sharing of culture through food, and honors the way of life implicit in attentive, yet uncomplicated, rustic cuisine. An exchange of staff between the two restaurants will continue, like a foreign exchange program for adults. A portion of proceeds will support programs at the Monterey Museum of Art.
Casanova was founded in 1977, by Georis siblings Walter, Gaston, and Denise, and Denise''s husband, Michel. Unknowingly on the vanguard, they recreated the style of their grandparents'' Belgian farmhouse in an old Carmel home with painted stone walls and naturally worn antique market tables long before this look became prosaic.
In the restaurant 25 years later, I was unable to resist the warm current of pleasure the evening offered. A table set with help-yourself appetizers of multi-colored olives, cold cuts, fromage blanc, and bread made me feel as if I were at a party in a friend''s home. Sparkling rose wine was poured from unlabeled bottles, fresh from the vineyard.
Seating is family style and the dinners are served family style, with entrees in cast iron pots with lids. "No portion control," as Gaston expressed it.
Walter, the winemaker of Carmel Valley''s superb Georis wines, has produced "Vincent," a 2001 Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon blend, as a component of this evolving event. Vincent is an elegant wine, offering Georis''s characteristic cedar bouquet along with berry flavors and mild tannins.
The meal begins and I remember why we''ve come. Of course, it''s the food. Soup of escargot and wild mushrooms. A "northerner''s version of bouillabaisse" with monkfish, salmon, scallops, mussels, leeks and carrots in an ambrosial broth. A voluptuous stew of duck, potatoes, apples and cherries. The sauces are impeccable. The dishes are perfectly executed. And this was the food of peasants! How I weep for them.
Dessert was a dish of mixed fruit in mint syrup (for this recipe alone, I bought the book). Then, when we thought it was all over, large bowls of chocolate mousse were put on the table from which we scooped, and scooped again, like children left alone with the cookie dough.
I guess the table was a good idea, after all. Yet another French menu might not have motivated me to seek out dinner at Casanova, with all the competing holiday interests. The 1890''s price per person, adjusted for inflation, is $65 to $85 and excludes wine with dinner, but includes a half-bottle to take home.
Is it worth it? Absolutely. If it ever gets cold this winter, leave the comfort of home for the comfort and grace of this rich experience. Sit with your neighbors, pass the bread, serve one another, and explore a few of the ideas that seem to waft by--maybe they are coming from the table.