A FRENCH reconnaissance team sneaked into town recently to mount a campaign that won't be felt for another two years, but we'll hear the first volleys in October. Gault Millau Guide, the bright, witty, talkative and influential French restaurant critique, which co-author Christian Millau modestly dubbed France's "first restaurant guidebook with something to read in the 20th century," is spreading 'round the world. In October the duo will publish the first four English-language versions of its guidebooks--of Paris, the whole of France, London and New York--to sell from $12 to $14 in paperback, $20 to $23 in hard cover, and to include snack places, nightlife, hotels, shops and sights as well as restaurants. After that the pace will continue at four books a year: Los Angeles, Hong Kong and Scandinavia will be included in 1983, and Washington will be added in 1984.
It was Christian Millau's first trip to Washington, which didn't stop him from having strong opinions on Washington restaurants or from having already chosen those to honor at a dinner in Washington Oct. 19. The restaurants were chosen by the "considered opinion of the experts," explained the team's public relations person, Bill Primavera, who added, "They're really not even judgments. He Millau is not awarding them, he's celebrating them."
Millau spoke for himself as he poked at pigeon with wild mushrooms at Le Lion d'Or (one of four restaurants he chose to try on this first trip--among the others was Clyde's at Tysons Corner), insisting that in the restaurant trade and media, opinions on which are the best restaurants are "in most cities consistent." Washington included. Before this visit the team had consulted a White House photographer, two restaurant critics, three graduates of the Culinary Institute of America and another friend. Millau's partner, Henri Gault, had also been to Washington once, and had eaten at Sans Souci and Jean-Louis.
But critiquing for the books is another matter. As with all Gault-Millau guides, evaluations will be done by a secret team of critics including journalists and well-known gastronomes, Millau said, and the two principal authors will then visit the top restaurants several times in order to award the final points--a possible 20, but none, even in France, has ever been given over 19. Top restaurants are awarded four toques (19-20 points), three toques (17-18), two toques (15-16) or one toque (13-14). Millau said he dines out about 400 times a year, and expects to have visited 60 to 90 restaurants several times for the New York book alone. The mathematics began to get out of hand.
Gault Millau did publish a New York guide in 1981, in French, in which Four Seasons and Lutece won three toques, and 10 restaurants were awarded two. While the ratings in the forthcoming guide are "a secret," Millau let it slip during lunch that four New York restaurants will receive three toques: Four Seasons, Lutece, the Quilted Giraffe, and Cellar in the Sky in the World Trade Center. The River Cafe was up there but has been demoted a toque. (The restaurant's owner-chef Larry Forgione later said that Millau has been there a dozen times in the past year, and by now calls to make reservations in his own name and brings his family and friends to dine.) Millau also volunteered that he is very fond of Manhattan's La Tulipe, and waxed enthusiastic about the American Harvest in the Vista hotel. But a steakhouse like the Palm could never get a top rating. "There is nothing to say about it," explained Millau. "There is nothing special. You can't compare a good steak to Michel Gue rard's cooking." Restaurants in America, he added, are more changeable than in France, and some that he once held in high esteem later disappointed him.
As for any differing opinions between Gault and Millau as they bestow toques, "We never disagree," claimed Millau. "Oh, well, sometimes," he amended.
What is most surprising about Gault Millau's top New York ratings is that three of the four are American rather than French, representatives of what Millau calls The New American Tradition. Why is he so interested in American cuisine? Always the pragmatist, Millau answered, "Because we are publishing books."
In town recently as a prize rather than to award prizes was Philippe Broussard, this year's winner of France's coveted Prix Culinaire International Pierre Taittinger. The contest of young chefs began with regional competitions entered by 200 chefs from around the world, and culminated in the cooking, at the hotel Concorde-Lafayette in Paris, of a veal Orloff by each of the eight finalists. The winner was invited on a tour of New York and Washington to be hosted and toasted by French chefs in America. In Washington Rive Gauche served Broussard wild mushroom soup under a pastry dome, crayfish, lamb seasoned with thyme flowers and garnished with tiny raviolis filled with sweetbreads, as well as peeled and cooked cherry tomatoes stuffed with sage--and so forth until a finale of an 1893 armagnac.
What made Broussard's entry stand out in the crowd of finalists, he suggested, was his having brought along a blowtorch to glaze the finished veal Orloff. But obviously Broussard is a consummate problem solver, being executive chef for eight Parisian restaurants, four of them a chain called L'Assiette au Boeuf and four called Bistro de la Gare, with another about to open. Some of the eight serve as many as 5,000 meals a day, and Broussard said the group of restaurants annually grosses $64 million. So much for the decline in the French restaurant business.
In summer an advertiser's fancy turns to thirst-quenchers, and at least two of them are about to float campaigns tied in with the big summer refresher of a movie, Annie. We must confess a certain shimmer of excitement for the Ovaltine tie-in, those of us who grew up drinking the stuff from plastic shaker mugs and waiting by the mailbox for our Ovaltine decoder rings decades ago. (And nourished ourselves on Ovaltine crystals lazily licked from a spoon when our mothers weren't looking.) But the second campaign, for a doggie soft drink called Arf 'n' Arf, leaves us shriveled with the ridiculousness of it all; who among us has a canine that remembers Little Orphan Annie or feels any kinship with her hollow-eyed dog Sandy? The food show biz is bound to get worse as the summer simmers on.
Speaking of beverages, we were immobilized when a couple of envelopes of Wonder Wine Mix crossed our desk. Just add sugar and water and let ferment for four weeks. We still hadn't worked up the enthusiasm to try a batch, when Jean-Michel Cazes, proprietor of Bordeaux's Chateau Lynch-Bages, dropped by our office. Once he caught sight of the envelopes he couldn't resist hamming it up with the instant wine. He shuddered and grimaced and read the label (dried grape must, yeast, malic acid, sodium citrate, dibasic ammonium phosphate, artificial flavor, calcium carbonate, lecithin, artificial color). With a great whoop of laughter, he poked his companions in the ribs and cracked, "Hey, exactly the same as ours!"
We never thought of whipped cream as a Chinese specialty. But one day we were crowded into a kitchen during a party, trying to beat some not-cold-enough ultra-pasteurized cream with a too-small whisk--a hopeless task, especially on a warm day. One of the other guests, Annie Stone, originally from Taiwan, volunteered to rescue us with chopsticks. Beating cream with chopsticks? Even tougher than using a fork, we thought. But Stone grabbed five chopsticks in one hand, fanning them out and instructing, "Use as many as you can hold," then whisked away. She also uses chopsticks for beating egg whites. It confirmed that all any kitchen in the world really needs is a wok, a cleaver and a bunch of chopsticks.
As she frothed the cream, Stone dictated her favorite summertime recipe:
ANNIE STONE'S CUCUMBER SALAD (4 to 6 servings) 3 cucumbers, either peeled or unpeeled 2 tablespoons vinegar 2 tablespoons sugar 4 tablespoons Chinese sesame oil 10 to 12 whole Szechuan peppercorns
Cut cucumbers into thin 1-inch-long strips and set aside. Combine vinegar, sugar, sesame oil and peppercorns in a saucepan (or wok), bring to a boil and stir for one minute or until sugar is dissolved. Add cucumbers to the pan and cook 3 to 4 minutes. Let cool, then refrigerate. Serve cold.
It should surprise noone that California is the number one state in per capita cheese consumption, or in the consumption of alcoholic beverages. What do you surround a hot tub party with, after all, but a wine and cheese party? What we wonder about is the fact that New York is the country's prime consumer of pickles. We haven't heard any rumors of a trend toward pickle parties.
Some people don't like to eat alone. Probably more don't like to travel alone. For all of the above there are food tours of Pennsylvania Dutch country and of Baltimore, arranged by Heritage Tours, Ltd. (3305 Macomb St. NW, D.C. 20008. 362-4367). On June 25, the 11 1/2-hour trip to Pennsylvania will cover visits to markets and lunch at a farm restaurant, then a visit to a vineyard and winery; the cost is $47. Baltimore's tour, 8 1/2 hours, costs $27, and includes visits to several markets, including the wholesale fish market and a pasta factory, Little Italy and Harborplace. Lunch is on your own, but the tour promises some tasting included in the price. And ice chests are provided on the buses to hold your perishable purchases until you get home.