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We see France
January 13, 2001

by Matthew Amster-Burton

French food is a mystery wrapped in an enigma wrapped in parchment paper and baked in a slow oven for two hours. If you write about food, you're expected to know your brandade from your bordelaise, and I don't. In Seattle I rarely eat French food, because I don't cook it at home and the good French restaurants in Seattle are expensive.

The fundamental problem is that only a small percentage of any food is genuinely excellent, but to my palate, mediocre French food is much worse than mediocre Italian, Thai, or Chinese food. On the other hand, great French cooking, which leans heavily on drawing out the true flavors of quality ingredients, is divine. One of the great bargains of fine dining in New York is lunch at La Cote Basque, where for under $40 you get an amuse-bouche and your pick of any of the classic appetizers, main dishes, and over-the-top desserts. ($40 is a lot to pay for lunch, I know, but an equivalent experience at most comparable restaurants in New York is twice the price.)

The man at the table next to us at Procope, the neighborhood brasserie where we ate our first night in Paris, leaned over to me. "They used to say you can't get a bad meal in Paris," he said. "You can." But most of the meals served here are more indifferent than bad, equivalent to the American food served at the average coffee shop.

Dinner at Procope and lunch the next day at Brasserie Bofinger were comfortable if not gastronomically moving. I had a fine French onion soup at the former and choucroute garnie àl'alsacienne at the latter. But at neither place did you get the sense that the food was the heart, or even the sweetbreads, of the establishment. The service was adequate but obsequious. I asked the waiter at Procope to recommend a wine, and he began reading the wine list off to me verbatim.

Speaking of which, I have no complaints about the wine here. Laurie doesn't drink wine, and so when we dine in American restaurants I am limited to the wines by the glass, which is usually like being stuck with chicken by the McNugget. Here every list has plenty of half-bottles available, and they're cheap, less than what you'd pay in a US wine shop. Eating in the brasseries means being having your pick of wines from Alsace, and they are some of the world's most refreshing.

My ambivalent experience has been compounded, no doubt, by the fact that my command of the French language is similar to my currency with the food. I studied French in school for eight years (ending in 1992) but never set foot into a Francophone city until Sunday. When we were in Bangkok the language was a total barrier, and it was reassuring to have that as a given. Here, it's like being captain of the junior high basketball team and going one-on-one with Tim Duncan. We're playing with the same rulebook, but it's not the same game. Or perhaps it's more like having a hearing impairment: I can express myself admirably, but parsing the rapid elocution of the average Parisian means grabbing every fourth word and hoping to fill in the blanks and figure out whether I'm missing a "pas". Luckily, the French are vigorous users of body language, and no negative answer goes unaccompanied by a broad Gaulish frown.

Choucroute garnie, to jump back a moment, is an Alsatian favorite that has taken over Paris the way larb has Bangkok. It's a mountain of sauerkraut cooked with and topped with a minimum of four cured or smoked pork products, and occasionally some other meaty items. Because of the vinegary bite of the sauerkraut it isn't quite as rich as it sounds, but it could still induce naptime in the average aerobics instructor. My choucroute at Bofinger was garnished with duck confit, slab bacon, a stubby pork sausage, and a hot dog.

Eating in Paris means coming to terms with your feelings about bread. Guidebooks warn that vegetarians will run into trouble here, but veggie options are plentiful. it's actually the low-carbs and gluten-intolerant who will meet their Waterloo. For breakfast our first morning we had a croissant, then proceeded via a circuitous route to Lionel Poilâne's celebrated bakery on Rue du Cherche-Midi. Poilâne sells various pastries and souvenirs, but tourists and locals alike come for the bread, a huge wholegrain sourdough boule. Some of the loaves had holiday designs baked into the top.

We shared a quarter-loaf (11F) as a mid-morning snack. Pain Poilâne is not one-dimensionally yeasty like many American loves; in fact, it's resolutely three-dimensional in all respects. Whole-grain bread isn't my favorite, but Poilâne's is certainly among the best, dark and crusty with a dense crumb. It would, I imagine, be best served stale, either in the Catalan style with olive oil and tomato, or toasted for bruschetta.

Dozens of Paris cafes serve sandwiches on Poilâne bread, but today we had baguette sandwiches (one cheese, one salami) from Paul, an attractive chain boulangerie. For dessert, I had a stupendous chocolate eclair (chocolate icing, chocolate pastry cream) from La Maison du Chocolat, an edible museum near the Bon Marche. At this point I felt like selling my soul to Dr. Atkins.

By midafternoon I was desperate for any form of sustenance not dominated by wheat, but I couldn't think of anything besides a piece of cheese. Come to think of it, a nice pate would have been fine, but the point stands: Parisians run on bread in many forms, most of it excellent.

Fortunately, respite arrived that night in the form of L'Épi Dupin, a bistro near Poilâne. Because the restaurant was recently featured for the second time in Jeffrey Steingarten's column in Vogue, it was packed with New Yorkers. Restaurateurs in Paris must feel like Jewish kids in the presence of Pere Noel when Steingarten enters their establishments; sure, he comes bearing gifts, but at what cost to my immortal soul?

Fortunately, L'Épi Dupin emerges intact from the onslaught, and while the waitstaff seems peeved, the food is modern and impeccably French. The bistro formula is three courses for around $25. To keep the price down, portion size is modest (which I prefer anyway) and luxury ingredients kept to a minimum. Bistro cooking also tends to represent the prejudices of its chef.

Appetizers: For me, a tomato terrine topped with tiny quenelles of turtle meat, brown sauce, and pumpkin foam. For Laurie, a caramelized endive and chevre tart. One of the appeals of going to a bistro is picking something randomly from the menu and putting your faith in the chef; I have never had anything like the turtle-topped terrine and may never again, but I snapped it up (sorry) and enjoyed every bite except the one that had the tiny bit of shell in it. (NOTE: a French food expert informed me that what I had was almost certainly tourteau, a type of crab, and not tortue, turtle. Well, at least I was right about the shell.) The pumpkin foam, admittedly, didn't taste like much of anything. Laurie's tartine was a bit stringy but had great cheesy flavor.

Main courses: Sauteed hazelnut-crusted red snapper over onion and chanterelles. Roasted sandre (a fish, we determined before ordering by getting the opinion of nearby tables) with cauliflower, the cauliflower browned in the saute pan and cooked until fully soft. I have been eating undercooked cauliflower all my life. The best part of my dish was the onion, which had been cooked down to its essence. I love onions.

Delightful side dish: Conversation. Our first neighbors were a lesbian Jewish couple from New York. Since the tables at L'Epi's tiny space are stacked like army barracks, you can't help but overhear nearby menu-deciphering activities and lend your two cents. The next couple at the adjacent table was from Venezuela, and we conversed in an informal mixture of French, Spanish, and English.

Dessert: Sable aux clementines with verveine ice cream and cumin-orange sauce. Chocolat chaud with thyme ice cream. Herbal glaces seem to be all the rage. We first enountered them back when Laurie had a bay leaf ice cream at the Gramercy Tavern. In small doses, I approve, and oddly enough, thyme and chocolate is a delicious combination. Some of the best chocolate, like Venezuela's El Rey, has strong herbal overtones, and these are highlighted when the chocolate is paired with actual herbs. Orange and cumin was a less successful experiment.

There was also bread, of course, in the form of the eponymous épi, and a morsel of mild soft cheese preceding dessert.

A good restaurant makes you feel happier throughout the meal. I entered L'Epi Dupin feeling overly starched and exhausted from a day on my feet and left exhilarated and raving about the experience. The half-bottle of Crozes-Hermitage blanc probably had something to do with this, but the restaurant has an unforced convivial atmosphere that would be hard not to fall in love with.

L'Os à Moëlle's fluorescent and satisfying menu

L'Os à Moëlle, a bistro sitting at the very edge of Paris proper, had less of a buzz than L'Epi Dupin but felt more an authentic French experience. We were the only Americans (even though it was mentioned in the same Vogue article) and the food was earthier, more the sort of thing you might make at home. The menu is written daily on blackboards, one of which was propped up next to our table on a chair.

Laurie had a spectacular pumpkin soup with chives and chunks of parmesan cheese. My starter was foie gras breaded with pain d'épices (gingerbread) and sautéed, served with a watercress and apple salad. Not only was it spectacularly delicious, but it pointed up how acids can be used to cut richness, since foie gras is about the richest thing you can possibly eat and without the vinaigrette on the salad I wouldn't have made it through more than one slice. As it was, I bravely soldiered through three.

I wasn't enchanted with my main course (braised pig's cheek with du puy lentils) and dessert (sauteed pineapple with, believe it or not, more thyme ice cream), but Laurie had a nice piece of red snapper with creamy lobster stock, and french toast with apple sorbet for dessert.

La Bonne Soupe

by Laurie Amster-Burton

One thing the Parisians do beautifully, besides bread, is soup.  A natural combination, of course.  For our first real meal, Christmas Eve, we dined at Procope, a heavily touristed and overpriced but still slightly charming restaurant.  My appetizer was the house soup: Soupe Pistou de Maman Procope.  Hearty chicken broth well stocked with vegetables and pasta was ladled into my plate, with a lump of garlicky pistou and a shard of Parmesan on the side.  I spooned bits of pistou into the golden broth, where it melted slowly and offered bursts of garlic-basil in every mouthful.

I have an affinity for most things pumpkin (ice cream, pie, bread, soup), so I couldn't resist trying the soupe au potiron at L'Os a Moelle.  We came in from a gray and dripping day;  nothing could have been better than hot, savory soup.  I first received a soup plate amply showered with deeply brown croutons, shavings of parmesan, and minced fresh chives—a still life on white china.  Then the waiter approached with a tureen from which he ladled the deeply orange liquid.  The flavors were delectable.

Our last evening, at La Régalade, Matthew took his turn with soup (I settled for champagne and caviar), and he was not disappointed.  All we knew from the menu was that it was chestnut (and we had to ask the waitress to figure out that much).  He was presented with a lightly creamy, softly nutty brew in which floated a lump of jellied foie gras, and when he finished the bowl, the waitress offered him seconds from a tureen at no extra charge.

The soups of France lived up to their reputation, including the classic French onion that Matthew enjoyed on Christmas Eve.  (I have a feeling that French Onion Soup may be the subject of a future grub shack report.)  Whether earthy or elegant, they made excellent entrées in wintry Paris.

La Régalade

La Régalade is named by Vogue's Jeffrey Steingarten as the place that started it all, the first in the currently thriving Parisian bistro tradition.  The food certainly seemed good enough to start a culinary revolution--traditional yet modern, luscious ingredients beautifully cooked at more than reasonable prices.

We began with glasses of Krug Grande Cuvée champagne.  When they couldn't provide a kir, for some reason, I said I'd have what he's having, not realizing that Matthew had just ordered an expensive glass of one of the world's best champagnes.  But it was, after all, our last night in Paris.  While we sipped, a terrine and a crock of cornichons appeared at our elbows; very French!

La Régalade's menu was one of the more challenging that we encountered.  While we both know more culinary than any other type of French, it was replete with esoteric terms for various animals and animal parts.  We ordered, hoping for the best, and we got it.

The entrées (c'est-à-dire, appetizers), were heavy on the oysters, scallops, and foie gras, so naturally I decided to go for caviar.  I'd never eaten caviar before, and it came with potato blinis.  I like potato; why not?  Besides, I could sit there with a beatific smile exclaiming, "I'm eating champagne and caviar!" while Matthew nodded tolerantly.  A generous portion of tiny black eggs was mounded on a hot, crisp potato pancake, with sour cream drizzled around it.  I haven't started craving caviar, but found it quite edible eaten in mouthfuls with the potato.  It was smoky and flavorful.  Matthew's entrée was the aforementioned chestnut soup.

My plat continued the pancake theme: a delicately cooked thick cod steak balanced upon a crisped cake of brandade.  This blend of salt cod and potatoes is a French classic, and this fragrant version, topped with lightly dressed watercress, was mouthwatering.  I cleaned my plate.  Matthew also ordered a classic, rognons de veau, aka veal kidneys.  The ample portion of organs was cooked a point and had good chew, coated with a buttery bacon-onion sauce.

Matthew desserted on slices of delicious cheese served with spicy jelly, while I thoroughly enjoyed the signature Soufflé au Grand Marnier.  The crispy, sugary crust melted on my tongue, while the custardy insides delivered a hit of liquor.  While this was very satisfying, my endless craving for sweets also led me to enjoy the very homemade madeleines that rounded off the meal.

Final Thoughts

This week in the NYT food section, critic William Grimes bemoans the ubiquity of "comfort food"—meatloaf, mashed potatoes, ice cream sodas—at even the best restaurants in New York.  "…[T]hrill seekers…who, instead of sniffing and picking and probing when something odd turns up on the plate, dive right in, sending off sparks with their forks. We have a name for such people," he writes.  "We call them adults."

Before my time in Paris I probably wouldn't have known quite how to respond to Grimes except to say that we can't all be so neophilic, and gloating about it is boring.  In Paris, however, I tried a number of things I've never had before:  caviar, foie gras, veal kidneys, turtle, and various terrines (something I've never liked), and I enjoyed them all.  Probably (well, maybe) equally good or better preparations of these things could be found at home, but I've never been moved to seek them out.

What we choose to eat and what we like is influenced more by setting than by anything else.  We are born with practically no taste prejudices;  Chinese babies do not automatically crave rice any more than English ones do cold toast.   Put Grimes's supposed Peter Pans in a setting where they feel cared for, give them something good to drink and good company, and watch their minds and palates open. 

Perhaps we should talk about "comfort rooms" as well as comfort food.  You can see the principle at work in restaurants like The French Laundry, a Napa Valley landmark known for serving course after course of the most weird and inventive food imaginable, like lamb's tongue with lamb's lettuce and oysters with tapioca.  I've read the Laundry's cookbook and it didn't make me want to cook (not that I could) or eat any of the food, but I have no doubt that if I went to the restaurant I would thoroughly enjoy my meal, just as the people (surely many of them less adventurous than I) who pack the restaurant nightly do.

The quality of the food has something to do with that, but the emphasis on creating a quality experience matters more.  Service and decor are part of that, but there's something else:  the restaurateur has to have an intuitive sense of how to make people happy. In the US, probably no one has better intuition than Danny Meyer, and I'd try anything at Tabla. But most American restaurants, even those that serve marvelous food, don't do this very well—and most Parisian restaurants do.  No wonder, then, that Americans order mashed potatoes and gravy when they go out.  If the restaurant can't offer a sense of well-being through other means, at least we can latch on to food that provides a memory of security.[HOME]

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