Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Reggie Recommends: Gervais de Bédée

Reggie recently came across a relatively new arrival on the blogosphere, Gervais de Bédée, that he wishes to recommend to his readers.  It is a beautifully conceived and written blog by Paul Gervais, an American-born writer and designer whose primary residence is a transcendently beautiful villa outside of Lucca, Italy, where he and his husband, Gil Cohen, live in great and understated style.  Mr. Gervais is an exceedingly cultured man, and his blog is an enchanting window into his rather rarified world.  Reggie urges you, Gentle Reader, to link to Mr. Gervais' blog, which Reggie has added to his own blog list and is one that he will be following for as long as it graces the blogosphere.

Mr. Paul Gervais

Reggie first learned of Gervais de Bédée when he received an email from its author, introducing himself and inviting Reggie to stop by his blog, as he suspected that he and I might share some common interests after having read through Reggie's own, and self-avowedly amateurish, efforts on this site.

Upon reading several posts on Gervais de Bédée and seeing its luscious photographs, Reggie realized with surprised pleasure that he had actually met Mr. Gervais more than two decades ago when Reggie accompanied a then-mutual friend on a visit to Italy.  The trip, which was dedicated to visiting the villas and buildings of Andrea Palladio, included a several-day stay in Tuscany as a guest of the Messers Gervais and Cohen at their house, the Villa Massei.  Reggie recalls it as a magical place in a storied setting, inhabited by owners of taste, humor, and refinement.

The Villa Massei, Lucca, Italy

Reggie is pleased to have become reacquainted with Mr. Gervais after all these years, and finds the coincidence of how it happened to be, well, remarkable.  One of the things that Reggie particularly enjoys about blogging--and did not fully appreciate when he started out doing it--is that it provides one entree to a world of fellow travelers with many shared interests.  Reggie considers Mr. Gervais to be such a person and is pleased to recommend him and his blog to you, Dear Reader.

You can find the blog at www.gervaisdebedee.blogspot.com

Photographs courtesy of Paul Gervais

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Reggie Out & About: Cooking With Gail Monaghan

Boy and I have been taking cooking classes for the last several years from Gail Monaghan, a delightful person, cook, and cookbook author who teaches classes in her modern art-filled loft in Manhattan.  In addition to teaching and writing, Gail also organizes cooking-themed travel programs to Europe and Asia, and soon to India.

Gail Monaghan in her Manhattan loft kitchen

I first learned about Gail and her cooking classes on New York Social Diary, a daily read of mine, where she was profiled three years ago, and I signed us up for a class with her shortly thereafter.  I had been casting about, looking for something to do after work on "school nights" other than simply heading home or out to a restaurant (yet again), and I thought that taking a class with Gail Monaghan might be just the ticket.  A cooking class was appealing to me on several accounts, since when one takes such a class one learns something, one does something, and one gets to eat a lovely meal at the end of it.  And someone else does the dishes, too.  It's hard to beat that!

Gail is a bit of a media darling.  She has written numerous articles for--and been the subject of pieces in--magazines and other periodicals, and she regularly appears on television and the radio.  She is the subject of an extensive story in this month's issue of Quest Magazine, with lots of glossy and glamorous photos of her, and which also features photographs and a recipe or two from her just-released cookbook The Entrees: Remembered Favorites From the Past (more on that later).

Gail's classes are held around a large square island

Gail's classes are lots of fun and attract a diverse crowd of regulars, including groups of friends and occasional visitors from out of town.  A typical class may include a fashion designer or two, a magazine writer, an architect, a decorator, one or two investment bankers, someone in the arts, and a smattering of swells.  The classes are on the small side, usually around a dozen people, give or take a few.

The classes are "one off" (as opposed to a series), focusing on a particular theme or cuisine.  The subject could be anything from a menu for the holidays to the "perfect" summer buffet, or it could be the food of a specific country, such as Italy or China.

The counter set with glasses for wine and
those incredible chips!

The classes are held in Gail's loft's kitchen area where everyone sits on stools around a large square island.  She encourages her students to bring a bottle of wine to drink during the meal's preparation (hopefully some will still be left for when it comes time to eat), and she sets out bowls filled with hearty, seasoned potato chips that are maddeningly difficult not to overeat before the dinner is ready.

Everyone gets down to work, chopping and dicing

Over the course of several hours, Gail both demonstrates and has her students join her in preparing a three- (or more) course meal.  These are hands-on classes in which Gail parcels out various tasks to her students, such as dicing onions, shelling peas, and the like, all the while keeping up a pleasant discourse (more of a conversation, really) on what is being prepared.  She discusses the sources of her recipes, which may be her own or her variations on others', and demonstrates how they are made, asking for assistance from time to time in stirring bubbling pots and getting pans in and out of the ovens.  The classes culminate in everyone tucking in to the communally prepared, delicious meal that is always topped off with a spectacular dessert.

How many hands does it take to stir a pot?

Gail's classes feel more like one is attending a casual party, sitting in a friend's kitchen (well, a very nice kitchen), helping prepare a meal.  And that's almost what you are doing, because the classes quickly become quite convivial and jolly, with lots of pleasant chatter and laughter among the students.  Gail keeps a bell near her that she sometimes rings when the talking gets really out of hand, which it occasionally does (Reggie is guilty as charged!).  In short, Gail's classes are a lot of fun.

The Oracle, sharing her knowledge

Don't get me wrong, these are serious classes, too, where Gail teaches her students how to prepare interesting, unusual, and--at times--complex food.  She is a great student and historian of cooking herself, and is constantly exploring new foods and ingredients, unearthing forgotten recipes, and delving into cuisines of regions in countries that are off the radar for many of us.  Gail is a font of knowledge and has lots of good tips about technique, the history of particular dishes, why certain ingredients work well together, and why others may not.  She is also a great resource when it comes to sourcing unusual tools and out-of-the-ordinary ingredients.  In short, she is a real foodie, in the best sense of the word.

Oh, good, there's still wine left to have with dinner!

Boy and I recently took a class taught by Gail that featured the food of southern India and that illustrates how interesting the classes she teaches can be.  Here's the menu:

Buffet Dinner From Southern India
  • Tamarind Fish (we cooked Cod in our class, but others, including Halibut or Monkfish, will do)
  • Green Bean Thoren
  • Rice Pullao with Green Peas
  • Tomato Pachadi
  • Mint and Cilantro Chutney
  • Indian Breads
  • Glazed Citrus Yogurt Cake with Homemade Ice Cream
Reggie wasn't familiar with many of the spices we used in the class, and he hadn't heard of a number of the dishes we prepared.  He's not absolutely sure whether he can even pronounce them all correctly.  He signed up for the class so he could learn more about the food of India, a country that has always fascinated him.  He came away with an even greater appreciation for Indian cooking than he had before, and that's saying a lot, since Reggie adores Indian food.

For the upcoming holidays, Gail is teaching a series of classes with, well, a holiday focus.  We're signed up for one called Comfort Food Christmas in December where we'll prepare, among other things, a crown roast of pork, herbed popovers, and a sticky toffee pudding with creme Anglaise.  Eat your heart out, Bob Cratchit!

Gail's just-published cookbook
The Entrees: Remembered Favorites . . .

Gail recently came out with a new cookbook (she's written several) titled The Entrees: Remembered Favorites From the Past, Recipes From Legendary Chefs and Restaurants and published by Rizzoli.  The focus of the book is recipes for classic dishes of days gone by that in some cases have fallen out of favor in today's food culture, and in others have been forgotten altogether.  Gail has recreated the dishes for her book, sensitively updating them when appropriate to be more appealing to today's food preferences.  The cookbook is lavishly illustrated with photographs by Eric Boman and is a repository of fascinating recipes and stories. Reggie looks forward to cooking his way through the book in the kitchen at Darlington House.

Gail at her book signing at Rizzoli,
inscribing a copy for Reggie and Boy

Several weeks ago Gail invited Boy and me to the inaugural book signing for The Entrees held at the Rizzoli bookstore on West 57th Street in Manhattan.  Boy attended, but I, unfortunately, could not, as I was in South America on business that day.  Boy said the book signing was very well attended and that a lot of people were there scooping up copies, in some cases buying multiples to give as Christmas presents.  Many class regulars were there, including Chris Spitzmiller, who we met in the first class we took with Gail, several years ago.

Chris Spitzmiller, another Gail regular, looks on

Reggie recommends that you, Dear Reader, consider taking one of Gail's classes, and that you also add her cookbooks to your culinary library.  Her hands-on classes are a delightful change from going out to dinner in a restaurant, and they are a fun outing for a couple or a gaggle of friends, too.  Add a dash of learning, a mix of interesting people, and top it off with a delicious dinner, and you'll have the Gail Monaghan cooking class experience that keeps Reggie coming back for more.

You can learn more about Gail, including her class and travel schedules, on her website, www.gailmonaghan.com.  Do tell her that Reggie sent you!

Please note, Reggie has not received anything in return for this review, nor does he expect to do so.  He is posting it solely for the pleasure of introducing his readers to Gail Monaghan.

All photos of Gail's class by Reggie Darling; photos of Gail's book signing by Boy Fenwick

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Winning Bid: Pretty Little Pictures

Several weeks ago, Reggie was the winning bidder at a country auction of two charming guaches of romantic landscapes.  Of diminutive size, they were painted in the first half of the nineteenth century and are likely French, at least to his eye.  If not French, they are most certainly Continental.

Pretty little pictures on easels on a table
in the drawing room at Darlington House

The two paintings Reggie acquired are shown in the foreground of the above photograph.  Although sold as a single lot, the pictures are not associated--not a pair, not by the same hand, and so on.  Reggie bought them because they are attractive, decorative, and nicely framed.  And he got them at a very reasonable price--less than the cost of a dinner for two in a nice restaurant in Manhattan.

The first--and larger--of the two paintings is really quite well done.  It is a romantic landscape with picturesque tumbledown cottages, a castle with flags flying from its towers, and a body of water in the distance.  The painting includes rustic figures and a little dog joyously frisking about.  The artist (unsigned) deftly depicts the scene at the height of summer, with trees and climbing roses embracing the cottages.  It is a pleasing little picture, and I am glad to have it.  I also like the frame, which I suspect is original.  I date the painting to the mid-nineteenth century.

The painting has some minor losses to its surface, but I do not mind.  I'm not planning on sending it to a restorer, as I think it looks just fine as it is.

The second--and smaller--painting Reggie bought is also a romantic landscape.  It shows two figures in a garden overlooking a body of water, with a classical building (or is it a ruin?) and several boats at sail.  Judging by the clothing depicted, Reggie thinka the scene was painted in the 1820s or 30s, at the latest.

Not as finely executed as the other landscape, this little painting is still skillfully done.  It is clearly old and retains its original frame, and it is signed on the back by the artist (I suspect).

Claire Charlotte Coynart was a better painter than she was a calligrapher, given the crudenes of her signature.  Reggie suspects that she was Mademoiselle Coynart when she painted this pretty little picture, as he believes it is what many of us in America call "school-girl art," done by young ladies of refinement when still of a school age.  In the early nineteenth century in the United States, such young ladies as Mademoiselle Coynart were admired particularly for the needlework pictures they made--some of astonishing virtuosity--while students at the academies where they were educated.

We currently have these little pictures, along with the English eighteenth-century oil portrait in small shown in the first photograph of this post, on easels on an early nineteenth-century New York pembroke table in our drawing room.  Reggie likes small paintings put about in such a manner, and this is not the only table in his house with such an arrangement.  He is always on the lookout for useful easels for such purpose and buys them when he finds them and when his budget allows for it.

Tell me, do you also display paintings on easels in your house?

Photographs by Boy Fenwick

Monday, November 22, 2010

That Radish Is a Watermelon!

As I wrote in my last post, this past Saturday we visited the final Farmers' Market of the season in the town near Darlington House.  Included in the baskets of produce and foods that we came home with was an usually big, pale green radish that the farmer who sold it to Reggie called a Watermelon Radish.

The radish was much larger than the typical red-skinned radish one sees in a grocery store, measuring a full three and a quarter inches across.  The farmer said that it is called a Watermelon Radish because its flesh is a lovely hot pink, like the flesh of the fruit after which it is named.  She also said that it was a mild variety, best eaten raw and with a bit of salt.

When I sliced open the radish I was delighted to find the flesh as the farmer had described it: a rich, rosy pink, reminiscent of the flesh of a watermelon.

And it had a delicate, mild flavor to it, too, with only a hint of the pepperiness one associates with radishes.  Sprinkled with fleur de sel, it was wonderfully delicious.

Tell me, have you--like Reggie--been recently introduced to an heirloom variety fruit or vegetable for the first time?  If so, which one was it?

All photographs by Boy Fenwick

Saturday, November 20, 2010

The Season's Final Farmers' Market

This morning, Boy and Pompey and I made our weekly trip to the nearby town's Farmers' Market, which is something we make a point of doing every Saturday.  As Reggie's readers well know, he likes to support his local farmers and small businesses, and he focuses as much of his household's purchasing of goods and services as he can on local producers and purveyors.  The local movement bandwagon is a vehicle that Reggie is proud to ride on.  And if you wait a minute or two, he just might burst into song over it.

A bag of golden shallots

Today was the last market of the season, as it gets too cold in these parts to have an open-air market much beyond this time of year.  It was really quite festive, with the stands full of the last of autumn's bounty, and there was lots of wonderful food and things to buy for Thanksgiving.  There were the usual stands selling mountains of marvelous and unusual heirloom produce.  There were producers of organic meats and dairy.  And at least several stands featured pyramids of golden breads, racks of tempting pies, and tins of cookies.  The cheese man was there, happily cutting wedges of his delicious creations.  There were sellers of locally made wines and others featuring woolens from local sheep and llamas.  And the most marvelous seller of flowers and branches was there, too.

As I have mentioned before, our Most Beloved Caterers have a stand at the Farmers' Market, too, where they sell their scrumptious prepared foods.  We greeted each other joyously, as this was the first time we'd seen each other since last weekend's dinner party, and we had lots to talk about and catch up on.  It turns out that everyone had a good time at the party, including them.

Our market bounty

Since this was the last market of the season, we decided to really stock up on its offerings, both to consume in the next several days and also to freeze for future use.  Here's what we bought today, going from left to right in the photograph:
  • A two pound bag of the most beautiful tiny shallots imaginable
  • Six assorted, bound-to-be-delicious soups (from our Most Beloved Caterer)
  • A diminutive, pretty bay leaf wreath (with burgundy velvet ribbon on it)
  • A bunch of raab
  • Two bags of delicate salad greens
  • Two different cheeses, one soft, one hard
  • Half a dozen sweet potatoes
  • Two dozen farm-fresh eggs
  • A small bag of assorted apples of our choosing
  • A bunch of gorgeous kale
  • A perfectly beautiful cauliflower
  • A butternut squash
  • A watermelon radish--pale green on the outside and watermelon pink on the inside
What you don't see in this photograph is a large clay pot filled with paperwhites, not quite ready to blossom, and a wreath made of branches that we also bought at the market.  And yes, we really did use the baskets when shopping.

Going to the Farmers' Market this weekend felt almost like a dream to me, it was all so tasteful and rural.  We arrived in our hunter green Land Rover, wearing quilted jackets and country togs, and strolled through the market with our beautiful pug dog on a lead, carrying handmade baskets that we filled with marvelous, locally produced bounty.  We stopped and greeted friends and exchanged pleasantries with other shoppers and the stands' owners.  It was a beautiful day, with clouds skudding across the autumnal Hudson River Valley sky.  It was all so perfect that it was almost weird.  I asked myself, how is it that you--Reggie--have the great good fortune to find yourself here at this market, with Boy and Pompey at your side, surrounded by such bounty and beauty?  And how is it that you are so lucky as to be able to fill your Rover with the market's gorgeous offerings to take home with you to your beloved Darlington House?

And I felt humbled, and grateful.

All photographs by Boy Fenwick

Thursday, November 18, 2010

An Autumn Black-Tie Dinner at Darlington House, Part II: The Countdown

Following my earlier post, A Black-Tie Dinner at Darlington House, Part I: Planning the Party, I am posting the day-by-day countdown to the Big Day, so that you, Dear Reader, can understand what goes into throwing what we call a "full dudgeon" dinner party at Darlington House.  As I wrote in Part I, it takes a lot of effort to make such dinner parties appear effortless.  In our case, we started planning our dinner party a full two months ahead of time and enlisted the assistance of more than half a dozen service providers to help us pull it off.  This was the most formal dinner party we have thrown so far at Darlington, but considering how much fun we had at it I suspect that we will be throwing more formal parties going forward.

The reminder cards we sent out one month before the party

Here's the countdown:

September 11
We decide to invite Boy's college friend Jasper Lambert and his girlfriend Francesca Montmore to spend the weekend of November 13th with us at Darlington House.  We are overjoyed that they accept.

September 18
Boy and I agree that it would be fun to throw a black-tie dinner party for ten in honor of Jasper and Francesca's visit; we come up with guest list of fun and festive friends.

September 19
I contact our Most Beloved Caterers and find, much to our relief and joy, that they are available to cater the dinner.

The flowers bundled for the trip from the city,
safely arrived at Darlington House

September 25
We telephone guests to extend verbal invitations, and let them know that we'll be dressing for dinner in evening clothes; we are excited to learn that all are available and that they accept our invitations.

October 2
Boy and I stop in at the nearby Farmers' Market, where our Most Beloved Caterers (a husband-and-wife team) have a stand at which they sell prepared foods on Saturday mornings, and discuss with the wife the basic concept for the evening: swell food, artfully prepared, beautifully presented.  She's on board and enthusiastic, and she says they are already discussing ideas for the menu ("Think fois gras!") and the staffing.  Her husband's training at Le Cirque will come in handy.

Back at Darlington House, we pull out our dinner jackets to see if they fit any longer.  They don't.

October 4
Reggie goes to Dempsey & Carroll in Manhattan and buys "reminder" cards to mail to our guests ahead of the party, confirming the date and time.

Boy conditioning but a few of the
twelve dozen roses we bought for the party

October 5
We start fretting about what to wear, since our dinner jackets don't fit any longer.  Dare I go vintage, I wonder?

October 10
Our handyman, Rich, along with his sidekick Tony, spends the day polishing the brass fire tools and andirons for Darlington's public rooms.

October 13
We mail the reminder cards to our guests, exactly one month ahead of the party.

Four dozen tulips, ready for conditioning

October 15
Reggie looks into vintage options for his dinner jacket and trousers, then decides it is all too much.  Rethinks.

October 18
Boy drops his dinner jacket off with his tailor for adjustments.  He buys new formal-wear trousers at Tom Ford in a moment of abject extravagance.

October 27
Reggie buys a new tuxedo.  He figures if Boy can justify a pair of trousers from Tom Ford, he can justify a new tuxedo.  But Reggie decides to buy an inexpensive one since he's on a weight-loss campaign and doesn't want to invest in an expensive set of formal wear at this stage of his slenderization efforts.

Both leaves, ready to be added to the table

October 30
At Darlington House, we select which silver to use. We leave instructions for Karyn to start polishing it.

October 31
We meet with our Most Beloved Caterers at Darlington House, where we spend an hour or so discussing the menu, the staffing, and guest list.  We agree on the menu and on staffing.

Boy and I review and select the table linens, china, and glassware we will use.  Reggie checks to see that the waiters' jackets that we have on hand for serving staff are in good order.

November 5
We fly to Pittsburgh for the weekend with our friends James and Calista Littlefield.  In years past we might have been concerned that spending the weekend before a party away from Darlington was foolish, but we know we're in good hands with our Most Beloved Caterer.  We've got it all under control.  We've done this before.

The table dressed with cloths
Oh, and look, there's Pompey!

November 9
Boy buys four dozen candles for us to burn during the party.

We exchange e-mails and phone calls with our Most Beloved Caterer to confirm the final details.

November 10
We pick up our formal wear.  It fits!

Boy speaks with our Most Favored Wine Merchant in the country, plans with him what wines and liquors we will serve, and places order.

Concurrent with the activity at Darlington House leading up to the party, a parallel path of activity is being pursued by our Most Beloved Caterers, as they source, test, and prepare the food for the party, and also organize the staff.

The table fully set, except for flowers

November 11
Boy buys a pair of velvet Belgians to wear at the party during an afternoon pilgrimage to the Belgian Shoes store in Manhattan with fellow bloggers Privilege and Maximinimus.  We have a delightful dinner afterwards with them (and Privilege's charming daughter) at L'Absinthe to celebrate Privilege's purchase of her first pair of Belgians that afternoon, a right of passage for many of us.

Reggie decides that if Boy is going to wear velvet slippers to the dinner party, he will be damned if he doesn't wear his Stubbs & Wootton velvet slippers with the red devils embroidered on them.

November 12
We wake up at 6:30 a.m. rather blurry eyed after our evening out (that somehow wound up at the Waldorf Hotel for a night cap) and drive the Rover to the flower district in Manhattan, where we buy loads of roses and tulips to decorate the drawing room, dining room, and guest rooms.

We drive to Darlington, and Boy starts conditioning the flowers in buckets in our flower arranging room.

After helping Boy add two leaves to the dining room table and covering it with the table cloths, Reggie leaves him behind to set it while he runs to the nearby town to stop by our Most Favored Wine Merchant, where he adds a few more bottles to the order and loads the whole lot into the car.  He then stops by a number of other comestible purveyors in town to stock up on food and treats for our House Party weekend.

Jasper and Francesca arrive in time for supper.  The rest gets blurry.

The table fully dressed with flowers

November 13 -- the Big Day!
Rich and Tony arrive bright and early in the morning and spend the day raking and sweeping the grounds surrounding Darlington House.  When they are finished, the property is immaculate and manicured to perfection.

Boy spends the better part of the morning placing forty candles in the dining room's and drawing room's candle holders.  He spends much of the afternoon cutting and arranging the flowers in the vases selected for the party, after which he fills the oil lanterns that will line our driveway and walkways, which will be lighted for our guests' arrival.  Reggie spends the better part of the day organizing and fluffing the house, making sure that everything is in tip-top shape for the party.

5:30 pm -- Our Most Beloved Caterer husband-and-wife team arrive with their ace servers, Sam and Melissa.  They go right to work setting up and preparing for the party.  Pompey is in heaven because he adores our Most Beloved Caterers and the treats they slip him from time to time.

6:00 pm -- With cocktails in hand, Boy and Reggie--along with our guests Jasper and Francesca--retire to our respective rooms to dress for dinner.

7:00 pm -- Our guests start arriving, looking elegant in their lovely evening clothes; cocktails and hors d'œuvres are served in Darlington's drawing room.

8:00 pm -- The staff lights the dining room candles, and we are called to dinner.

The dining room was entirely lit by candles

The Menu

Passed during cocktails:
  • Skewers of sesame-crusted salmon with caviar
  • Mini philo-dough bird's nests filled with squash and pancetta
  • Bite-sized grilled cheese sandwich triangles
At table:
  • "Millionaire's Salad" of seared fois gras and lobster claw on a bed of frisee with pomegranate seed dressing, served with a crisp Sancerre
  • Sliced seared duck breast with onion confit and roasted lady apple, accompanied by buttery parsnip puree and an assortment of miniature vegetables, served with a lusty Cote du Rhone
  • Opera cake towers served with maple creme Anglaise, served with Champagne
  • Chocolates and candied ginger
After the plates were cleared, everybody
brought out their iPhones and took pictures

After dinner, the party retired to the drawing room for more champagne, chocolates, and conversation.  Needless to say, the evening was a smash hit!  Boy and I had a marvelous time, and we suspect that our guests did too.  How couldn't we?  It was Heaven.

And everyone looked marvelous in their elegant evening clothes, and people said over and over how happy they were to have an excuse to get dressed up for the occasion.  So grownup.  It made it especially festive.

The dining table, the next morning

We are very fortunate to have the support, help, and assistance of a number of highly qualified, dedicated, professional service providers, without whom such a dinner would not be possible.  In particular, we are indebted to our Most Beloved Caterers, an extremely talented team that has helped us throw many parties, ranging from small luncheons for half a dozen to large cocktail parties for seventy-five, and also dinner parties and brunches.  It is safe to say that we couldn't do it without them, and we are grateful that we have developed such a marvelous, collaborative, and friendly relationship with them over the years.  I am working on a profile of them that I hope to post at some point in the not-too-distant future. 

So, there you have it: our formal, black-tie, Darlington House dinner party.  I hope you enjoyed it.  I certainly did!

All photographs by Boy Fenwick

Thursday, November 11, 2010

A Reggie Road Trip: Pittsburgh

Last weekend, Boy and I flew to Pittsburgh with our friends James and Calista Littlefield to see the sights.

"See the sights?" you might cry. "What on Earth is there to see in Pittsburgh?"

Rather a lot, as it turns out.  We had a marvelous time.

A postcard of downtown Pittsburgh

Over the years I have traveled to Pittsburgh numerous times for business, flying in and out for meetings.  And every time that I found myself there I wanted to spend more time in the city, investigating what it had to offer.

Pittsburgh's downtown features an interesting mix
of early- and late-twentieth century buildings

Our trip to Pittsburgh confirmed that it is a culturally rich, thriving city full of wonderful architecture, impressive museums, noteworthy restaurants, a plethora of entertainment options, and vibrant universities.  It is a city that has benefitted from great philanthropy from the rich industrialists who made their fortunes there in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and it features a generous supply of handsome civic architecture and monuments to prove it.

Pittsburgh has handsome modern buildings, too

Pittsburgh is well worth visiting for a weekend, with lots to see and do, and is only a quick and inexpensive flight from New York.  Visiting Pittsburgh is very reasonable, too, with prices at hotels and restaurants below what one would have to pay for similar quality in Manhattan.

We liked the onion domes on this building
in downtown Pittsburgh

The four of us flew to Pittsburgh early Friday morning, picked up our "late model" Lincoln Town car rental (splurge!) at the airport, and drove downtown where we had a delightful lunch at the Original Oyster House.  And by delightful I mean the entire experience was delightful: decor, crowd, and food combined.  A Pittsburgh institution, the Original Oyster House has been in business since 1870, serving up hearty platters of fried fish and oysters to an eclectic and diverse crowd of regulars, and it features some of the best beers west of the Hudson River.

The Original Oyster House Restaurant and Bar
image courtesy of Wikipedia

Decidedly rough around the edges, the restaurant has the charm of a tough broad with a heart of gold.  The Oyster House was once owned by a man with the last name of Americus, who developed an obsession for the Miss America pageant, which he attended annually from the 1930s through the 1980s.  The walls of the restaurant are still covered with dozens of his vintage framed photographs of Miss America pageant contestants that he put up when he owned the joint.  We loved it!

1950 Miss America contestants
image courtesy of the Original Oyster House

After our lunch at the Oyster House we drove out into the country south of Pittsburgh to visit one of the icons of American architecture: Falling Water.  Designed by the biggest ego that profession ever produced (and that's saying a lot), Frank Lloyd Wright, as a weekend house for the Pittsburgh-based department store owning Kauffman family, Falling Water exceeded our expectations, and then some.  Incredible.

The view approaching Falling Water
photo by James Littlefield

Oh, to be as rich as the Kauffmans were and to commission and live in such a structure in such surroundings.  Even though Falling Water has a number of irritating quirks to it, clearly imposed by the iron-willed architect (such as claustrophobically low ceilings and uncomfortably squat built-in furniture), the house and setting are breathtaking.  Who cares if it isn't livable--it's a work of art!  How marvelous that the Kauffmans gave it to us to visit and enjoy, opening it to the public.  Here's a bit of trivia that we learned: Wright originally proposed covering Falling Water's exterior stucco walls with gold leaf, instead of painting them.  If asked, I'd have sided with Mr. Kauffman, who nixed the idea.

The classic view of Falling Water from below
photo by James Littlefield

After visiting Falling Water we drove back in to Pittsburgh and checked in to the William Penn Hotel, which is now an Omni, and will always be the Grand Dame of Pittsburgh's hotels.  Although the William Penn may have seen better days, she's still holding up pretty well (and hasn't been ruined, thankfully, like many of her ilk). We enjoyed our stay there.

The William Penn Hotel, Pittsburgh, ca. 1914
image courtesy of The Henry Clay Frick Houses

Our rooms were perfectly nice with wonderfully comfortable beds and plump down pillows.  The William Penn has a terrific buffet breakfast at only $18.50 a head, which is a great way to start the day.  Oh, and they serve a mean martini in the lobby lounge after 5 p.m., too.  What's not to like?

Looking across the square in front of the hotel
with a view of PPG headquarters in the distance

After a round (or was it two?) of cocktails we headed out to the Strip District where we had an excellent dinner at Eleven, a modern, loft-like restaurant that stands up to most of the restaurants in the Flatiron District here in New York that I've eaten at in recent years.  While I remember enjoying my appetizer (delicious), much beyond that is a bit of a blur, I must admit.

The Carnegie Museum of Art and Natural History
image courtesy of same

The next day, Saturday, was our museum day.  We started off with a visit to the Carnegie Museum of Art, an enormous, encyclopædic repository of art and decorative arts, with holdings fantastically enriched by the philanthropy of the Carnegies, Fricks, Mellons, and Heinzes.  It contains a jaw-dropping collection of art, spanning from ancient times to the modern day.

One passes a Richard Serra sculpture when entering
the museum (University of Pittsburgh tower in background)

We started in the museum's Hall of Architecture, full of casts of architectural fragments made at the turn of the last century, and then followed it by exploring gallery after gallery full of paintings and sculpture that knocked my socks off.  There were Tieppolos, Rembrandts, Rubens, Watteaus, Gainsboroughs, Reynolds, Copleys, Monets, Manets, Van Goghs, Sargents, Vuillards, Bentons, Henris, Hassams, Rothkos, Pollacks, Stellas, Hockneys--the list goes on and on!

The Hall of Architecture at the Carnegie Museum of Art

Unlike the Metropolitan Museum in New York, which is intolerably crowded on weekends, the Carnegie was not overly full of visitors when we were there, because the vast museum is able to absorb thousands of visitors without crowding its galleries.  There were times that we had rooms entirely to ourselves.  Marvelous.

Looking across the Grand Staircase at the museum,
showing murals by John White Alexander

After a late lunch of moule frites and beer in an ale-house restaurant in downtown, we then visited the Warhol Museum.  I have to admit that it (the museum) was better than I expected it would be, considering I'm not all that much of a fan of the man after whom it was named, or much of his art.  While I'd gladly spend several days exploring the Carnegie Museum's collections, a couple of hours (at most) is sufficient for me for what the Warhol Museum has to offer.  More hype than content, I think.  I'm glad we went there, though, since it is a Pittsburgh landmark, and worth seeing.

The Andy Warhol Museum
image courtesy of Wikipedia

Returning to the William Penn at the end of the day and in sore need of cocktails, we sidled up to the lobby bar for a round of martinis before heading over to LeMont, one of Pittsburgh's most remarkable restaurants, where we had reservations for dinner that night.  LeMont (also known as The LeMont), is celebrating its fiftieth anniversary in business. It is a combination "fine dining establishment," wedding palace, and banquet hall right out of Married to the Mob.

The super-refined cocktail lounge at LeMont Restaurant
image courtesy of Southwinds, Inc.

Garishly decorated and dripping with "Austrian crystal" chandeliers at every turn, LeMont has spectacular views of downtown Pittsburgh and is renowned for its table-side service of house specialties of the surf-n-turf and flaming cherries jubilee variety.  The place was packed with revelers out for A Big Night when we visited, with patrons spanning a wide swath of socio-economic groups, and dressed in anything from rental tuxedos and chiffon gowns (the wedding parties) to sweatshirts and Steelers tee shirts.  And on top of the spectacle of the decor, the view, and the people, there's entertainment . . . and dancing!  The band was really quite good, doing covers of hits from the last thirty years, including a rousing rendition of Laura Branigan's 1980s dance floor anthem "Gloria" that got the entire room, including the four of us, on the floor dancing and singing along.  Hilarious!  Reggie doesn't really remember much after that, as the rest of the evening gets rather blurry.  Again.  Thank goodness the clocks changed that night, as he needed the extra hour to recover from his hangover.

Clayton, the Henry Clay Frick house in Pittsburgh
image courtesy of the Frick Art & Historical Center

The next day we traveled to the outskirts of town to the Frick Art & Historical Center, the somewhat trumped-up name for the former estate of Henry Clay Frick.  Our main reason for going there was to visit Clayton, the rather vulgar house that Frick built in the 1880s after he first made it big, but before he got really rich and moved to New York and built his palace on Fifth Avenue.  Clayton is a big mess of a pile of the worst of Robber Baron "en suite" Victorian taste, and we found it to be oppressively heavy and unlivable, but it is a fascinating glimpse in to another world.  I'm glad we visited it.  I understand why they moved out of it, though.

The Frick Art Museum at the Frick Art & Historical Center

The Frick Center's setting is very pleasant, and includes lovely gardens and greenhouses.  It also has a small, jewel-like, limestone art museum built in the late 1960s in the classical style by Frick's daughter, Helen.  The museum is a miniature version of the picture galleries at the Frick Museum on Fifth Avenue in New York.  It features a decent collection of Medieval, Old Master, and English Romantic paintings collected by the Fricks (Helen was an avid collector, too).   Boy was particularly impressed that the walls in one of the galleries were entirely upholstered with deep green silk velvet, which set off the gilt-framed paintings on display to perfection.

Our 2011 Lincoln Town Car Signature Edition

After a pleasant lunch at the Frick Center's cafe, we spent the rest of the afternoon driving around the Carnegie Mellon and University of Pittsburgh areas in our Lincoln Town car, and were impressed by the handsome university buildings and grounds, as well as the surrounding neighborhoods full of commodious houses built in the early part of the twentieth century.

The flight back to New York lasted only sixty or so minutes, and we were able to pick up Pompey at the boarding kennel on our way home to our apartment on the Upper East Side.  We topped off our weekend getaway with cocktails and dinner out at our favorite local Italian restaurant.

All in all, it was a very pleasant and diverting weekend.  Pittsburgh is a charming city, and I highly recommend it to you, Dear Reader, as a worthy destination to visit and explore.  I plan on going back.

Tell me, what cities have you recently visited that you enjoyed seeing?

All photos, except where noted, by Boy Fenwick
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