"MEAT SEIZED," scrawled the customs inspector as he whisked away the pheasant pate (with feather) that had served as my lunch on the flight from Paris to New York. My handbag reeked of Brillat-Savarin, a buttery cheese to which I had pledged lifelong loyalty. Under my arm (Parisian bread seems to require close body contact) was a four pound loaf of crackling bread from Poilane, embossed with my name and intertwined with golden doughy grapes and leaves. In my suitcase, Tanrade's strawberry syrup and grapefruit marmalade, tubes of anchovy paste and mustard, a plastic jar of creme fraiche, chocolates as expensive as a good silk blouse. The customs inspector threw up his hands at my discussion of the distillation of marc de gewurztraminer, which I only meant to be helpful in his decision whether to tax it as wine or spirits.
Sorry to eat and run, Paris.
DeGualle airport is like a time machine, removing all traces of past experience as it distributes you through conveyor belts and glass-walled tunnels as if you were small change delivered in pnuematic tube. Relentlessly you were guided through the futuristic maze, stopping only to buy a train ticket from a machine that makes Washington's Metrocards seems lucid. To bus, to train, to the Gare de l'Est, and the great gray city of Paris. If your brain hasn't been washed by then, it will never come clean.
My first taste of France bubbled from a champagne tasting glass. Noon, after twelve hours of nonstop travel. Through two hundred years' worth of caves at Moet & Chandon to watch the degorgement, to worry over the process of freezing the necks of the aged bottles so that the sediment can be pulled out like a cork, then the clean wine resealed. The Dom Perignon, as one might guess, is degorged by hand. It is serious business, the making of champagne, but tasteful little champagne games are played at lunch. We drink a still white wine, a still red Bouzy, a pink champagne, a crystal clear liqueur - marc de champagne. They are all variations on a champagne theme. I'll take mine white and bubbling.
Most startling trivia learned to date: England imports more French champagne than any other country. So much for British stiff upper lips.
Most useful lesson: When in wine country, eat snails, the natural companions of grapevines. At the Royal-Champagne restaurant in Champillon, the highlight was the snails in the filet de boeuf des vignerons.
In the grand restaurants of France, a meal is likely to carry you along the following path:
1. Canapes with the aperitif - tiny onion tarts, perhaps, or oyster canapes. The aperitif is likely to be pink raspberry liqueur with champagne, a kind of rich man's kir. In Lyon, an alternative might be beaujolais with cassis, know as a communard, a kind of working man's kir.
2. The hors d'oeuvre, if you hit France in the right season, will have foie gras or truffle or both somewhere in its composition. Maybe foie gras alone or in brioche. Truffles just lightly dressed with oil and vinegar. Or a salad combining truffles and foie gras with spaghetti-thin green beans and maybe some diced scallops. Or you might have oysters, a terrine of game or seafood, even a soup if you convince the waiter you are an invalid with a delicate stomach.
3. Next comes the fish course. The sea's the limit.
4. If you can carry on, the meat course follows.
5. You may think you've reached your capacity, but the very sight of a wicker tray laden with fifteen or twenty cheeses revives you - or challenges you. A taste of this, a morsel of that, maybe the smallest dollop of creme fraiche on fresh white cheese. Probably served with walnut bread.
6. A trolley is wheeled up, even two or three trolleys, each a double decker of pastries and sherbets and marinated fruits and custards. You've gone so far, it is too late to turn back. So you choose a gateau.And a sherbet. And a dish of fruit to lubricate them.
7.Coffee, a small cup of earthy black brew. And to wash it down, a tray of simple cookies - shaped like roof tiles and studded with almonds - and some thumbnail-size tarts and eclairs. Collapse. And a few chocolates to revive you.
Given that you have eaten the equivalent of three American meals, the bill is not too shocking - $60 a person at the top restaurants, if you have been modest in your wine selection and resisted before-and after-dinner drinks. Sometimes $75, maybe once in a while only $30 or $40. Most restaurants have a fixed-price menu available; at Bocuse in Lyon, for instance, it costs about $40 - plus drinks and tip. The fixed-price menu usually includes the house specialities, but it can be frustrating if two are dining and want to taste different dishes. The menus are usually as rigid as hospital medication schedules, and if you try to change your loup en croute for coquille St. Jacques you may be blundering into a la carte land, where an appetizer alone runs $6 to $15, the cheese adds $3.50, and dessert is $5 to $6. Belon oysters cost more than $1 each, and elaborate appetizers have cost up to $25.
While French restaurant prices shock the uninitiated, to an American visitor nearly everything seems expensive in France, from the flimsy $18 bottom-of-the-line umbrellas to the $50 toddlers' bathrobes. In such a context, restaurant prices do not seem out of line.
nor do prices seem out of line when one considers that a restaurant may have one staff member for every two diners, or when one contemplates the dozens of cheeses in perfect condition that are offered with the meal, or the vast choice of freshly made pastries. Food costs in top French restaurants soar well above the thirty-three to forty percent traditional in American restaurants. And a young chef-owner in a French haute cuisine restaurant does not expect to reap much profit for years to come.
The way around the dilemma of eating too much and paying too much is to share dishes. Two people can order a single fixed-price menu "a partager " (to share). And, instead of having to pass plates, American-style, you will be served the dishes already portioned for the two of you. You should pay additionally, however, for each cheese and dessert, since you will be served all you want to eat. The problem with this sharing method is that a restaurant's specialties are often served for a minimum of two people (another painful discrimination against the lone diner). In fact, the system requires vigilance and some ability to communicate in the French language, lest you wind up sharing two full dinners.
As expert as French restaurant service can be, so the mistreatment can be highly proficient. A tale of two women dining at Starbourg's Crocodile (two-stars; the Michelin Guide's top rating is three stars), high-ceilinged, skylit, lush with plants and polished dark wood: We languished between courses as other tables were paced with precision. We suffered a waiter's sneer when we asked questions. We lost a glass of wine to a waiter who removed it because it had cork in it. And we churned with irritation as the waiter scraped our plates at the table. A single menu split between the two of us, with a modest Alsatian riesling, $60. The foie gras and scallop salad, the equal confite "Brillat-Savarin," the gratin of cryfish turned sour in our memory as we lingered over our Lipton's teabags.
It was the last day before L'Auberge de I'lll in Illhausern, near Strasbourg (three stars), closed for vacation, and the sun shone through the picture windows to make the bustling room look like a grand picnic. Long table were filled with the family gatherings. Jean Pierre Haeberlin, who runs the dining room while brother Paul handles the kitchen, had to leave for a town meeting, he being the mayor. Over a salad of rich, moist chunks of rabbit with lightly sauteed foie gras, grainy truffle slices, artichokes, chicory and tiny green beans, we watched the Sunday afternoon promenade over the town bridge, the ducks and dogs and bike riders. The Haeberlin's salmon souffle is copied in Washington at L'Auberge Chez Francois, but the fine translation does not equal the original. The salmon barely flakes. The souffle topping is airy and sweety fish-scented. Its sauce, intensely creamy marbles as you eat it with the acid swirl of tomato puree. No frogs' legs today. We quenched our disappointment with the venison, its delicate rosy filets glistening in a dark sauce and studed with chanterelles, a fluted apple cup holding red lingonberries, the perfect tart foil for the sauce's richness. Cheese at L'Auberge de I'lll is rolled in on a silver and glass Christofle cart shaped like an iron lung. Inside, the muenster oozes, the goat cheeses emit an earthy, ashen fragrance. Among the desserts, all is delicacy, from the pistachio and champagne-perfumed poached peach with sabayon to the thinnest of tile cookies and tiniest fruity burst of appricot tarts. The final touch, glorious demitasse to stir with vermeil spoons.
Alsatian wineries are looking for American markets, as American markets should be looking for Alsatian wines. Light, fruity, drier than their German counterparts, Alsatian rieslings and gewurztraminers are still reasonably priced. And '79, which should be drunk in the next couple of years, was a vintage that brings sparks of joy to the eyes of an Alsatian. In Washington, Hugel is the name most frequently encountered, with Trimbach and Willm coming up next. In France, the Beyer label from Eguisheim was the Alsatian wine I saw most frequently on wine carts. Eguisheim is said to be the driest spot in France, therefore ideal for wine growing. Its wineries are small, and everything from the harvesting to the washing of bottles is done by hand or by machinery far simpler than a KitchenAid dishwasher. Eguisheim is the oldest of the villages along the wine trail south of Strasbourg to Colmar, and its wall and cobbled streets are totally intact, spiraling around the central church. Eguisheim is also said to have the best choucroute alsacienne, in a restaurant named Le Caveau. Make sure it is open before you make the trip. I didn't.
Eating French food in America has become a predictable round of onion soup, quenelles de brocher, pate de campagne, lobsters bisque, filet de boeuf rossini, entrecote au poivre, rack of lamb, chateaubriand, trout with almonds, salmon with hollandaise, salad of watercress with mushrooms and endive, and canned baby peas with Belgian carrots. Faddish, you may say, with no imagination. But haute cuisine in France, too, has its endless repetitions. You know you are in a temple of nouvelle cuisine if there are kiwi fruits on the dessert cart, particularly if accompanied by passion fruit and fresh pineapple. Warm foie gras and scallops tossed with crisp greens make a startlingly delicious salad the first time around. The tenth time, you may long for a change, even iceberg lettuce with Thousand Island dressing. Crisp green beans no thicker than pickup sticks are a delight, but one finds them everywhere: in the salad, in the oysters, on the fish. Like a secret handshake, the signs of nouvelle cuisine alert the initiated: truffles served raw as a salad; meats and seafoods playing on the same team, often with touches of fruit; the sting of vinegar in unexpected stage, or not cooked at all; duck served blood rare (which is said to be the only way you can eat the tough, dry duck that fattened for its liver); snow peas and yellow Delicious apples, familiar sights to American but exotica to the French; anything steamed; sauces light of texture and starchless; pale sauces flecked with the green of leek, which once went into the garbage pail. And, finally, dishes composed in the kitchen, which can mean that a work of art is placed before you or that an ungarnished blob is plunked on the table by a waiter rushing off to the next diner. What nouvelle cuisine does not add up to is a light meal that leaves you lively and refreshed and ready to eat by the time the next mealtime arrives.
Scratch a celebrated French chef and you will find Lyon somewhere in his past. While Paris lays before you a feast of architectural excitement, Lyon's glories are of the palate. The talk is of food, the streets are paved with food. You can hardly take a step without confronting a pastry shop, a street market, a storefront stacked with hams and sausages and rubbery white quenelles that look like obscene jokes of haute cuisine. The day of Lyon begins with the trucks clattering to market, and ends with the dishes being washed at a late-night bistro. Eavesdropping in Lyon makes you think that the chefs of Lyon are the city fathers, the movie stars, the mafia all rolled into one close-knit fraternity.
Although a fraternity it is (with a few admired sorority sisters gladly suffered but not openly consorted with), its intensity is religous. Fernand Point is the patron saint. Paul Bocuse the reigning Pope, with Alain Chapel and the Troisgros brothers its archbishops. The group has a life of its own, and to choose to remain outside it is heresy. A few years ago Pierre Orsi returned to Lyon after several years of cooking in American restaurant kitchens. As the other chefs tell it, they welcomed him into their group and filled his dining room with their friends. But Orsi is a loner and that is hard to tolerate. The chefs of Lyon go to market at 8 a.m., gathering afterwards for coffee and gossip. Orsi, however, goes to the market at 6 a.m. He goes so early, quip other chefs, that he gets yesterday's produce.
But Orsi is touted in America as a future three-star chef. And if ambition and talent are all it takes, Orsi is a good bet. His sharp features and nervous energy create a tension in his Lyon dining room as he darts back and forth greeting diners, sitting for a moment to wolf down a dish of pear sherbet. He was the only French chef I saw actually eat something, yet he never stopped moving. His restaurant is beige and golden, conservatively dressed but crowded enough to have two tables set in the entry hall. His waitresses wear what could pass for American country colonial costumes, and they serve with American ingenuousness rather than French formality. Throughout the menu are American touches - clams John Hancock, beef Wellington, wild rice, corn. Orsi breaks tradition from the begining - tiny boiled shrimp in the shell instead of canapes with the aperitif - to end - fresh whole oranges to peel and eat, along with a barely sweet kind of coffee-cake instead of the usual tiny tarts and eclairs with coffee. His chicken brochet tastes of Asian spices and cubes of green pepper; with it is a spectacular rice, lemony, buttery and studded with bits of young vegetable - strongly reminiscent of Middle Eastern pilaf with egg-lemon sauce. Orsi's fish mousse, so light one wonders how it holds its shape, and his haunting pear sherbet reconfirm the talent of which his American boosters speak.
In Paris one visits Notre Dame. In Lyon one makes a pilgimage to Restaurant de la Pyramide, a short train trip to Vienne. This is the kitchen that, under Fernand Point, served as the prep school for nearly half of France's most reknowned chefs. The startling thing about La Pyramide, for anyone who has read of this restaurant over the years, is that it looks exactly as one expects it too look, right down to the presentation of the mousse de foie en brioche on a long silver tray with a bouquet of flowers at one end. The garden stands bereft of furniture in winter, while inside the heavily textured pale gold walls are background to a garden of floral bouquets - huge bunches of roses and tulips echoed in the small bouquets on the serving trays and tables. At the entrance to La Pyramide's fabled kitched are handsomely etched smoked glass doors. Everything looks classic, even the sommelier, so comfortable in his decades of wine expertise that you are tempted to interview him rather than order from him.
Everything looks classic except the reservations list. At a Friday lunch not two dozen seats are filled.
A waft of cognac and the foie gras is served - none better on this trip, and none more grandly accompanied, with a salad of truffles and mache (lamb's-quarters, in English). Ordering a fish mousse was a mistake after experiencing Orsi's diaphanous version. But a golden-crusted cloud of sole souffle, larded with the occasional crunch of slivered truffles for a textural contrast and roundly seasoned with black pepper, upheld the restaurant's honor, even if a rib of beef with marrow was chewy, and sauced with no more distinction than the American steakhouse version.
When someone compiles a list of the most delicious dishes in France, I hope he will not forget the pommes de terre dauphinoises at La Pyramide, heavily creamed and lightly cheesed and melting on the tounge.
Although one cannot expect to resist a perfect brie or an entire tray of goat cheese, one must carefully prepare for dessert at La Pyramide. First come the pastries - Le Succes being a multilayered chocolate buttercream cake which is perhaps the single most famous dessert outside of Vienna's sachertorte, and deserving of its notoriety.The buttercream alone is worthy of serious study. Also comes a fruit tart - ours a bit soggy and overcaramelized, so we were relieved not to have to finish it. The waiter, wisely, will not let you pass up the sherbet, let you miss the softest, freshets, most distinctly strawberry flavor you might ever encounter outside of a whole fresh berry. Little cream puffs and macaroons and chocolate-glazed meringues - well, they are only one bite each. When the waiter stops at your table with a tray of brioche and pots de creme, you laugh or groan, depending on your nature, asserting that no single morsel could make it past your lips. He insists. You humor him. And one spoon of the vanilla custard commits you to finishing it.
As you leave, you wonder how long the walk would be to Lyon.
Nothing fully prepared us for Paul Bocuse's restaurant; it required a constant readjustment of myth.
Our reservation is for lunch, 1 p.m. Having dined too well and slept too little the night before, we felt it necessary to prepare for the experience with a long morning of rigorous exercise. We don't, however; we oversleep. We sleep so late that that we race out of our hotel for a taxi, not even bothering to find one that allows smoking. Self-denial would only make the experience more sweet.
If you stumbled unknowingly in Paul Bocuse's restaurant, you would think it was but a tourist trap. The signs along the way could be for Disneyland, the sign atop the restaurant for a highway motel. The taxi driver toots his horn, and a young man in a red uniform and cap, right out of a Philip Morris advertisement runs out to open the door. The maitre d'hotel reviews his reservations list to note that we did, indeed, reserve and were sent by a journalist friend of Bocuse. We are ushered to a large rpund table to wait for the third member of our party, Tom Zito, flying in from Italy for the occasion. Ah, but two women at the table means that when we ask to see menus, we are given menus without prices. We while away the time with mathematical guessing games. How much could they charge for foie gras?
There is plenty of time to view the scene. The scene disappoints. With high-backed chairs and carved-oak buffet, with the fabric on the walls a forest of red vases, the overall effect is a Grand Rapids vision of Gaul. A trip to the ladies' room takes us past the kitchen, its vast sweeps pf stainless steel seen through picture windows as the most beautiful of the rooms.
Several men are sharing the next table with a woman in a too-tight pantsuit; in America I would peg her as a bartender or bookkeeper. But she makes such peculiar noises. No, that is her tiny lap dog, and she isn't dropping her lunch into her lap, merely feeding her sweetums three-star tidbits from her plate. After awhile the dog must be full of truggles and pheasant, but yelps through the afternoon anyway. At another table, a couple looking bored and talking little, he in shirtsleeves. Where is French chic? Not at Bocuse that Tuesday afternoon.
M. Zito arrives, bustles in, is outfitted with a menu that shows prices; we confer.
You don't have to know what you want to eat at Bocuse; the waiter will tell you. First come cubes of scallops and shreds of vegetables in eggshells to eat with a tiny spoon and drunk with batons of toasted brioche. Foie gras if the season is tight, with a salad of those ubiquitous green beans and bits of mushroom. Bocuse's legendary truffle soup is presented in an individual terrine with a tall cap of golden pastry sealing it. Break it open and the smell invades the room. But, like the emperor's new clothes, it is but a few scant spoons of chicken broth with cubes of truffle and foie gras - salty, murky, too condensed. The loup en croute, however, lives up to expectations of velvety-fresh fish with every nuance captured and amplified by its airy mousse stuffing and fluff of pale pink sauce flecked with green.And the poularde de Bresse, steamed in a bladder and dotted under the skin with truffles, is a grandeur of simple flavors, suited rather than overwhelmed by its light beige sauce. But is it only Americans who would find the vegetable stuffing ludicrus - being a dead ringer for frozen mixed vegetables - or would it have tasted as soggy and bland without the TV dinner associations? The same vegetable dice shows up in sweetbreads with crayfish, a combination which tastes dull.
Bocuse serves superlative cheeses and chocolates and tiny pastries with the coffee. But the trolleys of desserts - kelly green pistachio ice cream that tastes like dime-store perfume, almond tart noticed only for its oversweetening, and a mountainous chocolate cake masked with spectacularly crafted chocolate shavings, plus the ripest pineapple west of Hawaii to save the array - don't offer too much excitement. We wish Bocuse would return so we could ask him how the pistachio ice cream got that Baskin-Robbins color.
Instead, the bill, presented, of course, to Monsieur. He, being a liberated American male, shares it with us. We decide that it is sufficiently high that we could be entitled to take home a copy of the menu. Such a request is obviously common, for we are presented not only with souvenir menus - in English (there is German, too, and heaven knows how many other languages) - and postcards of Bocuse as a cover boy for several major magazines. Even bumper stickers. I mean it, bumper stickers. I wish they hadn't told me.
Will success spoil Fredy Girardet? The p.r. snowball for Crissier, near Lausanne, gathered force as it rolled on to America, and last winter Girardet's restaurant hardly missed a mention in a major magazine. The small townhall restaurant was filled weeks - some say months - in advance, though Girardet himself claims that forty percent of his seats go empty at lunch. Besides everything else he does well, Girardet does a good job of acting modest, of not taking his publicity blitz too seiously, but viewing it more as an amusing circus act. He has not yet left his kitchen to travel the star route.
The effect of this chef's talent creeps up on you. The restaurant's two small rooms are simple and fresh, hardly grand. The menu design, too, is restrained. It is also restraining, requiring two people to share the most intriguing main dishes (canard nantais au vin de Brouilly, rable de lapin au basilic, carre d'agneau au thym et gousses d'ail). Even the fixed-price menu is for two. And then one must consider a certain restraint as a sane response to the prices. The fixed-price menu is about $45 a person; our broccoli terrine costs $14 a serving, the truffles with cardoons $25, the oyster appetizer $21. Single entrees can run $24. The wine list climbs precipitously from $30, unless you are content with a very unassuming little Swiss wine for $15 to $20.
But I'll go back for more. No regrets over a three-hour train trip for a dinner that started with mossy green broccoli terrine striped with foie gras and truffle, imprinted in the memory through its stark contrast with a ring of chopped raw broccoli in walnut oil. The Raw and the Cooked - once a subject for serious anthropology - now the tour de force of serious art. On to oysters in warn wine-butter sauce with a julienne of vegetables; I had heard too much of this dish, of strong chefs being reduced to tears, thus my skepticism allowed no celebration. Truffles with cardoons, on the other hand, looked modest in a miniature silver saucepan and developed their credentials slowly, letting you grow to love them as the two earthy flavors merged on your tongue. All was forgotten - the before and the after - in the wake of the duck in red wine. Carved tableside into the thinnest, rarest slices of breast meat, sauced with something dark and limpid, the legs and carcass whisked back to the kitchen for further cooking. One bite. We could hardly keep from shouting for the return of the carcass (which did return anyway for second helpings). How do you describe a mystery gradually unfolding, a sauce revealing successive nuances, faint sweetness but hardly identifiable, against the merest ephemeral tartness? Wine, but soft and elusive. I taste that sauce now, and wish I were really tasting it. Vague memories of desserts follow - tortes and tarts and sherbets of little distinction, but tiny petits fours that compensated by being exceptional. But all is eclipsed by thoughts of duck and its symphonic sauce. Fredy Girardet, stay in your kitchen.
That is all restaurant food. Surely, people dine less elaborately at home. Yes, usually. But people who have been professionally involved in wine - and therefore food - for several centuries are especially intense about those things, even at home. For a quick lunch for guests who had to rush to catch a train, this was the menu at the home of Jean Thorin, proprietor of Chateau des Jacques wines: quail eggs, cold chicken and filet of beef with mayonnaise made by his wife, Elmy, from their own chickens, salad of julienned ham and truffles, baguettes from the town's special bakery, served with butter from their farm. Finally, almond ice cream made from the cream the cows gave last night. The wines, this being a Burgundian wine company of extensive breadth, ranged from one fabled end of Burgundy to the other, with a side trip to champagne. The Thorins respect the food and drink of their everyday life. A weekend hunt will be accompanied by champagne served in silver goblets. Standards are standards, even deep in the forest.
Celebrity watching as we know it takes place at stage doors and such.In Lyon, the chefs being celebrities, it takes place at the market - the pristine new Halles - at 9 a.m. Up and down the brightly lit aisles, a middle-aged man in a double-breasted coat shakes hands with a young man in a windbreaker - Nandron with Jean-Paul Lacombe of Leon de Lyon. Tall and sandy-haired, Daniel of Daniel et Denise, slouches by. First, business - poking saddles of lamb, sniffing cheeses. The fish stand exhibits on ice its shiny jewels - lemon sole, omble, salmon, rouget, pike, loup, six kinds of oysters. Hanging nearby are tangy Lyon sausages, smoked called Jesus. Raised on the myth of French local produce, to me the market was a surprise - strawberries from Mexico, apples from Canada, oranges from Spain, green vegetables from Africa.
But one senses that these are no ordinary week-old imports. There are no faintly pink strawberries, no thickly tough green beans. These vegetables are bought fresh daily and chosen after extensive consultation. Even meats in France have a star system, with chickens and lambs wearing labels showing that they are from the best stock and raised to highly critical standards. The chefs know the purveyors and the producers, are always seeking a farmer to grow this vegetable or to gather that mushroom or make a particular cheese.
After ordering from the market, the chefs gather - ostensibly for coffee, but really for gossip - as their trucks are loaded. The current clubhouse is Chez Jeanette, right across from the market. Hovered around a table a Bourillot, Thivard of Pyramide, Nandorn, Daniel Lacombe. Even in their relaxing, these chefs are working hard, for their restaurant gossip is very intense: food talk, wine talk, who's opening, who's closing, how they are doing, a little backbiting, a little backslapping. They talk about money, but money is obviously not the point of this business, where it can take years before they break even while working fifteen-hour days. They act like army buddies, telling war stories. At 10:00, last gulps, handshakes, off to their separate corners to prepare for the pleasure of the collective Lyon stomach.
The youngest of the group is Jean-Paul Lacombe, proprietor of Leon de Lyon and 28-year-old whirlwind. His story is the French variation on the Cinderella theme. Six years ago his father, chef of a well-respected traditional Lyonnaise restaurant, died. And Jean-Paul was called home to take over. His father's friends - the community of chefs - urged him on, sent him customers, some days there being as few as twenty-five diners. Now a one-star restaurant, Leon de Lyon's fortunes are rising. Lacombe juggles the old and the new. His steamed Lyon sausage with lentil and potato salad, his gras double and in white wine are traditional Lyonnaise dishes, but raw truffle salad or salad with snow peas, raw mushrooms, duck and foie gras are his own creations. In the new style, he serves scallops nearly raw, his extraordinary version in a beige cream composed with watercress leaves. While the Lyonnaise dishes are satisfying, and the traditional charm of heavy handwoven cloths and wooden wine pitchers are strongly appealing, it is his own inventions which clearly display Lacombe's talent. His oysters warmed in a buttery cream with julienne of vegetables had none to equal them on this trip. The sauces on the scallops and on the crayfish were airy, subtle undertones rather than dominant notes, so the seafoods themselves were allowed to star. Even his chestnut ice cream was a marvel of smooth flavor and texture. Lacombe roams the dining room to greet his guests, and one is tempted to pin on a medal, for he looks like a child prodigy in his high white toque.
Then Lacombe disappears. Not quite into a phone booth to emerge wearing a cape and flying off, but nearly as unexpected. He is next seen several blocks away, wearing jeans and sweatshirt, the co-proprietor of Lyon's late-night rage, the Bistrot de Lyon. Most chefs are going home before midnight, having worked since 8 a.m. Lacombe is planning menus, conferring with the chef, greeting and flirting and catching his second wind. The Bistrot is full, probably has been full at night and all week, and will be full until 3 a.m. If there is an opera in town, or a theater group, the cast are likely to nourish themselves on the Bistrot's lapin a la moutarde with fresh noodles. Owners from other bistros, those which grew in this one's wake, come in, perhaps for a leek tart. Fur coats may be hung on the staircase. Moustaches hang over the pot au feu. Jeans polish the bentwood chairs. The Bistrot de Lyon looks like an American version of a French bistro, being strung with plants, stained glass and marble-topped tables, edged by a long nickel-plated bar. But the food could not be mistaken for an American French pub, the chicken liver terrine nearly as unctuous as foie gras, the tarts flaky and buttery and fragrant, inevitably fresh. Although the highest price on the menu is about $4, the food here is taken very seriously - by diners and proprietors alike. House-made sherbets, salads picked from the market by Lacombe that morning, perfect cheeses, carefully chosen house wines.
And, cheap as it is, the Bistrot makes much more profit than Lacombe's haute cuisine Leon de Lyon. This is Lacombe's fun and profit. Leon de Lyon is his future, the star he will ultimately stay hitched to.
Introducing one's stomach to the starred kitchens of France takes its toll. An evening in Chagny, trying desperately to become hungry enough to eat dinner at Lameloise. A jog, coatless, down city lanes. A glass of perrier to sip slowly. Sitting before the inn's fireplace until the latest possible moment for dinner. Walk into the two intimate dining rooms on a less-than-hungry stomach, and you know there is trouble. At the entrance, an enormous blown sugar floral fantasy, a culinary arts prizewinner. No ordinary kitchen, this tiny Lameloise. The waiters, in black tie, will know what you have or have not eaten, just as they know what you want and when, and act accordingly. A few oysters would be easy to get down. They come with a basket of lemons studded with holly leaves; simply nothing is ordinary here. A more robust companion manages snails - out of the shell and into a pale beige, chive-flecked cream. I could attempt a simple trout aligote - shimmering blue-black in the lightest bath of gray-green broth, shreds of steamed vegetables for color. But the baby boar across the table - rare filets in a sauce the color and texture of melted chocolate, garnished with a garland of leaves piped in cream - suddenly livened my appetite. A taste - winey, with a tangy undertone and a hint of liver - extraordinary. I beg more, am accorded one more bite. I must return to Lameloise in game season. I cannot drown my frustration in the wine, as our young Rully is vinegary. The waiter, to compensate, brings us a glass of '61 La Tache to taste. It is an evening of exquisite tastes. Desserts at Lameloise are similar revelations, Le Succes here being a crisp nutted cake layer with two chocolate mousses to contrast. The tile cookies are tissue-thin, and with them comes a spun sugar flower surrounded by sugared fruits, delighful one-bite delicacies. Oh, to be at Lameloise now that appetite is here.
The first taste of Paris, as it should be, was an oyster canape at L'Archestrate. Chef Alain Senderens was in China, the restaurant had not yet achieved its third Michelin star, which it gained this spring. No matter. The oyster, warmed with a film of buttery cream, was a sensation. When the people at the next table left their canapes unfinished, I nearly lost my self-control.
L'Archestrate is as Parisian as a restaurant can be, which means it is strewn with sprays of orchids, and its Limoges china is matched by the red lacquered ceiling, and the very sophisticated restraint in the decor is contrasted with the very sophisticated lack of restraint in the prices. Fixed price menus are about $45, appetizers alone up to $20. The fixed price menu brings a nouvelle cuisine parade of warm scalops with mache and dill, two oysters with leeks in an airy cream sauce, a small truffle in a grand puff pastry, then main dishes, cheeses and dessert - here a single dessert, a dense chocolate cake, rather than a trolleyful of choices. Senderens' fame is bolstered in part by his nearly raw kidney slices with whole unpeeled shallots to squeeze from their skin like eating artichoke leaves. Extraordinary conception, destroyed by strongly ammoniac kidneys. Another underpinning of his fame is roast pigeon with confit of leeks, the soft tangle of green highly perfumed and rich with its cooking fat, an exciting medley of meat and vegetable juices. In all, the culinary sensations come fast at L'Archestrate, and the service is as polished as the crystal vases, the wine list stellar in breadth - and price. The third star is no surprise.
The cuisine edges further into fantasy at Les Semailles, as fashionable a place to dine as twenty-five seats in an unkempt sidestreet bar can be. The look is Greenwich Village-Lower East Side, eclectic if you ar inclined to be kind. The bar is strewn with bottles and cigarette packs, the fireplace filled with trays of toast, the three staff members darting about in some confusion. The wine list is minimal, the house wine vapid. So why all the fuss? An imaginative young chef, Jean-Jacques Jouteux, does remarkable combinations - fish with tarragon and kiwis, lamb with julienne of cucumbers and turnips. His sauces are light in texture, heavy in perfume. He serves sweetbreads barely cooked, composed with steamed radish slices and leaves in a faintly vinegared sauce, and you know what the fuss is about. He coaxes vegetables into immortality. He designs works of art on the plates. But you must enjoy all this with dogs underfoot, the waiters stopping to pet them, and with burned toast and a meager selection of cheeses and a few bland disappointments such as an appetizer of white cheese with a few salmon eggs and a bit of tomato coulis for over $7. Despite the coffee being served in beautiful cups, one often wonders at dining for nearly $50 in such a helter-skelter setting.
Henri Faugeron was winning friends as fast as he could roast a duck at Les Belles Gourmands. Then he went on to open his long-awaited new restaurant named, simply enough, Faugeron. And, oh, it looked lovely, with floral velvet walls almost like batik, and delicate arches between the rooms. But, sitting behind a window box, I could see little of it, and the waiters apparently couldn't see me. So every once in a while they would remember we existed, and rush over to plunk down a plate. Their indifference temporarily disappeared as they ardently steered us to the "Grand Menu Servi en Petites Portions," a kind of $35 Blue Plate Special. My grand menu went thus: Warm shredded lettuce with one oyster and too much vinegar in the vinaigrette; soft boiled egg with puree of truffle, easily the highlight of the meal; turbot with leeks, artlessly sprinkled with strange spices, mostly cinnamon; rare sliced filet of beef with gravy stronly reminiscent of Horn and Hardart, which sloshed into the potatoes and celery puree to turn them into imitation cafeteria food; toast with melted blue cheese; dandelion greens salad with nuts; chocolate-glazed cake round sandwiching chestnut ice cream, drenched with delicious bittersweet chocolate sauce and garnished with green blobs of cream. Two highlights - truffled eggs and dessert - glittered among the dross.
Time out for some classic cuisine.Taillevent is a glory of spaciousness and impeccable service. Watching the decanting of the wines is an ongoing show which never flags. The wine list overwhelms the menu, with hardly a good vintage not being represented in its full breadth; in fact, the list is organized by year. And the staff expertly steers you to a happy choice. This is a restaurant where you should ask advice, for every dish our waiter recommended as superb, whereas our own choices missed. Foie gras'd nearly to death on this trip, we still yielded to the waiter's insistence on the foie gras in port aspic. Thank goodness we did. We might have missed this pale rosy goose liver in vinegared glaze contrasting with crisply cooked turnip slices, and never have known that one could improve on just plain foie gras. We wished we had agreed to avoid the Gourmandise d'Autumne with its tough, fishy pink lobster mousse.On to the wonders of classic simplicity, a saddle of lamb rolled with kidneys, medallions of veal in a truffle-studded perigourdine sauce, then a pear souffle that seemed to be but a cloud about to rain pear liqueur. Taillevent is a restaurant where you can get your bearings after too many meat-fish-fruit melanges, when nouvelle chefs' imaginations have gotten the better of you.
For a contrast of old and new, try the two following lunches: At Dodin Bouffant, the specialty is a platter for two of raw seafood on a bed of seaweed. Served just with lemons and tiny picks, the table-size tray includes clams from a half inch to several inches across, infinitesimal shrimps in the shell, small periwinkles, several kinds of oysters, crayfish, and other less identifiable shellfish, most of them raw and so fresh they hiss and spit at you. With a bottle of dry Barsac, you could spend half the afternoon picking at this wonderful seafood, for $20 a couple, with the waiter pointedly ignoring you for occupying his table so cheaply.
As for the old, Au Quay d'Orsay cooks chickens by an ancient recipe, feathers and all, in clay. They are presented in the clay, with the head lolling outside, then removed to crack open the crust and serve the moist meat with a rosy vinegar sauce and homemade pink noodles to match. Start you meal with a velvety scallop terrine studded with crunchy vegetable bits, and let the waitress steer you to a wine new to your palate and the meal will be not only delightful, but probably unique as well.
Not all the best eating in Paris is done sitting. Along the sidewalks in winter are baskets and boxes of shellfish - oysters, sea urchins, clams - which you can choose and have brought to you inside the nearest cafe. The charcuteries are strung with sausages and lined with pates and terrines of rabbit, duck, pheasant, pork, veal. The chocolate shops set their wares like gems, as well they should at up to $20 a pound, and allow you to choose your assortment one by one. Step into any cheese shop, and edge past mountain of farm butter and bucket of creme fraiche to the less perishable cheeses. At Framagerie St. Hubert, for instance, the salesman may not understand English, but he does understand a request for cheeses that can be carried on an airplane and will be ripe next week. He picks through the stacks of cheeses to chooses them of the right consistency, and double wraps them in foil. Sure enough, they are perfect the next week in Washington. To go with them, a bread from Poilane bakery, a chewy traditional loaf baked in a wood-fired brick oven, made with sourdough rather than yeast, allowed to rise for six hours, all told. The large round breads can be decorated with your name on order, or bought plain, and can last two weeks, long enough to eat with you cheese.
In Paris, only your imagination limits the experiences of your taste buds. In one window, speckled raw quail eggs. In the produce section of Hediard, fresh lychees and passion fruit. In Fauchon, at least in the small outpost still operating after the bombing of its main store, whole candied pineapples. In Petrossian, large gray caviar grains being singly scraped off a spoon into a tiny jar. Just don't look at the prices.