When you arrive for dinner and your host is massaging a purple cauliflower, you know you’re in for an interesting evening. I am in a top-floor flat in Paris, which was once the domain of Amedeo Modigliani. The Italian artist was famous for his louche lifestyle — drink, drugs, women — but we know him best for those serene portraits with empty eyes.
He died of tubercular meningitis in this very flat at the age of 35. His ghost doesn’t stalk the rooms, though, and no sketches were found beneath the floorboards — much to our hosts’ disappointment. They are Nicolas and Monia Derrstroff, a chef and journalist, who host evenings in their apartment for curious tourists and art enthusiasts via Air-bnb. It must be quite exposing to open up your home to a hungry crowd and find them poking around your bedroom to admire the original windows, which flood the place with light. (Perfect for painting.)
This is what is known in the trade as an ‘experiential evening’ — but don’t be put off. It is wonderful. Tonight we are celebrating Modigliani and it feels like immersive theatre. Before we’re even through the door, Monia suggests we might ‘get drunk and have a séance with Modigliani’, which results in anxious murmurs before she reassures us that she’s ‘only joking’.
We begin with a cocktail infused with the scents of Provence and garnished with lavender. Modi, as he was known, went and stayed in the region in 1918, partly for his health and partly to escape the bombs falling on the French capital.
Accompanying canapés represent feast (caviar) and famine (tuna fish pâté). The artist’s financial state was precarious. In his lifetime, his paintings did not command anything like the sums they do now.
The table is set like a Dutch still life with glossy fruits, an abundance of silverware and mismatched glasses. Candles drip wax down silver sticks, while purple hydrangeas, pomegranates, walnuts and vines of tomatoes make a decadent scene. The menu, Monia tells us, was inspired by the artist’s favourite local restaurant, Chez Rosalie. A black and white picture of Rosalie herself shows a stern-looking woman who would surely have kept Modi firmly in check. Coq au vin arrives alongside the delicious cauliflower. The cauliflower is Nicolas’s speciality and he soaks it in almond milk for hours before cooking then charring it.
This is the sort of mythical restaurant I dream of, only in someone’s home. My expectations of meals abroad are unrealistically exacting. Dinner must be authentic, locally sourced (but not self-consciously so), popular among locals, with a limited menu and not a bit of it in English. We’ve struck gold here. Nicolas is the real deal (he also has a street-food restaurant, Zarma Kebap, in Pigalle). There is only a slight awkwardness when I feel perhaps we should be on our way. Normally, you’d ask for the bill, but no — now we’re on the absinthe. Illegal, apparently, and in a brown medicine bottle. It is nothing like the awful stuff knocked back at university. It’s fresh, clean and peppery. They’ve even made fortune cookies containing quotes by Modigliani. One reads: ‘When I know your soul, I will paint your eyes.’
Modigliani opens at Tate Modern on 23 November (tate.org.uk).