In San Francisco, savoring a slice of heaven on France’s Cote d’Azur

September 20, 2011 — I’m sitting on the sun-washed terrace of La Terrasse restaurant in San Francisco‘s gorgeous green Presidio. It’s a spectacular Indian summer day, with the rays warming my bones and the bay sparkling in the distance under a cerulean sky. All around me, California Mission-style buildings – pale yellow walls, curving arches, terra-cotta roof tiles – shine.

I’ve been eating escargots and poulet roti avec pommes frites, and sipping a crisp Loire Valley Sancerre, celebrating because in a week I’ll be in la belle France, exploring the regions of Burgundy and Champagne. Moments ago I was poring over the itinerary, giddy at the prospect of traveling once again in the country that changed my life decades ago. Suddenly this combination – the frisson of anticipation, the dejeuner francais, and the sun, roof tiles and glinting waters beyond — concocted a terraced time machine-magic, and I was transported to a sunny scene 18 summers before, and a time-stopping, life-enlarging afternoon at the singular – and to my mind, sacred – restaurant called La Colombe d’Or, in St.-Paul-de-Vence, on France‘s Cote d’Azur….

I am ensconced under a white parasol at a red bouquet-brightened table, looking out on a somnolent scene of green hills and straw-colored houses with terra-cotta roofs.

I have just finished a plate of green melon and jambon de Parme, and now the waiter has placed before me with a flourish a platter of grilled sea bream, known locally as daurade.

Around me is a symphony of sounds: the clink of silverware on china, the splash of wine into glasses, the mellifluous laughter and multilingual chatter of diners in summery clothes.

We are all caught up in a buoyant bubble of bonte and bonhomie — a celebration of life’s bounty and of our own good fortune to be sharing it on this sun-dappled summer terrace in the middle of one of the most blessed places on Earth.

Little slices of lemon float in the pitcher of water on my table, and as I take another sip of wine and contemplate the still life — “”Daurade with green beans and rice” — before me, I feel a little like floating, too.

To my left is a vibrant Leger mural, wrought into a section of the terrace’s streetside wall. And straight ahead are the rustic interior rooms of this celebrated hotel-restaurant, where I wandered a half hour ago in search of a restroom and instead found an astonishment of modern masterpieces — canvases by Modigliani, Bonnard, Dufy, Utrillo, Chagall, Picasso, Braque, Matisse and Miro, among others, all given by the artists when they were still struggling unknowns to the generous and perspicacious owner, Paul Roux, in lieu of payment.

This place is an enchanted little world, I think — reluctant to take fork to fish, reluctant even to move, wanting to hold and savor this moment forever.

Awaiting me, I know, is a medieval meander through St.-Paul; an espresso at the Cafe de la Place, where I will watch local gentlemen enact their afternoon rite of boules; and then the piney Fondation Maeght, with its incomparable open-air display of modern art.

But for now the world is wondrously reduced to this: the sunlight catching in the canopy of branches above and blessing the hills beyond, the murmuring music of the diners behind me, the perfume of the flowers mingling with the scents of the chef’s seasonings, the exuberant atmosphere of artwork all around, the cobbled stones beneath me, the fish and bread before me, the wine as red as the flowers, the tablecloth as white as the parasol; an ineffable moment of ease and artfulness, a soul-fulfilling scene of life lived to the full — the whole afternoon floating like a lemon in a pitcher of Evian, a little slice of heaven on the Cote d’Azur.

[flickr image via Wolfgang Staudt]