A LOT IS being said and written these days about chef Alain Senderens, whose tiny 10-table Paris restaurant, L'Archestrate, joined the exalted ranks of France's three-star restaurants just a year ago. At 39, Senderens - bright eyed and bearded like a Cossack cavalry officer - may well be the most arrogant, most expensive, and most obstinately immune to criticism of all chefs in the history of the Michelin rating system.
Even when Senderens had only two stars, it cost about $50 a perseon to eat his dinner. Now the price is up to somewhere between $80 and $100 a person. An even at those prices - such is the calculated snobbism of L'Archestrate - the average diner is made to feel lucky to be inside the front door.
It was reported recently that two New York diners, confused by the very fancy names on the menu, had inadvertently chosen two orange-sauce dishes in sequence, and neither the captain nor the maitre d'bothered to warn them of their mistake. Another complaint from a diner was that when she ordered a specialite de la maison with a long and obscure menu title, what she got was a perfectly simple and straightforward, well known Chinese dish.
Senderens' attitude was quite different of course, in 1968, when he arrived in Paris from his home town of Lourdes and opened his first, tiny six-table bistro on a narrow, slightly sleazy street on the Left Bank. Some British friends working in Paris took me to this new little place they had discovered. We found Senderens, his bistro completely empty, disconsolately leaning against the post of his front door.
Talking to him that evening, I soon learned that the name of his place was the clue to his philosophy. Archestratus was a Greek gourmet born in the fourth century B.C. who spent most of his life eating his way around the Mediterranean and writing poems about food and the pleasures of the table.
Senderens was smart enough to know that, if he were to make his way in Paris, he must develop a running publicity theme for himself. His first theme, phase one of his career, was to resurrect and present to his customers ancient recipes from Greece and Rome. It was relatively easy, and he carried it through extremely well. It also got him a lot of publicity.
When his original theme of ancient recipes lost its news value, Senderens switched to phase two of his career - he began adapting and invention modern recipes. Perhaps because of the strains of creation (and the rather meager publicity given these new recipes), his second phase was quite short-lived and he switched to phase three, which might be called his Michel Guerard period.
Senderens has to lose some weight and, presto, he discovered the marvelous advantages of la nouvelle cuisine and la cusine minceur. Any journalist who interviews Senderens these days receives a lengthy lecture, in a thick southern French accent, on the life-giving properties of natural foods, on the glories of light eating and the deathly dangers of butter and cream.
Frankly, I still prefer Senderens' ancient recipes brought brilliantly up to date. On afternoon at his tiny distro on the narrow street, he invited me into the kitchen (he allows no outsider in his kitchen today!) and I sniffed at once a quite-marvelous bouquet coming from a large stewpot simmering on the stove. Naturally, I stuck in the tip on my finger and had a quick taste. It was a sweet-sour flavor - perhaps of Chinese, Middle-Eastern, or North African influence?
No, Senderens said, it was a recipe he was working out from ancient Rome. It might have come straight from the table of Julius Caesar. He refused to give me the recipe at once because he wanted publicity on it first in Paris and had promised it to the French gastronomic writing team, Henri Gault and Christian Mullau. Those excellent and cooperative journalists, after they had worked it out for their purposes, passed it along. I consider it one of the finest ways of preparing pork and have served it with great success at many parties.
The whole thing is really quite simple, except that you must marinate the fruits overnight and must obtain in advance, one way or another, a quart of good veal stock. If you decide to prepare it yourself the day before, use the standard recipe from any basic cookbook. It's simply a matter of putting together in a soup kettle, with the right amount of water, some lean meat, bones (including a knuckle for its gelatin) with aromatic herbs and vegetables, then simmering everything, entirely unsupervised, for 3 hours - or for 1 hour in a pressure cooker. Another way (the lazy alternative) is to charm the chef of your local French Restuarant and persuade him to give or sell you a quart.
Armed with your veal stock and your marinated fruits, you will have no difficulty in producing your own dramatic version of this great dish of a three-star French chef. It will be like nothing you have ever tasted before.
PORK IN THE STYLE OF ANCIENT ROME
(4 to 6 servings) 24 dried apricot halves 3/4 cup seedless raisins 3/4 cup red wine 2 tablespoons honey 1 tablespoon chopped fresh dill, or 1 teaspoon dried 1 tablespoon coarsely chopped fresh mint leaves or 1 teaspoon dried 1 teaspoon whole cumin seeds 1 teaspoon coarsely cracked black pepper 1 quart good veal stock (see note in story above) Up to 1/3 cup olive oil 3 pounds entirely boneless and lean fresh pork, cut into 1 1/2 inch cubes Up to 1 cup fine-quality wine vinegar 4 shallots, peeled and finely minced Up to 1 cup dry white wine 1/4 cup chopped fresh thyme leaves, or 2 teaspoons dried 1 whole bay leaf Salt, to taste.
Act I-Day 1: Marinating the fruits
Put the 24 apricot halves into a lidded bowl or storage jar and cover them about an inch deep with warm water. Allow room for them to expand as they absorb the water soften over-night at room temperature. In exactly the same way, in a second bowl or jar, marinate the raisins in the red wine, adding and stirring in the honey, dill, mint, cumin seed, and cracked pepper. Overnight, at room temperature, the raisins will absorb a good part of the wine. Also, on this day you should prepare, beg, or buy your quart of good, rich, well-flavored veal stock.
Act II-Day 2: Assembling and simmering
Place a saute pan over fairly high frying heat and lubricate its bottom with about 3 tablespoons of the olive oil-adding more, as needed, as the sauteing proceeds. When the oil is good and hot, but certainly not smoking, put in as many cubes of pork as will go in without over-crowding. You must have room to turn them over and lightly gild them on all sides.
Have the large soup kettle standing near and, as each pork cube is done, lift it with a slotted spoon, let it drip-drain for a moment or two, then place it on the bottom of the big pot. When the saute pan has finished its work, pour off and discard its excess oil and pour vinegar into it. Boil it hard while firmly scraping the bottom of the saute pan with a wooden spatula to deglaze it. Continue the hard boiling until the vinegar is reduced almost to a sticky paste across the bottom of the pan.
At this point, at once throw in the minced shallots and saute them, almost dry, stirring continuously, but carefully avoiding any burning of the shallots by turning the heat down. They should be softened and fully incorporated into the vinegar paste within 3 or 4 minutes.
Now begin working into this paste, still stirring continuously, beginning with small doses and then increasing them, 3 1/2 cups of the veal stock, until everthing is completely amalgamated. Next, pour the liquid mixture over the pork in the big soup kettle. The cubes should be just covered. If not, add a bit more veal stock. If that is not enough or if there is evaporation during the later cooking, begin adding, tablespoon by tablespoon, some of the white wine.
Strain the apricot halves from their socking water and add them to the pork. Also add the raisins, with any of their remaining red wine marinade, and all the herbs and spices that were included. Now turn on the heat under the soup kettle and bring it, uncovered, up to the point of gentle simmering. Stir in the parsley, the thyme and the bay leaf (left whole, so that it can be removed and discarded before serving). Whether you add salt now or wait until the end of the cooking depends on the saltiness of your veal stock.
When everthing is in, cover the soup kettle and keep the heat strictly under control so that it all remains at the genlest simmering. Keep the lid on tightly, but check the simmmering liquid every 20 minutes or so.You will usually find that you have to keep turning the heat down.
If the bouilon bubbles too hard, steam will escape, the level of the liquid will fall and you will have to top it up with extra wine to deep the pork covered. If it stays very gentle, you will lose none of the bouillon.
Keep it all going for about an hour, then check the state of the pork. It should be soft, still slightly chewy, not at all stringy, not the slightest bit overcooked. With top-quality meat, my experience is that 1 hour is enough. With tough meat, you may have to go up to 1 1/2 hours.
Act III-Day 2: Final adjustments and serving
When the cooking job is done and your kitchen is filled with the marvelous aromas of this dish, taste it for the final adjustment of the flavorings. There should be the lightest sweetness of honey and this should be balanced by a subtle touch of vinegar. If necessary, to establish this essentilal sweet-sour balance, add and stir in a dash or two more vinegar. Check the salt and adjust, as needed. If and when you find the bay leaf, throw it out.
There is meant to be a good deal of liquid and this dish should be served as a stew, either in wide soup plates or in open soup bowls. It is good to bring each serving around with boiled rice to absorb and carry the sauce. The final result is a magnificent dish with exotic and memorable tastes and textures.
Menu notes: This dish is so rich and absorbing that it really has to be the first dish to be served when the dinners sit down at the table. There might well be an aperitif before coming to table, offered to the guests as they arrive, perhaps accompanied by a very simple canape: small rounds of toast spread with a chicken liver pate or small wedges of an uncompicated quiche.
Because the pork is a very strong dish, you need forcefull young red wine, but light enough so that it can be slightly cooled. My best success has been with a California Napa Valley red gamay, served at about 55 degrees. CAPTION: Illustration, no caption, Illustration by John Pack for The Washington Post