June 2, 1980 | Vintage Insatiable
What's Nouvelle? La Cuisine Bourgeoise
The nouvelle cuisine is dead. Finie. Morte. Tombée. Even before I arrived in Paris last fall, I was bombarded with the bulletins: La nouvelle cuisine is…dead. I nibbled my kiwi in puzzled dismay. The glorious nouvelle cuisine…grand lightener of sauces, liberator of cuisinary imaginations, glorifier of the homely turnip…the chariot that carried the chefs of France to stardom, that made the stove more glamorous than a politician's podium or a wide-angle lens. How could that be…such swift and total annihilation?
"So what have we got for dinner?" I queried my savvy French friends.
"La cuisine bourgeoise," I was told. "Garbure. Garlic-and-bread soup. Coq au vin. Cassoulet. Pig's feet and calf's ears and lamb's tongue." Like Grandma used to make. "La vrai cuisine du terroir," cried France's most influential Pied Pipers of gastronomy, Henri Gault and Christian Millau. When Gault-Millau speak in their powerful monthly review and annual Guide, prodding, goading, and challenging as they report, mere mortal mouths pay heed. How cunning they were a decade ago…to discern threads of evolving philosophies, to give it all a name: la nouvelle cuisine. To hand out their red toques (parallel to Michelin's stars) signifying haut stove, rewarding nouvelle cuisinastes, inspiring a codification of commandments -- lighter sauces, the banishment of flour, shorter cooking times, daily marketing, invention unto outrageousness in the marriage of unlikely combinations.
Alas, toque-hungry chefs without the nouvelle sensibility began to play the nouvelle game, committing committing unforgivable atrocities. And clever amateurs faked it prettily with a minimum of serious technique. The backlash was inevitable. Now, Gault-Millau are championing cuisine bourgeoise. They are handing out lauriers du terroir -- laurel wreaths -- to chefs who honor regional tradition. Nouvelle-den leader Paul Bocuse is laurelled. So is nouvelle high priest Michel Guérard.
Expecting to find a stuffed goose neck in every pot and a baked apple crushing every kiwi -- the reign of terroir -- I arrived in Paris to find the nouvelle cuisine as brilliant as ever. Foie gras is the staff of life in both camps, old and new: poached, raw, quick-sautéed, stuffed with garlic or prunes…dotted with bilberries or canned corn nibblets. Whew. What a relief. Brilliant minds are fooling around with cassoulet…toying with coq au vin. Thank goodness. There are soulless technicians. And techniqueless souls. There are joyless sauces. And dazzling magicians. There always were.
They call her the crayfish Queen. While most chefs today mellow their wine sauces with long, slow cooking, Dominique Nahmias sweetens hers quickly with artichoke. Mme. Nahmias doesn't like to cook anything that takes more than fifteen minutes. She is untrained, an intuitive cook, a housewife friends pestered to turn professional. Quickly discovered by alert becs fins, she is the only woman in Paris to rate three red toques from Gault-Millau. She offers crayfish with white feet or red…three ways, tends stove in high heels, slips into the small Art Deco dining room of Restaurant d'Olympe -- a funeral parlor of shiny black walls and red velvet -- to graze cheeks with her devotees, serious foodies, and, from ten on, tout Paris, the men as flashily beautiful as their beautiful women.
"It's not nouvelle cuisine," she says. "It's cuisine de femme." There is not a stock or demiglace in her kitchen, she boasts. Just two female sous-chefs spelling her at the short-order range, doing sole with thyme, turbot in a court bouillon with clams, cold duck with fried cucumber, artichoke ragout, her celebrated duck soup. The room is crowded. Tables are close. The waitress keeps bumping my heavy tub chair. And she is too busy to divide the several dishes we have ordered "une portion partagée pour deux."
Crayfish are obligatory here. It's the season. We divide a bowl of écrevissés Olympe in curry butter with a peppery-hot after-tingle…and a haunting perfume of curry that lingers on the fingers after two baths and three hand washings. Fricassee of fresh wild cèpes is herb-flecked and tangy with garlic and vinegar. A toss of meadow greens with scallops and quick-sautéed nuggets of foie gras is brightened with lemon. And by now we're so impressed that tasting tender langoustines on abject noodles is a shocking letdown. Tough but delicious smoked duck in a sweet-and-sour sauce is served with walnut-scented artichoke hearts and turnip with a hint of coriander -- Dominique's herbal infatuation.
Le dessert d'Olympe is a sampler: devilish dense chocolate fondant, kiwi-crowned fresh fruit fragrant with passion fruit, pineapple ice, and two tough little tarts-- apple and a mush of lemon. Sweet nectar of Sauternes is sold by the glass…an inspired gesture I wish all serious restaurants would imitate.
Le Restaurant D'Olympe 8 rue Nicolas Charlet, Paris 75015
In these heady times of instant stardom, Gérard Pangaud may seem a bit puffed-up. Gossip says he is a brilliant copyist, doing the borrowed dish as well as its creator…if not better. But if you've got a week in Paris and money to burn, it doesn't matter who did the original. France is copy-crazy. And at just 28, Pangaud is well established as a Wunderkind. He was already impressive three years ago when I wrote about his whimsical Pernod-sorbet aperitif, his perfect Xerox of the Troisgros vegetable terrine, and his haunting pears in Sauternes with green-peppercorn-studded crème anglaise.
This time lunch is a serious command performance for food-world power Claude Jolly (L'Express restaurant critic Lebey). Pangaud choreographs a dazzling sampler -- tiny tastes of many dishes, a gilding of his daily 210-franc ($50) dégustation. Pétoncles, France's version of our bay scallops, are nuzzled three to a shell under a tangle of vegetable julienne in silken sauce. Poached Saint-Pierre encircled by purées of leek green and red bell pepper is a handsome banner signaling, alas, classic nouvelle cuisine miscalculation: beautifully cooked components in unhappy ménage. But just barely cooked rouget sprinkled with caviar and chive in a shimmering butter sauce are sublime.
Better than sorbet to clear the palate midway is thin-sliced pear with slivers of preserved ginger. Fast-seared foie gras with truffles and humble Swiss-chard leaves is nouvelliste wit that works. But the masterwork of the day is a giant ravioli plump with sweetbread filling, surrounded by wild mousserons in a buttery puddle. Venison, too cooked for my taste, comes with four little ovals of delicious purées-- beet, celery, dried pea, and pumpkin. Crème anglaise-filled crêpes on a bed of spicy apple sauce is too sweet, too fussy a finale. Better by far: raspberry tartlets.
Friends who reserved recently at Pangaud with solid-gold credentials had a dismal meal. Chef Pangaud, it seems, was out. Beware.
Gerard Pangaud, 1 round-point Rhin et Danube, Boulogne 92000
If you're living each day as if it were the last, as some of us do, there's no better terminus for brinkmanship eating than France. Maguy LeCoze, the dimpled directrice of Le Bernardin, is inspired by such folly. Maguy is hot jazz with scarlet cupid's bow, shiny black Dutch-boy bob, and futuristic jumpsuit, dividing her time now between Le Bernardin and Prunier-Madeleine, where she and her brother, chef Gilbert LeCoze, are nurturing an extraordinary renaissance. What a brother-and-sister act they are, these handsome Bretons. Attacking life, tickling away at higher speed than mere mortals, crazy, bawdy, vulnerable, dedicated -- Maguy to Gilbert and success, Gilbert to his métier.
Saturday lunch at Le Bernardin. We are three, and Maguy wants us to taste everything. She is ordering half portions. "I do it for anyone," she swears. So then…half a portion of tiny gray shrimp in a crock, fragile and sweet. Saint-Pierre, a firm white fish, is placed raw on a plate, then bathed in a coriander-spiked broth. By the time it reaches the table it is opaque, and sublime. There are fried baby rouget to share, baby bar sautéed in butter with cèpes, and crisp fried baby squid. Petoncles are cloaked in saffron-and-tomato-scented butter. Is it possible we can do justice to all this at lunch? Why not? Dinner is hours away. Time for chocolate mousse, deep dark espresso, and a restorative nap.
Le Bernardin, 35 quai de la Tournelle, Paris 75005
The two Pruniers are Parisian institutions, dedicated to the bounty of the lakes and sea…till recently, fusty with tradition. But now that Gilbert and Maguy LeCoze have joined Aldo Funaro in a passionate rescue, Prunier-Madeleine is newly aglow. Lalique windows and spiffy antique plumbing have been preserved. And Gilbert has revitalized the kitchen with his philosophy that fish must be cooked to savor the natural flavor -- in its skin, briefly, simply and lightly sauced or served in its broth.
A few items are as pricey as pearls. One evening my companion downs ten sea urchins-- I take care of two -- at $45 a dozen. With an intensely perfumed crab soup, a sampling of oysters -- raw, and in curry butter with a tangle of carrot julienne -- lobster in basil-scented butter, and Saint Pierre, too cooked and very salty from the green of leeks, dinner for two, with the perfect sorbets of the master sorbetier Berthillon and a modest Bordeaux, costs $156, including tip.
A special blessing of the born-again Prunier is its Sunday opening. That leaves time to return for the shellfish platter and a magnificent fricassee of baby shellfish in a stunning broth fortified with tomato, basil, tarragon, and a fusillade of pepper. The chocolate cake is a bit fussy, but the ice creams are extraordinary, delirious chestnut and caramel, clearly food for gods.
Prunier-Madeleine, 9 rue Duphot, Paris 75001
"Are you going to France for work or fun?" someone asked.
"How can I tell the difference?" I replied. Those of us who are paid to eat…in France, no less…enjoy a rosy confusion.
"We'll go to my neighborhood bistro," my French gallant announces.
"But I'm working…" I start. Little neighborhood bistros will not do, I want to explain.
"My neighborhood bistro is Le Duc," he says.
"Ah…" Meekly. "But of course." And the meek shall inherit Le Duc's sense-reeling bounty of the sea. If I had only one meal to eat in Paris, I once wrote, I'd dine at Le Duc. The Minchellis -- Paul in the kitchen, Jean at market and in the dining room -- are immortals of the nouvelle cuisine. It is torture not to taste scallops of dorade in a cream of clams, raw coquilles Saint-Jacques and loup tartare, basil-scented rouget, or a tepid soup of lobster, langoustines, and scallops. But my mind is fixed on Le Duc's mythic panaché of shellfish ($31). So here I sit smearing butter or mayonnaise on crusty country bread; tugging baby barnacles from their shell with a pin; spearing whelk; tasting clams, briny belons, and oysters from the Ile de Ré; sipping a young, lightly chilled red wine.
My friend is more prudent, measuring appetite to savor langoustines à la nage in their ambrosial broth. "This is God in corduroy," he translates. "I don't know if that means anything in English."
"Heaven on earth," I assure him.
Le Duc, 243 boulevard Raspail, Paris 75014
Chef-Patron Jean-Claude Ferrero is a handsome mountain man come from his restaurant at Serre-Chevalier on the Alpine ski trails to make his mark in Paris. But already the cognoscenti have found him, and his prices play footsie with megalomania. Still, just walking into Le Marcande, off the rue Faubourg-St.-Honoré, is to discover enchantment. A stylish sunny room encircling a garden, with a glassed-in control tower kitchen. Raw veal sprinkled with chive, intoxicating in its lemon-scented bath of intense olive oil. Lobster cooked just to the millisecond of perfection, still lukewarm, almost overwhelmed by the same heady dose of olive oil. A hearty oxtail soup truffled under its puff-pastry roof à la Paul Bocuse…needing salt and pepper. Splendid steak of calf's liver, rare in an exquisite honey-vinegar sauce. Lovely fricassee of sweetbreads and kidneys with mushrooms in cream. Four little venison chips with a purée of celeriac. And celestial sorbets, plus an irresistible "prelat" du chocolat.
Le Marcande, 52 rue de Miromesnil, Paris 75008
It is not Alain Dutournier's day. Not for me. His lovingly restored fin de siècle bistro, Le Trou Gascon, with its wedding-cake tin ceiling and flirtatious murals, has long been a magnet luring dedicated epicures to the gastronomic wasteland of the twelfth arrondissement. At 31, Dutournier is as praised for his devotion to the food of his native Landes as for nouvelle whimsy. Unhappily, his 190-franc ($42.25) de tout un peu, a little of everything, emphasizes whimsy without soul.
First shock: the canapé offered with a glass of sweet Jurançon-- a disk of sausage on a lukewarm square of toast, and soggy cheese straws. Next letdown: too many fiercely competitive flavors on a single plate with one sauce invading all turfs, guaranteed to dim the joy of even Dutournier's masterful terrine of hare with foie gras, and the smoked goose sliced prosciutto-thin with crisp raw mushrooms in salade with pine nuts and pomegranate seeds. Pine nuts and pomegranate seeds? Really? A ragout of baby snails with cauliflower is best quickly forgotten, and ribbons of chewy duck with a forlorn, little corn-niblet-studded pancake is uninspired too. Even the melted goat cheese is an embarrassment. But a puff-pastry package of quiveringly tender langoustines wrapped in spinach is a delicate triumph, as are exquisite chocolate cake and the best pistachio ice cream ever tasted.
I suspect it's a mistake to write off Dutournier without exploring his garbure, his foie gras with "pearls of gentle garlic," his magret of duck, his tripe en daube. The hallelujahs have been so insistent. I'll try again.
Le Trou Gascon, 40 rue Taine, Paris 75012
On the Road
Gourmaniacal detours are old hat to me. I once took a train to Brussels just for lunch because the restaurants of Paris were on strike for a day. I've driven 600 kilometers for dinner at the Auberge de l'Ill and once missed the plane home because I wouldn't leave Paris without a loaf of Poilane bread and fresh goat cheese.
If you travel on your stomach you know the way to fabled truffle fields, through France's star-studded mid-belly, to Lyon, Roanne, Mionnay, Chagny, Digoin, Saulieu. Serious mouths make the pilgrimage through Champagne to Alsace, or even east to the château country. But few casual gastronomic adventurers find their way to southwest France. That neglect has bred camaraderie among the chefs of Gascogne. Come to eat-- scholar or sensualist --and the hosts of Languedoc and Les Landes will send you to the nearest confrere. With Michel Guérard installed now in bucolic Eugénie-les-bains, traffic is more feverish and the lure is freshly irresistible. To visit Guérard and eat anywhere else is folly. (Alas, we arrived during his winter closing.) So explore the countryside with the Hôtel de France in Auch as your homing ground. Then go to Eugénie for total immersion in sensory bliss.
Luxury at last, at a reasonable price. After the dreariness of way stations crossing the Massif Central, the Hotel de France in Auch welcomes -- warm, modern, and sumptuous with its high-ceilinged rooms, funky antiques, and twenty-first-century bathrooms. I especially like the gray flannel room with its terrace over the plaza. But what warms the marble and makes all that lace and velvet homey is the chef-proprietor, dashing and energetic André Daguin, with his dry wit in two languages and his sophisticated wife, Jocelyn.
The evening begins with liquid thunder as aperitif -- a pousse-rapière, orange liquer and white Armagnac -- and Gascogne munchies: smoked and salt-cured duck strips and fritons, crisp curls of goose skin. The waitresses look as if they were born to fillet and carve in the vast old-fashioned dining room with its urn of soaring pampas grass. Daguin zips to and fro, reciting Gascogne shtik.
Expecting us, he has orchestrated a numbing feast of cuisine du terroir. Grandmother's goose-head soup, primitive, unforgettable, goose heads afloat…liquid DNA. A cassoulet with a nouvelle touch -- fresh fava beans rather than the traditional dried beans of Taubes. "From America," Daguin footnotes. "Christopher Columbus brought fava beans back from the New World. So you see, the nouvelle cuisine dates back to 1944." Now Daguin appears, armed with a jet sprawling liquid nitrogen to turn white Armagnac into a granité before our eyes…a snowy palate refresher. "My grandfather had only two teeth near the end of his life," our host confides. "But he ate foie gras and drank Armagnac every day and lived to be 94." For a moment, contemplating a giant shank of lamb, I'm not sure I'll survive the night. But only a fool would die before dessert. Somehow I manage a taste of most everything on the cart. Best: ice cream suffering a benign pox of truffles, and another blending prunes and Armagnac in cream.
Next evening, sampling from the à la carte menu, we taste barely coddled quail eggs in cocotte with nuggets of foie gras, another intoxicating soup made from a squash called citrouille, oysters poached under a mantle of sauce thickened with a purée of smoked duck steak -- an artifice of obscuration. From the day's foie gras assortment, raw salt-cured foie gras makes otherwise reasonable notions seem unduly tortured. Its voluptuous purity is haunting. Lamb sweetbreads are awkwardly handled in feuillete. A decade ago I first read about an odd dish called "lou magret"…Daguin was the source. Tasting it now -duck steak grilled in its skin -- it is tender, rare, and rich in flavor. Last summer's peaches have been stewed and preserved with peppercorns. An inspired affectation.
Daguin is so dashing and confident, it's a shock when his inventions fizzle. But he is also so charming and warm, I'm not sure how much that matters.
Hotel de France, Place de la Liberation, Auch 32000
Wherever we go, Paula Wolfert has preceded us, a cyclone of passion and energy, gathering recipes for her new cookbook on the southwest of France. Paula, whose love affair with Morocco culminated in her glorious celebration Couscous and Other Good Food From Morocco, is a ferocious scholar for whom the stratification of a sauce is more important than the origin of the species must have been to Darwin.
"Old-fashioned cassoulet is finished," cries Paula as we embrace in the lobby of Daguin's Hôtel de France. "No more garbure. Not the old way. Everything is lighter. The foods of the future are confit de canard and stuffed goose neck." I can see she is in a seizure of discovery. I decide to tag along without debate. Life, after all, is full of a number of things. I'm happy with cabbage. And happy with kings.
We drive off to lunch in Toulouse at Restaurant Vanel. Chef-proprietor Lucien Vanel cooks his mother's dishes, Paula informs me, but with the influence of Jacques Manière. The liaison of these two conflicting metaphors produces a memorable lunch. We share several dishes divided in two…and even divide a few half portions, beginning with a civet of artichoke and mussels in a chive-spiced red-wine sauce flavored with carrot and lardoons of pork, the crisp artichoke earthy against mussel sweetness. Vanel's voluptuous gratin of sweetbreads and scallops has a hint of orange. The pigeon is tender and rare, exactly as we requested, with the liver a sweet punctuation in the cèpe-strewn sauce. There is fried parsley, crisp squiggles of fried onion, and delicious oily disks of eggplant. Then, from the dishes of Vanel's native Quercy, we choose a heady stew of pig's feet and cock's comb in the wine of Cahors, served with scalloped potatoes in cream. And, of course -- with Paula as oracle, beaming --Vanel's magnificent stuffed goose neck in a tart purée of sorrel. It's studded with truffles but, still, $16 for a goose neck seems rash to me.
Restaurant Vanel, 22 rue Maurice-Fontvieille, Toulouse 31000
My friend the Rocky Mountain Sybarite is always game for high livering. But twice-a-day dining with the philosophy that no foie gras should go untasted has dimmed his passion for excess by the time we reach the fourteenth-century chapel that houses La Table des Cordeliers in Condom, on the road between Auch and Bordeaux. How fitting it will seem to any gastronomic pilgrim to worship here. The stone walls soar and break into vaulted arches. Sun filters through stained glass and a brilliant rose window. The insistent tap of high heels as a stylish young woman transports exquisite langoustines across the room is practically religious.
But this is not Lourdes, and my sybaritic friend prudently orders the modest $12 lunch as I propose to explore the $30 dégustation. After one third of a lightly creamed mussel soup, he begins to revive. Soon we are both tasting everything. Langoustines are just tepid, delicately poached, each wrapped in a tender cabbage leaf and tossed into a tumble of fresh greens zesty with chive and garnished with chopped tomato. Sole is rolled, stuffed, and tastily sauced, but the crayfish en garde taste weary. Fast-seared foie gras is tremblingly tender and rare, delicious with tart sautéed apple. Icy white Armagnac is the trou gascon offered to clear the palate for a tasty stuffed chicken leg and my friend's ragout of duck with a scattering of vegetables. The Rocky Mountain Sybarite throws caution into the winds for the regional dessert -- crackling-crisp tourtière with prunes and a sprinkle of Armagnac.
La Table des Cordeliers, Allées du Général-de-Gaulle, Condom 32100
[note: Jean Louis Palladin, who put Condom on the map, was no longer at Cordeliers on this visit.]
L'Aubergade is an ancient stone castle smack in the middle of the little nowhere town of Puymirol, a detour off the road to Auch -- an extraordinary treasure all ready to be discovered. There is a welcoming fire on the waist-high hearth of a storybook chimney. Ducks waddle and quack in a vestiary off the entrance. The owners are young and handsome. Michel and Maryse Trama. Michel has brought all the invention of the nouvelle cuisine to Puymirol, where it appears as cliché. The terrines and birds and innards that emerge from his one-man kitchen are predictably arranged on giant plates (all of them different, a disarming touch). But many of the sauces are too reduced, oversweet, exaggeratedly acid…an explosion where a sedate bang would do.
There is a delicate duck liver poached in Sauternes with peeled grapes, and fast-seared duck liver with a deglazing of verjus (the fiercely tart juice of unripened grapes). Preserved goose giblets in a salade of young chicory has the scent of hazelnuts. And there is crayfish salade with a ginger accent. Fingers of sole are overwhelmed by an intense purée of red bell pepper. Ainguillette of duck with fresh figs is quite beautiful, sweetened by a splash of cassis. The magret of duck is sweet too, with fruit, wine, sweet-potato purée, and onion perfumed with honey. There is apple in the celery root, and pumpkin pancakes -- too many sweet witticisms, mysterious touches that Trama keeps challenging us to guess.
But the kidneys are rare and delicious. Sweetbreads in a reduction flavored with sherry are splendid too. And L'Aubergade desserts are a triumph -- suprême de chocolat (between a mousse and a truffle in texture, with a mint-scented crème anglaise), almond-flavored charlotte veiled with hot chocolate, tingling sorbets.
Michel Trama has a way to go before he can hope to astonish the serious gastronome, but most adventurers in this corner of France will be thrilled by the welcome and style and ambition blossoming in this magnificent old château. And gently priced too.
L'Aubergade, 52 rue Royale, Purmirol 47270
After a week of devotion to la cuisine du terroir, I am longing for a dose of even tortured sophistication. Francis Garcia is the Fredy Girardet of Bordeaux, I've been told. That's quite a likening…comparing young Garcia to the most exciting creator in today's gastronomic firmament. Garcia recently left two-star acclaim at La Reserve, outside Bordeaux, to take over Clavel, across from the railroad station.
Clavel. Pink cloths. Unremarkable drawings. Mme. Garcia in black-seamed stockings, a slim, pretty blonde. The obligatory giant plates and silver-cloche service. I taste Garcia's lamb-brain salade…and fall in love. The brains are lukewarm and delicious. This salade, with its slicings of artichoke and endive, curls of chicory and fresh chervil, is their suitable fate. The parade that follows is brilliant too. Poached oysters nestled with foie gras in a shell made of tenderest pastry. A tiny feuilleté stuffed with snails in a butter sauce flecked with ham and shallot. Fillet of firm white loup in a pool of nantua with a diadem of lobster cooked just to tender perfection. Ribbons of duck that could have been rarer, in a juice flavored with cèpes. There is just enough '59 Mission Haut Brion left to grace chalky goat cheese and a fine Roquefort. My assiette gourmande -- three heady sorbets surrounded by exquisite fruit, most if it ripe --is familiar, right down to the kiwi…familiar and welcome. Francis Garcia can stand on his own without comparison.
Clavel, 44 rue Charles-Domercq, Bordeaux 33800
La Tupina is small, crowded, and fashionable…a Bordeaux outpost of southwest cooking pure and hearty -- duck preserved in its own fat, preserved gizzards and pork tongue, duck hearts skewered and grilled, and fresh duck in ragout and cassoulet. Jars of fruit and duck confits line the entry, and birds on a spit grill before the fire. The waiters wear baggy T-shirts, and chef Jean-Pierre Xiradakis is dapper in chef's coat over blue jeans.
Properly fatty rillettes of duck on toasted squares of country bread are served with aperitif. Among the cold entrées are raw beef, mignons of duck in shallot-zesty vinaigrette, and duck smoked like ham. Chicory salade is tossed with crisps of duck skin and garlicky croutons or graced with sautéed foie gras. A poor man's version with too cooked chicken livers is disappointing. Ventre de veau is tender tripe on a buttery garlicked crouton in a heady broth. There is an accent of tomato in Tupina's cassoulet. It is lunch, not epiphany. Mediocre sorbets are served with a little dish of what taste like chunks of doughnut. They're called merveilles. They are not. The house has 60 Armagnacs.
La Tupina, 6 rue Porte-de-la-Monnaie, Bordeaux 33000
Detour To Greatness
Is Restaurant Girardet, outside Lausanne, still the most exciting French restaurant in the world? Yes. Fredy Girardet never ceases to awe with his own unique mastery of kitchen chemistry-- poaching and grilling creatures of the earth and sea to the ultimate of bursting juiciness and gracing them in an astonishment of shimmering sauces. The kitchen is like the atelier of a great master-- full of worshipful apprentices and eager journeymen under Girardet's charming second, Michel Colin.
In nine visits I have never tasted the same dish twice, except when I insisted. Girardet's fast-seared foie gras deglazed with vinegar in a shower of herbs haunts the memory and must be tasted again. I could not let anyone I loved stop in Crissier and miss passion-fruit soufflé.
Unforgettable this trip: briny oysters on tenderest cabbage in a see-through sauce freckled with caviar. Quail cooked velvet with seared nuggets of foie gras and nut-scented endive. Morsels of lotte, heavily peppered and wrapped in lettuce under a cloak musty with tomato, pepper, garlic, herbs, and essence of lobster shell. Girardet's version of peasant headcheese -- sweetbreads around a heart of fresh foie gras. A drop-dead mille-feuille with fresh pineapple.
If for a tiny moment on the ninth visit Girardet is less stunning than in times past, it may be because he is so imitated everywhere. Discovery is, I suppose, always more thrilling than confirmation. In Girardet's case, the confirmation of his creative genius is an endless joy.