November 7, 1983 | Vintage Insatiable

 

Latest from France: The Eloquent Dollar

       What a glorious time to fall in love with food and rediscover France. American’s obsession with fine dining has paralleled a decade of creativity and haute puffery in French kitchens. Chefs are treated as if they were statesmen, ambassadors, movie stars. But the adventure of eating in France is undimmed. Especially now, when the dollar is so eloquent. Especially now, in the season of foie gras and fresh truffles and game, with young chefs jousting, soaring for stars.

 

       In France again this past summer, I found that the noisy backlash against the nouvelle cuisine seems to have subsided. There are some who want to deny there ever was anything new. Others, among them some cunning cooks of minimal talent, still think the marriage of any two or three unlikely ingredients is art. All the buzz about Grandmother’s cooking two years ago made it sound as if Paris might be turned into a giant tripe pot…but then, tripe and stews and glorious blood sausage with apple sauce never disappeared, not even at the height of kiwi power. The lingering legacy of nouvelle cuisine is simplicity. The taste of premium ingredients unmasked by artifice is what good coking is about. That France’s greatest chefrs could adopt the condiments of China or a fisherman’s way with fish is a lasting liberation.

 

       As for obsession… ravioli is the rage. No stuffing is too odd or too costly for a Gallic ravioli: ratatouille, goat cheese, sweetbreads, pig’s feet, black and white truffles. Frogs’ legs are in a renaissance, even though most come from Czechoslovakia. Raw fish and fish tartare are old-hat now. Sea creatures swim in august cold consommé. And everyone’s in love with pigeon. No new menace threatens to rival the kiwi. But some nettles were spied lurking next to a crayfish. Not a trend yet, but it could be an early warning.

 

PARIS

 

       There’s a buttery tension in the air at Michel Rostang. The fifth generation of a restaurant family (his father runs the three-star Bonne Auberge on the Riviera), Rostang won two Michelin stars his first year in this cramped little corner of the 12th Arrondissement, not far from L’Etoile and near the beautiful oasis of the Parc Monceau. Now a new burst of creativity makes this slick rust and black-lacquered dining room a magnet for the most discriminating mouths in Paris. Mirrors double the space, reflecting bronze fixtures and salmon linen under lace tablecloths in a dizziness of décor, fresh and bright.

 

       Even warmed as we are by the welcome of Rostang’s handsome blond wife, Marie Claude, by a smooth and sultry Pauillac,’76 Forts de Latour, and by excellent homemade breads and tangy roe-spiked fish tartare on toast, the brilliance of the dinner is a shock. It’s a night of taste thrills mounting to an extraordinary high. Just when it seemed our senses would grow jaded with couturier food and too many coy decorator garnishes, Rostang magic restores faith. Yes, everything is color-touched and artfully designed, but it tastes wonderful, too. Exquisite rouget (red mullet) sits barely cooked and lukewarm, moistened with tomato and olive oil, on velvet leaves of pourpier, a green I’ve never encountered before (but a friend found it growing wild behind a dune in Bridgehampton this summer).

 

       A pressed spinach terrine with islands of langoustine (Dublin Bay prawn) is framed in a sauce dotted with the red of pepper cubes. Intense consommé, chilled but not quite aspic, is a sea for lobster and colorful baby vegetables. Twists of rather bouncy sole and cabbage arrive in a parsleyed butter “soup.” And then come Rostang’s celestial ravioli – tiny squares enfolding melted goat cheese in an ooze of broth.

 

       There is a steady delivery of new silver with each dish on the $35 degustation (tasting) menu. And a sorbet of marc clears the palate for pigeon: a magnificent bird, properly rare, with a deep, dark sauce enriched by foie gras. The full repertoire of chocolate variations is the recommended dessert, perhaps with sorbets to clear the palate afterward, plus a sampling of friandises – cookies, little cream puffs, sugared currants, and candied fruit.

 

       Applauding a restaurant on one great meal is risky, My New York reviews reflects three or four visits. But no introduction could be more promising than this glorious night at Rostang.

 

Michel Rostang, 10, Rue Gustave-Flaubert or 20, Rue Rennequin, 01 47 63 40 77. Dinner entrées, à la carte, range from $9.50 to $18, and there’s a special lunch for $17 per person.

 

***

 

       The late-afternoon sky over Brittany is often precisely the blue of the spacious new quarters of Le Bernardin, not far from the Champs Elysées, a move away from the confines of the Quai des Bernardins for the talented and ambitious brother-and-sister act of Gilbert and Maguy Le Coze. Now, in his dream kitchen, Gilbert is surer than ever, practicing his own special style with sea creatures. Long before dawn he can be seen racing through the Rungis fish market in high rubber boots, competing for the best of the catch… intent on the kind of perfection demanded by the simplicity of his cuisine – a bit of butter, a dab of tomato, a dollop of crème fraîche, peppery fish fumet, hints of thyme or coriander.

 

       Maguy Le Coze is the electric presence in the dining room, where carpet in the same intense blue muffles sound and the luxury of space is emphasized by mirrors, giant shaded table lamps, and tall tapestry chairs. As we study the menu – weighing a longtime favorite, fricassee of shellfish, followed perhaps by a triumphant scallop of salmon smothered in truffle slices, or that same salmon rare at the heart and heady with fresh mint – we’re served bigorneaux (winkles) that we go after with the tip of a steel pin.

 

       Our host at lunch leaves the choice up to the chef, never a bad idea in any serious restaurant. We get ribbons of salmon “cooked” in a tomato foam with the faintest suspicion of ground coriander: raw, cool, fruity, sweet, an astonishment of texture and tang. And it is typical of the Bernardin style that the langoustines shimmer – as if just barely jelled by the fire – in a sheer butter sauce flecked with parsley. Fresh, crisp-fried baby sole is impeccable. And a peppery stew of lotte (anglerfish) in a tangle of spring vegetables would be sublime if the lotte wasn’t quite so bouncy. “He wants it that way,” says Maguy. “For contrast.”

 

       Fine ice cream and the superb sorbets of Berthillon are served here, but even more refreshing is a patlette of fresh fruit – perfect, of course – in a lovely strawberry coulis. Truth to tell, I have a crush on both Maguy and Gilbert, and over the years we’ve become friends, but I suspect almost anyone would find Le Bernardin an easy habit to fall into (even at $100 for two).

 

       It should be even easier, it seems, by spring. Twice this fall, Maguy and Gilbert have flown to New York to scout proposed Manhattan locations for a local outpost of Le Bernardin. It will be exciting to see what Gilbert can do with the harvest of our native waters.

 

Le Bernardin,18, Rue Troyon, 7th Arrondissement, (1) 380-40-61. Closed Sundays, Mondays, and the month of August. Dinner entrées, à la carte, range from $9 to $37. Le Bernardin Paris is closed.

 

***

 

       The bistro everyone dreams of, charming, classic, and cheap. There must be dozens of them in Paris stewing choucroute and cassoulet, pig’s feet and old-fashioned navarin of lamb, honoring a simple roast chicken. But the bistro I dream of is outrageous – drab, seedy, and expensive. The venerable, beloved L’Ami Louis. Go hungry. Take cash.

 

        L’Ami Louis is not listed in the Guide Michelin. Not that old Antoine Magnin seems to care. The rich and powerful come anyway, joining the savvy less affluent who are willing to hoard francs for Magnin’s silken foie gras and giant roasts. Habitués may groan over the crumbling walls, the tacky splashes of orange paint and flowered cloths, the single bathroom in the basement, the slope of the worn tile floor, the brusqueness of the waiters – still, even if they’d never venture to the ancient 3rd arrondissement for any other reason, they come to L’Ami Louis.

 

       Parisian L’Ami lovers gave us strict instructions. “You must have the snails, the leg of lamb, the potato cake, and just one slice of ham,” said one. “Oh, you can’t miss the confit of duck,” said another, “and order the roast chicken.” “No – rabbit  and potatoes béarnaise,” counseled a third savant. “And the côte de boeuf.” Alas, we are only two, determined, adventurous, reputedly insatiable. We beg for small portions of several things. And though the house understands sharing, the waiter clearly considers us mad.

 

       All our consultants agreed the foie gras is a must. So that’s how we begin, with voluptuous half-inch-thick slices of duck liver cooked the old-fashioned way, a slice for each of us and one to share ($15). A frugal ration of giant snails – just six ($13) – in the classic garlic butter is followed by that lush confit of duck ($11), greasy strings of fried potatoes, that truly supernal potato cake, crisped on the top and sides, and a whole roast chicken ($23) brought up by a farmer with a long memory for how chicken ought to taste. A chilled, fruity Fleurie cheers everything, especially our undauntable spirits.

 

       At 83, Antoine Magnin still tends the stove, wrestling huge copper pans, settling down at the cash desk as the lunch hour ends, sometimes gruff, sometimes smiling. “Americans are crazy,” he says. “They write six months ahead for a table. How can I know what will be so far in advance?” Give him ten days’ warning, please.

 

L’Ami Louis, 32, Rue du Vertbois. (3eme) 887-77-48. Closed Mondays, Tuesdays, and the months of July and August. Dinner entrées, à la carte, range from $11 to $23

 

***.

 

       Alain Senderens himself will tell you, “They call me the philosopher or intellectual of the nouvelle cuisine.” When you hear chefs talk like that, it’s usually time to reach for the Alka-Seltzer. Senderens had been fiercely serious even before chefs began to be interviewed as if they were politicians or rock idols. His three-star L’Archestrate, one block east of Les Invalides and just down the street from the Rodin Museum, is named for the earliest cookery writer of Greece, from the time of Pericles. Poking into old cookbooks has inspired Senderens with some delicious notions. Now he is pursuing “cuisine sans sauce,” toying with Chinese, Japanese, Moroccan nuances, feeling “a little bit Jewish,” and philosophizing to the point that it sometimes seems his taste buds are out to lunch. The irony is that under his direction and using his recipes the Maurice, in our own Parker-Meridien, has become one of the best French restaurants in New York.

 

       So you may not find Senderens at L’Archestrate, which is set in a tight crowd of old stone buildings on the narrow Rue Varenne. Like many a star-struck chef he has leased himself out, and he may be off somewhere sniffing bottled sauces. Even when he’s there, the somber, fussy dining room, with its swags of dark-brown velvet and trailing vines, has never been especially winning. On this visit, happily, the service seems more confident, almost graceful. And there are magnificent tastes to savor – delicate, barely cooked rouget on tomato and eggplant thins with crisp-fried celery leaves, buttery ravioli filled with minuscule scallops (petoncles) and thin circlets of zucchini, amazingly tender frogs’ legs set off by a mousse of fennel on diamond croutons, spicy red berries against a splendid rare pigeon, dessert invoking orange and chocolate in sublime counterpoint, and a grand, old-fashioned, rich-as-rich-can-be chocolate cake.

 

       But most of the time there is simply too much happening on every plate, dibs and dabs and dribbles, tortured tidbits scattered about. “I think of each plate as a work of art,” sys Senderens. Alas, this is the Disney School of Art. And over-salting is another flaw. So many gaffes are not amusing at these prices (we pay $165 for two). Tasting dinners are $45.50 and $53, but figure at least $65 a person, with wine.

 

       Still, the man has moments of real brilliance and undiminished passion. His duck Apicius is a masterpiece, as was a long-ago tête de veau (calf’s head). Last week the Maurice introduced Senderens’ luscious ravioli with pig’s feet and veal shank, an amazing carpaccio of duck, raw and delicious, with skin cracklings, and his version of a Moroccan lamb tagine (garnishing a lamb dish when it could stand most effectively on its own). Senderens should be lashed with chive strings and wild-asparagus stalks till he returns to his senses. But I’ll keep tasting as long as my expense account holds up.

 

L’Archestrate, 84, Rue de Varenne, 7th Arrondissement, Dinner entrées, à la carte, range from $11.50 to $24.

 ***

       It seems impossible to ever get too much of Paris. Bur part of the Paris fantasy is the wonderful country inn at the edge of a forest or enchanted garden less than an hour from the city. So, given the sonnets of praise from Parisian foodies for the cuisinary heroics of Francois Clerc, a self-taught amateur grown “professional,” of course we must steal an evening for La Veille Fontaine. Even though the route by the city’s Brave New World of urban sprawl is scarcely bucolic, our daredevil pilot gets us there in less than half an hour.

 

       There is an old fountain along the path leading to an elegant nineteenth-century house with an open terrace overlooking a small park, for balmy-day dining. The several rooms are warm with the rosy glow from the table lamps of another time, homey with great old-fashioned sideboards, tall floor lamps, lace over rust undercloths. A poised and caring Manon Letourneur is master of the salon (our pilot is a special friend, so anonymity is impossible here), and Clerc himself, his amazing curlicues of mustache unwilted by the heat of the kitchen, takes our order. We must have a tasting dinner ($37 per person), of course, but, for the final plate, not one but six different choices: research, our pilot suggest.

 

       And with that begins an impressive sequence of revised classics and delicious inventions. Aumônière is a beggar’s purse fashioned from a crêpe, plump with caviar and tied with a strip of chive (as served at  New York’s Quilted Giraffe). Silken sheets of foie gras are cushioned by an exquisite salad of red and green lettuces. Two delicate wings of salmon, pink at the core, rest in a pool of butter. And baby frogs’ legs are boned and dropped in to a light cream sauce in the shell of an egg, presented in a holder guarded by cast-iron frogs and to be eaten with a frog-embossed vermeil spoon. Ridiculous and wonderful.

 

       Slices of pink grapefruit in a gloss of mint dressing appear at the moment a palate-refreshing potion might seem beneficial. A pleasant notion. (I don’t object to a tart sorbet or a demitasse of some intense broth, but a stretch and a short walk are even better. Maitres d’hôtel do get alarmed when we head for the door during a tasting dinner. “It’s just a petite promenade,” I say, explaining that I couldn’t possibly retire before dessert.)

 

       The unequivocal masterwork of our six entrées is the kidney, cooked whole and rare, in a sauce scented with fruity Chiroubles wine and so deep it tastes almost burned… majestic. But Clerc’s tête de veau is heavenly, too, the soft nubbins of edible cartilage and meat floating in a rich red-wine glaze. Ovals of rare and tasty pigeon breast are arranged in a fan and served with a timbale of pigeon wrapped in macaroni and a pigeon leg stuffed with truffles. His cassoulet is a truffled stew of giant haricots with preserved goose and sausage. Barbarie ducks are lean; this one is rare as well, served with mango. And the milk-fed lamb with cabbage and pork lardoons is napped in tomato purée beaten with butter.

 

       There are fine sorbets, an undistinguished fruit mousse, a good glazed apple tart; the irresistible caramel ice cream with bitter chocolate must not be missed. Though our gourmand excess is $120 for two with a full, velvety ’71 Sociando-Mallet, a Haut-Medoc never encountered before, entrées at $11 and $12 make it easy to spend far less.

 

La Vieille Fontaine, 8, Avenue de Gretry, Maisons-Laffitte, (3) 962-01-78. Closed Sundays and Mondays. Dinner entrées, à la carte, range from $11 to $24.

 

ON THE ROAD

 

La Mère Blanc

 

       The spiffed-up-farmhouse simplicity of the entrance to La Mère Blanc, in the tiny Beaujolais village of Vonnas, is a lovely deception. The greeting – perhaps from Mme. Blanc herself – is warm. There are portraits of the chef’s great-grandmother and grandmother (the original cook when the restaurant opened, in 1872, and her daughter, celebrated as “the best cook in the world” by the great gastronome Curnonsky). The fourth-generation Blanc, Georges, 40 years old this fall, had to be dragged into the kitchen, he confesses, but at some point the family passion caught fire, and in 1981 the house won its third Michelin star and four feverish-red toques from Gault-Millau.

 

       Only when you step out onto the covered walk attached to the house, cantilevered over the river Veyle and “hedged” with boxed flowers, do you sense the hidden enchantment of this inn – the magic of the windows that expose the kitchen’s bustle, the country parlor, the enclosed terrace where you may breakfast, the backyard garden with its tennis court and swimming pool, and the attached annex of luxurious odd-shaped rooms. (Our quarters [$50] have a sitting alcove opening onto a terrace perfumed with flowers in the warm summer moonlight.)

 

       If you overanalyzed the décor, you could certainly be nasty – the motley of paintings, an old winepress filled with plants, a stuffed bird in full feathers on a thick pedestal, so many rooster lamps. But, in truth, the end effect is quite wonderful. The mile-long, room-high tapestry the house is so proud of, as well as the scattered Oriental rugs on big stone squares in soft, warm earth tones and the vast wood beams, makes this a rather cozy evocation of a country château.

 

       Best of all, it seems the boyish-looking chef Blanc has not yet grown restless or melancholy, not yet taken to the jet-stream stardom some chefs are addicted to. The dining room feels electrified by the force of his craze for perfection. Certainly we sense that intensity of caring in our captain – the only woman captain in a three-star restaurant, not an easy distinction to earn in a fiercely chauvinistic tradition.

 

       Intemperate as we are, not sure when we’ll pass this way again, we choose the “discovery menu” (six courses, about $36 per person), rejecting the $21.50 four-course dinner and a chance to freestyle à la carte (one could lose a week in exploring). And instantly Blanc’s gifts are on display: The gourmand terrine is a stunning asymmetrical layering of aspic, green pourpier leaves, foie gras, moist chicken breast, and on and on – a witty archaeological rendering.

 

       Consommé of lobster, crayfish, and exquisite spring vegetables with an odd bit of chicken (what we call the oyster, what the French describe as “the drunk leaves it behind”) is an astonishment of intensified flavors, the consummate rendition of a dish tasted everywhere. Next, ribbons of barely cooked salmon and frogs’ legs drift in a sauce fragrant with oil and herbs and lemon. Langoustine, lotte, red mullet, and turbot swim in a creamy saffroned soup with a hint of tomato. Lamb held while we strolled off on our seventh-inning stretch is not rare, as ordered. The captain apologizes, whisking it away, leaving pigeon, a prize of moist perfection in a sauce of its roasting juices, garnished with tiny forest mushrooms and a cream mousse of “blond” chicken livers. The replacement lamb is wonderful.

 

       It is a moment when too much indulgence builds desire (instead of quieting it), and, incredibly, we can surrender to cheese. The three-star carnival of desserts – petit fours, sugared fruits, truffles, and such – deserves serious focus. Warmed and floating on the last of a luscious Beaune Clos des Fevès ’71 (two tasting dinners, two bottles of wine, two coffees, about $120), we try. We have splendid mille-feuilles. Tarts of raspberry and apricot and a cream-and-sugar galette Bressane of George’s grand-mère. Then a hike in the cool night air. A kiss on our very own terrace. It’s the magic France of fantasy. Except, this time, reality is even better.

 

La Mère Blanc, Vonnas (Ain), (74) 50-00-10. Dinner entrées, à la carte, range from $9.50 to $15.

 

***           

Restaurant Girardet

 

       Perhaps it is cruel to rave yet again about the awesome art of Fredy Girardet. He has spent a fortune expanding his kitchen to serve his unique style of cooking, “la cuisine spontanée.” But there are still only 68 seats in the two dining rooms of Restaurant Girardet – and the clamor for tables never ends. If Girardet accepted bookings six months in advance, no one but Americans would ever eat in this epicurean mecca in Crissier, outside Lausanne. To accommodate habitués and neighbors, though, he has decreed that reservations can be booked only one month ahead. And the phone starts ringing at 6 a.m.

 

       Destiny’s darlings will find the Girardet as creative as ever. It’s impossible to get him to repeat a favorite dish, even if you beg. There will always be some subtle difference. The only constants are the supernal foie gras – fast-seared, with its sauce a meager spoonful of the hazelnut-vinegar-spiked pan deglazing – and his passion-fruit soufflé. No one cooks meat or birds or fish or crustaceans as carefully. If France’s cuisine goes into a sauceless phase, we can credit Girardet, because his saucing does keep growing scanter (we can blame him, too, because many will do it less skillfully).

 

       When we visit in late June, Girardet is layering fennel, foie gras, and the tenderest chicken imaginable (wrapped in leaves of tarragon) into a wonderfully tart jellied terrine to be nestled on shredded young cabbage. His daisy-shaped ravioli filled with black truffles, spinach, and wild mushrooms are tossed with intense truffled cream. Rouget so fresh and lightly cooked it might still be swimming is tiled with disks of zucchini and served with basil-scented tomato and a ring of olive-y sauce flecked with hot pepper. Langoustine tastes of the grill and floats on a thin cream colored with pea purée and dotted with pea, ribbons of red pepper, and grains of cayenne.

 

       What he calls “my little warm rabbit salad” has a melt of crusted foie gras and vinaigrette heightened by lemon and lime slices too. “Trois frites” unites crisp-fried mussels, frogs’ legs, and squid, each in its corner, with a circle of tomato coulis. A turbot fillet is dressed with peeled red pepper and olive, then given a dab of lemon and oil. Tarragon-scented pigeon is rare in just its natural juices. Lamb with lentils is similarly understated in a scoop of lettuce.

 

       For one – to me, sacrilegious – moment, I am annoyed by the preciousness of some presentations, that old tortured-tidbit feeling. Anyone can arrange string beans and radish sticks on a plate. But then, not everyone is so infallible as Girardet in the marriage of ingredients. His taste and talent are unique. And his seemingly endless variations on warm and cold fruit soups are a joy. With mostly Swiss wines (and one magnificent Beaunes Graves ’78 from Michel LaFarge), plus coffee, our splendid tasting meals cost $181 and $192 for two of us (two Swiss francs to the dollar).

 

Restaurant Girardet, Crissier, Switzerland, (21) 34-15-14. Dinner entrées, à la carte, range from $18 to $26. No credit cards.

 

***

 

The Côte d’Azur

 

Chantecler

 

       There are moments of almost unbearable ecstasy in the life of a dedicated foodie. How do they feel? I sit there, polite and curious, sniffing, tasting, eyes widening, pulse speeding, as the awareness sneaks up on me till finally it’s obvious: Everything is wonderful. I want to call all the food lovers I know and fly them in on the Concorde before dessert. That’s the way it is this afternoon under the spell of chef Jacques Maximin at Chantecler, in the blowsy white Hôtel Negresco of Nice.

 

       The circus-color clash and fussiness of the Chantecler, with the buses hippo-ing by visible through the curtains, the recorded weeping of Viennese violins, the tackiness of a hundred roosters in oil and gouache and metal, have lulled us into minimal expectation. Yes, France’s gourmandizing Bobbsey twins, Gault and Millau, have said it would be “immoral” not to grant Maximin his fourth toque. (They didn’t like the setting, either.)

 

       But a couple of heavily toqued chefs have already disappointed cruelly on this trip. So we’re not unduly moved by the sublime house aperitif (called royale Negresco) – a kirsch-spiked, orange-scented champagne that also contains raspberry syrup. Nor by the very impressive bread – aromatic country rye and rich white with crisps of garlic baked into the crust. A soggy tartlet, a bit of food ironed into a fresh napkin, the sommelier’s sexist handling of the wine pouring (not uncommon, especially in France), all dilute the impact. But suddenly it becomes clear that what seemed arch and exaggerated at first is simply service at a level of perfection rarely reached anywhere.

 

       The carte is decidedly daring, with four special menus (from about $32 to $50): a wink at the niçoise table, as its dubbed; the “soup menu,” which, in summer, opens with cold vegetable tea with celery salt accompanied by avocado butter on toast and focuses on nothing but the fruits and vegetables of the season; a six-course dégustation; and three services of lobster. In our greediness we order the last two, throwing in an extra – lobster ravioli – on the theory that too much of a good thing is never enough.

 

       The chef’s concerto for lobster is brilliant. Medallions of the delicately cooked crustacean are arranged like the petals of a flower, with bullets of baby zucchini and circles of truffle, on a mount of vegetables and basil julienne in the bottom of a soup bowl – a gift to the eyes before the waiter ladles Sauternes-scented bisque over all. Lobster in salad is dotted with tomato dice and flanked by fresh almond-studded lobster mousse topped with caviar, a basil “treelet,” and sea-marsh greens in a red-leaf “boat.” The ravioli bathe in an ethereal chive-sprinkled lobster cream. Headiest of all are slices of lobster alternating with slices of fresh cèpe in a buttery liaison of their juices.

 

       Each dish travels across the table as I sample my friend’s “tasting”: Unimaginably delicate foie gras is layered with girolle mushrooms that send off a peppery afterheat, in a fragile, acidy jelly. Zucchini, its blossom filled with a basil-scented zucchini mousse, floats on a chervil’d cream-of-truffle sauce. The waiter serves two garnishes – tomato in olive oil fragrant with basil, and sea salt flecked with chive – to highlight a crosscut of poached salmon ringed with a perfection of vegetables. There is a taste of the grill on the edge of the rare duck-breast slices arranged around a custardy melt of foie gras and served with a pippin-apple pancake. Occasional overcooking is the only jarring note.

 

       We’ve already savored more tastes than any two humans would ever ideally desire, but now, beyond sanity, we toy with Chantecler’s luscious cheeses, and do amazing justice to dessert – a gratin of berries in orange-juice butter tinged with Grand Marnier; a custard-meringue-berry confection; something that claims to be a frozen délice of candied chicory; raspberry parfait; and a blur of jewel-like glace fruit, tartlets, and sugary doodads so dizzying we forget to sample the house’s mythic chocolate desserts. All this, plus a bottle and a half of wine and the aperitif, costs $128 and forces us to cancel plans for a Lucullan dinner.

 

       Enthusiasm like this is difficult to cap. Hearing my raves, two Manhattan epicures – one of New York’s greatest chefs and a gourmand-entrepreneur – visited Chantecler, separately. Each was disappointed. “It was my third very good meal at Chantecler,” the chef reports, “but no shock of greatness.” It seems best to end on this note, a caveat. Shocks of greatness are most jolting in moments of low expectation.

 

Chantecler, Hotel Negresco, 37, Promenade des Anglais, Nice, (93) 88-39-51. Dinner entrées, à la carte, range from $10 to $31.50. A.E., D.C., V.

 

***

 

L’Amandier de Mougins,

 

       With its satanic fountain in the square, tiny Mougins, in the hills overlooking Cannes, is a stage set for an opera – La Grande Bouffe. Imagine a village of a few hundred souls that has eight feeding stations serious enough to be listed by Michelin… a dipper of stars, eight in all, with the three stars of Roger Vergé’s Moulin de Mougins a beacon for gourmands halfway down the hill.

 

       Vergé is the reigning monarch of this postage-stamp-size culinary compound. His L’Amandier de Mougins sits at the entrance to the village, in an old olive-oil mill, with his cooking school on the second floor and his jams, vinegars, and pickles for sale in Les Boutiques, alongside the charming, the odd, and the old, collected by his wife, Denise.

 

       Virginia creeper embraces the façade of L’Amandier. And a winding stairway climbs to the dining room, where a terrace overlooks the sea and all of Cannes below. Flowered cotton wall coverings, cushioned rustic chairs, country flowers tucked into a basket, the flicker of candlelight on soft earth colors warm the stone. Everything chef Francis Cahuvreau does reflects Vergé’s vision of a “cuisine of the sun,” simpler than the flagship’s, below, but fresh and appealing, relaxed, and, with a four-course menu at $25, service included, infinitely less expensive (though ordering à la carte could run $50 a person with wine).

 

       No way to forget where you are when you dip a stick of fennel into the offered anchoïade – a purée of anchovy and garlic moistened with olive oil. And if the waiter is slow pouring wine, tiny niçoise olives are gems to distract. Nothing could be as sprightly as thin slices of Scottish salmon “cooked” in lime and dill, served with crisp ribbons of radicchio, field greens, and chicory, a salad of cucumber in one mound, zucchini in another, and an avocado garnish. The biscuit (mold) of basslike loup in spinach leaves with a sauce of crayfish mellowed by Sauternes is by now a L’Amandier classic, as are the pastry filled with rabbit on a puddle of cream-enriched rabbit stock, a terrine of rouget in jellied fish soup, and curried langoustine with almonds.

 

       Nothing is thrilling. Everything is good – roasts garnished with splendid creamy dauphinoise potatoes and exquisite string beans, kidney perfectly cooked and served with artichoke in a sauce heady with reduced red wine, lamb on a garlicky mosaic of tomato and eggplant, and striped bass in basil butter with fennel flan and a zucchini flower filled with foie gras in a creamy mousse. Fresh white cheese is served with a ladling of thick crème fraîche, and there are homemade ice creams and ices, a gratin of apricots in almond cream with lukewarm fruit sauce, crêpes perfumed with praline, champagne-spiked peach soup with ripe fruit, and tempting pastries. Think of L’Amandier this way: Not even the most passionate gourmand can survive sensual blissout more than once of twice a week. L’Amandier offers a pleasing and delicious interlude.

 

       We stated in a small and cozy room (one of only five) on top of the three-star Moulin, (93) 75-78-24, an island of tranquility (except at mealtime). Rates, $52.50 to $96 per room. Reserve far ahead.

 

L’Amandier de Mougins, Place du Commandant Lamy, Mougins, (93) 90-00-91. Dinner entrées, a la carte, range from $7.50 to $14.

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       If Verge is a the crown prince of Mougins, then our own André Surmain, the creator of Lutèce, must be the village’s barbarian invader, but what a seductive and talented barbarian he can be. Since announcing his retirement, at 52, and selling Lutèce to his gifted partner-chef, Andre Soltner, Surmain’s life has been a Mediterranean soap opera. In the latest episode, his beautiful new blond wife has run off with a waiter. In the Drang, Surmain’s Relais a Mougins lost one of its two stars. But now, in June, he is sunny again, cheered by having his daughter and her husband in their own little bistro across the way, dashing in his sparkling chef’s whites. In top form he is irresistible – gossipy, candid, and wryly self-mocking, proud and passionate – as he cozens the flock, urging them to try his nouveau pink champagne and his Provencal wines made from a single variety of grape: Cabernet, Gamay, or Chardonnay.

 

       Of course, we are welcomed, hopelessly indulged, with Andre insisting we try a taste of almost everything. Dinner is delicious, now and then slightly flawed, but the evening crackles with wit and warmth, clearly not ours exclusively, judging by the overhead purrs of other departing clients. Church bells chiming. Handsome green-edged white octagonal china on green tablecloths. Lush flowers. Too soft but good country bread. Fabulous packaging for snails: a splash of melted garlic butter, chive, a buttery crouton, and a dab of crushed tomato.

 

       Oysters are tucked into individual pufflets of pastry with tomato dice on a bed of spinach, richly sauced. Creamy curried scrambled eggs with sea urchin are served in the eggshell with chutney and toast cut like French fries for dipping. A trio of fish are presented in a cream-enriched fumet with slivers of red pepper, and then foie gras – “the cocaine of France,” quips Surmain – with port jelly and a glass of port to sip. Tenderest chicken is napped with a creamy velouté of pea. On the side, we get slightly floury noodles tossed with vegetable julienne. And duck breast comes with chive butter, and celestial spinach in an iron marmite.

 

       Sorbets are served from a rolling silver cart. Pastries are earthbound, but Le Relais’s chocolate velvet is dense and deeply haunting in any guise – on its own, frozen, with hot chocolate, or billed as “Night and Day,” in tandem with white-chocolate mousse on a sea of bittersweet sauce.

 

       Le Relais a Mougins, Place de la Mairie, Mougins. Special menus of two or three plates of cheese, coffee, dessert, and mignardises are about $19 and $23, including wine and service. The “discovery” menu is $37 plus 15 percent service charge. Our dinner with a bottle and a half of wine amounts to $105 for two.

 

***

 

Memories

 

       They were the Marx Brothers of Roanne. Jean, the handsome, bearded one. Pierre, the smiling, rounder one. The Troisgros brothers, les freres Troisgros. In the early 1970s flowering of our fascination with great dining they were the most ingenuous sorcerers of France’s merry brigade of great chefs. I remember, on that first mad little lark in Roanne, the zany pair leading a quartet of dazed American foodniks through their favorite haunts, from the patisserie for a custard tart to the candy-makers to the town’s super deli and its cave. Here everyone had to taste a Beaujolais or three between lunch and dinner and Jean tried to persuade his hunting dog to limb the ladder into a wine vat. Then at seven, as we innocents fought through a boozy blur, they appeared in crisp whites, stretched, relaxed, serious… like champion athletes running a cinch race.

 

       And I remember Jean teaching at the Great Chefs of France cooking school in the Robert Mondavi Winery kitchen – charming, teasing, flirting, improvising, adding a new dimension to the concept of… the joy of cooking, as powerful and physical in his flinging of twenty pounds of puff pastry as Bjorn Borg making an impossible get.

 

       Jean played as passionately as he worked. So if there is any good way to die young – at 57, in the flush of one’s good prime – instant death on a tennis court on a sunshiny day in August has a certain beneficence.

 

       My close, close friend and sister epicure, an intimate of Jean’s for more than a dozen years, visited Roanne in October, full of sorrow, wary of reviving the Troisgros family’s pain with her pain. She found no weeping, no black crêpe; instead, “the most amazing energy, a rededication to perfection.” Pierre, she said, seems to have taken on Jean’s spirit, moving through the kitchen like a whirling dervish, picking up the threads, traveling to all the vineyards of Burgundy, where Jean’s suppliers were cronies as well.

 

       Pierre’s son, Michel, after apprenticeships with Michel Guerard, at Girardet, in Switzerland, and with Pierre Wynants, of the three-star Comme Chez Soi, in Brussels, returned eighteen months ago. He worked beside Jean at the grill, and he stands there now, with the poise of a natural heir. There are new dishes - obviously influenced by Girardet – and more beautiful products than ever coming into the kitchen. But the old-fashioned Troisgros spirit survives. My friend describes Pierre swinging a wild hare bought from a hunter at the back door and suggesting râble de lièvre for dinner, and then she evokes the dish itself – sauce robust and livery, spread out on the plate, lots of it, with wild cèpes and the first fresh chestnuts of the season. Troisgros at its most Rabelaisian.

 

       The house of Troisgros seems to have found a way to ease its mourning in an exuberant memorial to Jean.

Patina Restaurant Group





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