France is in the midst of the greatest era of culinary innovation of this century and the spirit within the cooking profession is high. The customer who extends him or herself somewhat, who is willing to seek advice and follow it, will partake of some remarkable meals.
Inevitably, however, disappointments occur to mar the flawless portraits of restaurants that overromantic writers and magazines tend to draw. (On a recent trip they included the surprise of finding a label still affixed to a lemon section at the three-star Grand Vefour in Paris to the more serious offenses to salty, overaged Brie cheese and leather-tough steaks.) Cheap prices are gone, seemingly forever. But the value for money is still there, especially if comparisons are drawn to expense-account French restaurants in Washington and other cities in this country. As much as ever before, France is a wonderful country in which to eat and drink.
Some reflections on restaurants I visited follow.
Alain Chapel lives and works in Mionnay, an agricultural community of 369 persons. It is only 12 miles from Lyons, but so distinct is the contrast that the distance allows for considerable detachment. Thus Chapel, the most philosophic of the great chefs, feels no need to destroy or negate the past to justify his stunning innovations.
The meal he prepared one evening illustrated perfectly the range of his talents. It began with his version of the cuisine nouvelle salad, a fascinating and luxurious mixture of lobster, crayfish tails, squab breast, truffle, three varieties of lettuce, mushrooms, bits of pickle and a forceful oil-based sauce thickened with lobster bits and tomalley. Next came a classic dish of the region updated by the chef: A gateau or pudding of livers from prize Bresse chickens, with a texture somewhere between the foam on a wave and a cloud, in a sauce made from the purest butter. Next, to fashion a harmonious whole, something devastatingly simple and sauceless: the greatest game bird, the becasse (woodcock), was presented with feathers still on, then plucked and roasted in a cocotte with bits of bacon. A small portion of wild mushrooms and chive-laced potato cakes accompanied the birds.
Chapel's cheeses and a portion of his desserts presentation come on specially designed silver platters of a size that two waiters must work in tandem to transport them. At meal's end, one is asked to choose among five alternative coffee selections.
Later that evening Chapel answered our questions about his menu and his craft, then invited his guests to share a bottle of Roderer Crystal champagne. It was his 39th birthday. He turned the talk to the life and accomplishments of Andre Malraux.
Chapel and his colleagues are unamimous in endorsing the talent of a Swiss chef named Alfred (Freddy) Girardet. The Guide Gault and Millau agrees, but for reasons of its own the Guide Michelin does not publish a Swiss edition. Therefore Girardet's Restaurant de l'Hotel de Ville in Crissier, a tiny town posed above Lausanne, has no stars. Nonetheless it is almost certain to be one of the dozen or so foremost restaurants in Europe for some years to come.
Once the coffee shop in the town's city hall, the restaurant is a modern gem. Sleek, clean and handsome, seating 80, it has a dining room staff of 11 and an equal number in the kitchen. Both function with the effectiveness of well-coached teams. The chef, a handsome man in his early 40s who wears a halo fashioned from confidence and dignity, gives the impression of being in both places at once.
He chooses to work at the fish station of a stainless steel kitchen that is unlike any other I have visited. There are small refrigeration spaces at each station, storage for warming or chilling plates is ingeniously situated. There are no walk-in ice boxes, no freezer. There is on stock pot.
Girardet begins virtually from scratch for the single sitting of lunch and dinner he offers Tuesday through Saturday. He, too, declares the quality of raw materials counts above all else, yet worries how fame and a clientel accustomed to luxury can affect the instincts of a chef and his style of making food. With a smile, he said he is holding an ice pack to his head to keep it from swelling and thus to protect his pristine cuisine. Nonetheless, the price he must charge to cook his way - a fixed menu dinner is $50 per person with champagne aperitif but without wines - makes him dependent on the carriage trade.
On a snowy evening he ignited the appetite by serving a small slice of mellow onion tart, then presented a poetic still life of salad (green beans, sauted duck liver tidbits, crawfish tails, mushrooms and artichokes, dressed with walnut oil). The next arrival was a small silver casserole containing a generous amount of truffle slices mixed with cardoons (vegetables with some of the strong flavor of artichokes and a texture skin to celery) in a severely reduced broth that had been laced with port and madeira. Once the cover was lifted, the aroma came on more swiftly than a left jab. The taste - crisp at the bite, then voluptuous an expansive on the tongue - followed like a right hook.
Not content with the combination, Girardet briefly bathed scallops, langustines and oysters in a broth that began with oyster liqueur and vegetables and eventually came to contain some butter and a spoonful of creme fraiche . The dish was topped with a gentle sprinkling of caviar, a conceit of genius. What followed were thin slices of duck breast, carved at table side, with a gentle sauce lacquered atop each in a delicate, almost Chinese, fashion. The vegetables wore drab winter names: Brussels sprouts, spinach, potato, onions, but radiated sunshine and flavor. The new chefs revere vegetables and refuse to treat them as merely the anonymous base for stocks and sauces. They appear on stage with the fish and meats they flavor; as garniture they are offered as individual jewels, not carelessly arranged plate filiers.
Here, as elsewhere, no one added salt and pepper at the table; not out of reverence, but because the preparations were so complete as presented that any addition would have been an intrusion. You just didn't think about it.
There was a selection of fine Swiss cheeses, naturally enough, and Girardet concluded his performance by serving the lightest souffle in history, a trick akin to finishing the Minute Waltz in five seconds. The flavor was peach, the sauce was a reduction of the peach juices. It contained absolutely no flour and still floats in my brain.
The chef followed his souffle to the table then excused himself. The restaurant was closed the next day and he was eager to join his wife and children in a skiing expedition. Earlier he had asked if he might present a selection of Swiss wines to accompany the meal. We were, after all, in Switzerland. "Bravo, Freddy!" exclaimed an elderly fellow at the next table. He turned out to be the local postmaster, a man who soon let the foreign visitors know how proud he was of Cressier, the Girardet family and Switzerland. He talked at length while an embarassed youngster, his nephew, tried to lead him away. But at meal's end, one could only echo his toast: "Bravo, Freddy!"
Al Illhausern in Alsace, at the Auberge de I'lll, the brothers Paul and Jean-Pierre Haeberlin continue one of the two most successful tandem acts in the field (the other being the Triosgros brothers in Roanne). Paul, the cook, is large, shy and quiet. His brother, small and lively as a leprechaun, is an artist and attentive host. His paintings are on the walls of the restaurant, where the cooking is as unassertive, delicate and harmonious as the famous riverside garden visable through large windows.
At one time the town - almost on the banks of the Rhine - flooded so often there was a local joke that the cooks of Illhausern caught the fish they cooked in their ovens. A Postwar canal and flood control have changed all that and the restaurant not only is dry today, but is well-situated to draw customers from Germany and Belgium.
Yet Jean-Pierre Haeberlin said it is a loyal local clientel that insures full houses throughout the year. He woos them with "reasonable" prices and contends other provincial three-stars don't do as well consistently because their luxury prices have alienated neighbors, leaving them dependent on the seasonal migrations of tourists. Nor are the wines of Alsace, featured here in impressive profusion, nearly as expensive as the Burgundies and Bordeaux that dominate wine lists elsewhere. Even at the top levels of gastronomy, he feels, people apply the test of value for money.
(A dining tip: To sample a wide range of Chef Haeberlin's creations, which include a whole truffle in pastry, souffled salmon trout, a mousse of frogs' legs, foie gras in brioche, one may ask when making a reservation to eat the "hors d'oeuvres." You will be served a succession of small portions rather than ordering from the standard menu.)
At Paul Bocuse, the touches of royalty, in this case culinary royalty, lie heavy on the restaurant near the edge of the Saone River just north of Lyons. There are large fireplaces, an heroic portrait of hte chef in battle garb; the initial "B" is almost everywhere.
Now 50, the acknowledged leader of the chefs' band - and holder of the Legion of Honor for his promotion of French cuisine - has surrounded himself with an electric selection of rich fabrics and decorations. Seemingly inattentive or distracted in the dining room, he misses nothing. He invades the kitchen from time to time, but no longer works at the range. Roger Jaloux, who sharpened his talents as a young appretice at Bocuse before going elsewhere to work, has returned as chef de cuisine and is reported to have eliminated the inconsistencies that caused gastronomic tongues to wag when Bocuse would go on one of his frequent trips abroad.
It was for Bocuse, who has never let nouvelle cuisine publicity cause him to foreswear the butter, eggs and cream so essential to Lyonnaise cuisine, to trump his younger colleagues by serving the lightest, best-balanced meal of the tour. It was a special menu for Christmas and New Year's celebrants and consisted of artfully restrained portions of:
Michel Guerard's scrambled eggs served in the shell with a topping of caviar (the caviar was applied with bold hand characteristic of Bocuse); a slice of fresh foie gras sauteed with chervil; a truffled breast of Bresse chicken cooked with a syrupy yet graceful sauce exquisitely infused with the flavor of leeks; a "salad" of crawfish tails that turned out to be a crawfish in a chilled broth that had been given an Oriental twist with the addition of fragrant spices and vinegar. It cleared the palate marvelously. There followed cheeses, including a near perfect Saint - Marcellin, the favored cheese of Fernand Point, and a dessert plate that was superb in design and taste. Three ice creams - pistachio, pear and raspberry - were surrounded by slices or pieces of eight fruits. A puree of raspberry sauce was offered as were slices of the monumental, hat-shaped chocolate layer cake known as a "chapeau."
Meals needn't be so elaborately structured to be memorable. At Tournus, near the ancient abbey of Cluny, the restaurant Greuze offerd a tourist menu (at $14) that was irresistible. It began with a firm, carefully-flavored pate constructed around chicken livers. Even the aspic had character. The next plates to appear contained fricassee of chicken. Enough has been written elsewhere about the succulence and flavor of free-roaming Bresse chickens, though perhaps not enough has been written about what uncaring chefs can do to destroy those qualities. The famous, long-cooked Burgundian dish coq au vin doesn't lend itself to young chickens. The fricassee sauce at Greuze, golden and delicate, complemented the flavor of the chicken instead of dominating it. Cheeses were offered and, to conclude, tastes of a tart, gently alcoholic sorbet and a caramel-laced, puffy snow egg.
(Picking and choosing from cheese and dessert trays in restaurants in France is a time-consuming process that might be considered an aide to the digestion if, after study, one were strong-willed enough to say "no." Instead, obliging waiters usually solve dilemmas of choice by serving a sampling of both the desired objects.)
Greuze, named for the painter, is adjacent to a splendid Romanesque abbey church. Both are models of their gender. The chef and owner of Greuze is Jean Ducloux, another larger-than-life cook. Ducloux's large kitchen is exposed to diners as they pass from a reception room through a passage to the two dining areas. The walls are stone and tastefully decorated. Working fireplaces dominate each room. Service is willingly and skillfully given. Why it has only one star in the Guide Michelin is another restaurant-rating mystery.
Another memorable menu was suggested at a restaurant where the two-star rating is not the least in doubt.
Chef Pierre Gaernter was a talented pupil of Fernand Point. Instead of taking the path of experimentation of celebrity, as have the Point graduates grouped around Bocuse, Gaertner stalwartly combines the style of the master with the rich native products of Alsace. He Aux Armes de France in Ammerschwihr is not at all smart - armor breastplates and other passe knickknacks fill the walls. The rooms are large and with high ceilings. But the place is so comfortable, so relaxing.
We began with a slice of foie gras, its buttery richness punctuated with a daring dosage of pepper. Next came a half-portion of a dream combination: moist fillets of sole on a bed of fresh noodles, the two bound together with a magnificent sauce that is itself a union of fish poaching liquid, hollandaise, cream and spices. (At the next seat, a puff pastry box enclosing a plentitude of snails was being devoured with unapologetic enthusiasm.) Duck, rare-cooked, and resting on a brown sauce notable for its clarity and depth of flavor, appeared in its turn.
Enough? Not really. For dessert there we liqueur-scented orange sections resting in an oblong bath of custard cream and the famous marjorlaine of Poins mmajorlaine of Point, a hazlenut-and chocolate-flavored layer cake, arguably the greatest cake of all.
Too much? Yes. But even in retrospect I would delete nothing.
The food is traditional and rich at another two-star, des Vannes in Liverdun, north of Nancy. The restaurant overlooks the Moselle River from a cliff, is appproached through a 15th-century tower gate after dark. The colors are dark and faded; the place was made for candlelight. There are a few rooms upstairs, so one can remain overnight.
Various members of the family Simulac command the kitchen and dinning room. They served, among other specialities: a tender, mildly salted ham they cure themselves, mousseline of pheasant and stuffed local perch in puff pastry. Dessert included a wonderfully adorned peach. Here four persons each were served samples of four different cheeses. The 16 selections were representative, but by no means constituted the entiere cheese offering.
Sometimes a single dish makes a restaurant worthwhile. The house choucroutes at the Old Customs House in Strasburg and at the historic Maison des Tetes in Colmar represented a fascinating contrast. The former was rich with broth and strong; the latter, more delicate, gave off the perfume of wine. A naturally sweet onion tart was all that was needed before a half-portion of the Strasbourg dish, while snails prepared in the Alsace fashion (with bouillon but without garlic) preceded the Colmar choucroute.
This tour began with cafe au lait and a croissant in a Paris bar across from a lively street market, a perfect culinary bon jour. The final meal was oysters (priced at $1.10 each), tough steak and acid Beaujolais in a modern Lyons cafe called Le Savoy. It was a discouraging denouement. But the medicore efforts of the cooks of TWA and the unpleasant taste of water and bread in Washington soon provided a frame of reference.I'll go back.