December 4, 1995 | Vintage Insatiable

Bouterin: To Grand-mére’s House

          Forgive me if I sometimes write as if I’d seen and eaten it all. Over the year’s I’ve mastered tall towers of yellowtail, flying buttresses of rice cracker, chocolate pianos, feathers etched in kiwi coulis, and conch sorbet. So I’m surprised and delighted to immerse myself in the new. I’m at Bouterin eating an herb garden.


          Antoine Bouterin, a proud son of St. Rémy in Provence, made a name for himself in the thirteen years he cooked at Le Perigord. But Le Perigord is as far from Provence as Boston is from New Orleans. In the past few years especially, as he struggled for the courage to make the break, he seemed to have lost his focus. Now on his own at last in what he calls “my little Provençal farmhouse,” he’s cooking better than he has in years and turning out food with a look that is uniquely his own. Almost everything that emerges from his kitchen in the faraway eastern perch that once housed the infamous Palace (and then Sandro’s) looks like a small patch of unruly lawn and tastes as fresh as the morning.


          Not only his salads but even the slow-cooked stews and daubes are strewn with fresh-snipped greenery in a passion that is neither classic, grande, haute, nouvelle, Escoffier, nor Bocuse. It’s pure Antoine. Growing up fatherless from the age of 10, he marveled at how his grandmother Marguerite “could take a little eggplant from the field and a little basil and in five minutes make the most unbelievable thing.” Grand-mère opened Le Café de l’Épicerie (“The Grocery Café”) in St. Rémy in 1915 and passed along her passion to Antoine.


           He invokes the classic dried herbs de Provence as an inherited license to strew greens willy-nilly. Happily, the sawdustlike herbs we so dutifully toted home from early pilgrimages to France are obsolete, now that boutique farming nurtures verdant spriglets year-round. Sometimes this herbduggery blends happily into a forkful -- as with tonight’s generous amuse-bouche. Wisps of chervil add a faint grassiness when chewed with the goat-cheese-frosted tapenade on slivers of smoked duck. I relish tasting garden between bites of eggplant caviar on parsley blinis. Even the sensational beef stew, the daube of his mother, Marie-Therese -- sweetened with carrots, onions, garlic, and red wine -- gets a tumble of herbs.


          And it is like home: warm and cozy and cluttered, noise echoing off the rustic stone floor despite the antique-green-painted soundproofing. His grandmother treasured every artifact that ever came her way, every crock, every doll and copper mold, the teapots and etchings. “I feel like I’m in the country,” cries my guest, the sophisticated Broadway producer. A country inn without the highway noise outside.


          “I always pictured this place in my mind,” says Bouterin. “Everything I bring from home, it fits.” The peeling painted cupboard is a prize from Provence. The dishes were collected over the years, four here, half a dozen there, along with gorgeous white porcelain plates from Italy big enough to hold the small turkey. Pottery and porcelain, nothing matches. It does all fit.


           In the first few weeks, the service is a farce, proving that just being French and willing doesn’t necessarily make one a waiter. These earnest fellows have the accent but can’t seem to get the dishes to the right table and haven’t a clue who ordered what. And the kitchen pace can sometimes falter. Then Antoine circles the room, dimpled and grinning as he woos your complicity. So happy, no one dares to complain. And if you’ve chosen the seafood risotto to begin, followed by Mom’s rustic beef daube, you’ll feel as pampered as a kid on the ferme. The chef calls it “old-fashioned Provençal farm organic mixed green salad” (to make a point or three), but the perfume of truffle in the vinaigrette is city-smart.


          That same earthy truffle scent lurks seductively in the luscious white-bean soup and hits your nose the moment the artichoke mousse arrives. Antoine’s trick of adding a last-minute lemony kick to most sauces lends freshness and a pungency to sweetbreads with vegetables, and to the ovals of squid plumped with bits of minced vegetables. Cod with shallots and blue crab in a madras sauce has the same pleasing citric balance.


          Everyone wants the osso buco not realizing it’s an osso buco of lotte -- monkfish on the bone, its meatiness well suited to the red-wine sauce and porcini. A nightly special of roast quail stuffed with wild mushrooms and rice in a truffled sauce with stuffed tomato has the same air of hominess. Indeed, there are slivers and ribbons and chunks of vegetables everywhere, and though you never once feel day-at-the-spa, the lush cushion of scalloped potatoes under the chicken -- pommes St. Rémyoise -- is make with skim milk. “I think I only spend one pound of butter in the first ten days,” the chef boasts in charming Franglais.


           Not everything works. The quail could be rarer, the chicken not so dry. The pâté is listless. Though I admire the fresh-from-the-garden taste of Grand-mère’s pistou, it needs seasoning, garlic and basil. One evening, the meat is a bit dry in the chef’s signature l’agneau à la cuillére -- lamb cooked so long it can be eaten with a spoon. And I’m disappointed not to find the country desserts he made in the days before Le Perigord got its fancy pastry chef -- stewed dried fruit with crème fraîche and remarkable apple cake. Not that Bouterin’s house-made ice creams, the melting chocolate cake, and his more sophisticated apple dessert with nougatine and honey parfait aren’t perfectly fine. But $8 is a stiff price for dessert.


          Indeed, prices seem high for a spot on a far edge of midtown with a garage-sale look. Though entrées start at just $15, they climb to $27 for a veal chop. Who needs still another veal chop? I’d rather have Grandma’s stuffed veal breast or pork shoulder. Perhaps fans who have followed Bouterin from the high-price shoals of Le Perigord won’t notice. After we’ve sipped the last of a remarkable St. Francis Cabernet for just $24, and tasted chocolate sorbet so rich and delicious we’re fooled into thinking it’s ice cream, little cookies arrive. Candied nuts, chocolate fondant with a hazelnut topknot -- a sweet good night as we head back into the city.


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