May 9, 1988 | Vintage Insatiable
Plain & Francey

        My gourmaniacal schizophrenia has me snapping at myself. One half almost believes it's worth selling your BMW to finance a trufflish pampering in France. The stunned other half thinks it's wiser to nurture your sickly greenbacks at home, buy $3 worth of leeks and potatoes, spray the air with musk and pretend it's truffle, sip a fruity Zinfandel…and tell yourself you're lucky you don't have to go to France.
    
        Amazing to think it wasn't that long ago we were star-struck innocents stumbling out of the Restaurant de la Pyramide south of Lyon, 1,000 calories richer and only $40 poorer. True, that was when the prix fixe lunch at Lutèce cost $9. But a couple of Sundays ago, with the franc at 5.4 to the dollar, two of us pledged $566 by plastic for dinner, one beer, a basket of fruit, the night, and breakfast in bed at a glorious three-star inn on the edge of Burgundy.
    
        It's a double whammy: the puny dollar against the cellulite of French inflation. So you float a second mortgage to live it up abroad or scheme mean and tight in unsung hostelries or on prepaid package tours so you can splurge on dinner. For the sake of the kids' college-education fund, don't forget your umbrella: At Prisunic, the K mart of Paris, a frumpy model costs $40. Or aspirin: When the pharmacist asked $5 for the economy box, my headache magically faded all by itself.
    
        No one needs a passport for sublime dining. America has bred and attracted its own gifted princes of gastronomy. Still, it's a romp to see what the kings are stewing.

PARIS

        For those of us serious about our mouths, ten days on the Truffle Tour is more fun than a milkmaid costume by Lacroix. Indeed, that same Marie Antoinette mock innocence is a current cuisinary obsession. You can eat cod, mashed potatoes, leeks, and cabbage with vermeil forks in wildly decadent splendor. "Nouvelle cuisine" is dirty dancing -- despised, pathetic, passé -- but the gentrification of Grandma's cooking seems remarkably nouvelle to me.

        Oh, well -- a leek by any other name…I haven't yet heard Marie-Hélène de Rothschild use Paula Wolfert's enthusiastic "good grub," but she did hail the roasted pigeon with dates, the tiny foie-gras-and-cèpe-stuffed ravioli, and the praline macaroons at Maison Blanche as "real food."

        Where Marie-Hélène grazes, tout Paris also forages. Sleek gray foxes in $2,000 suits with exotic young beauties, movie stars, and cheeky whelps in blue jeans step over Clovis, the sleek white Labrador napping outside the glassed-in kitchen where José Lampreïa, equally sleek and all in white from sneakers to tunic, weaves green ribbons of leek into edible gift wrap for oysters in beef consommé.

        Portuguese born, Paris-bred, Lampreïa claims to be self-taught. And his passion for olive oil, humble vegetables, sea critters high born and lowly, and homey oxtails -- only slightly corrupted by a weakness for deep-fat frying and extremes of foie gras -- is an irresistible mix of the pure and the perverse. It's wonderful too.
    
        This is what the French call the California look -- bare wood floors with scattered Oriental rugs, off-white walls and wraparound windows, wood-framed glass screens (creating heat buildup in status corners), and a greenery jungle with stalks of calla lilies. Crowded, noisy, lively…after worshiping in too many solemn temples, it's fun to unbend over seared sea scallops buried under shards of deep-fried battered vegetables, perfumed by sweet balsamic vinegar. Heavenly pale-green cream-of-lima-bean soup. Or a rich, almost caramelized oxtail under a coif of fried carrot strings. And diets are happily sabotaged by the gâteau Landaise -- layered foie gras and potatoes in truffle butter.
    
        Lampreïa's sea urchin is stuffed with vegetables and foie gras, its crown of truffle thorns mimicking the spiky shell. Leek gratin, a salad of black radish and cod, unutterably chic tête de veau, perfect langouste, a smoky haddock brandade, and the chef's fragrant mashed potatoes, heady with olive oil and chopped black olive, are all delicious.
    
        Translucent disks of pulled sugar separate citrus fruit and sorbets in Lampreïa's brilliantly acid homage to Isabelle Adjani. Wine-purpled pears and ginger ice cream sport cinnamon-flecked sugar windowpanes too. A croquant of rice pudding is perfect crème brûlée with a scattering of rice. More fine madness is expressed in chocolate, praline, jasmine, and caramel. With coffee come chocolate truffles, candied orange peel, and warm, buttery madeleines.

        "José didn't woo or want his first Michelin star," insists his publiciste [and my friend] Yanou Collart. "He doesn't want to attract Michelin's bourgeoisie. He's already turning away 250 people a day." So reserve. And please don't step on Clovis.

        Maison Blanche, 82 boulevard Lefèbvre (15e), 48-28-38-83.

***

        It’s third Michelin star this March found L'Ambroisie settled in a handsome Tudor apartment in the magnificent Place des Vosges. Thick curtains soften doorways framed with marble. Stone floors, a tapestry, and tall ficus trees create unfussy elegance in a modest space, a graceful setting for chef Bernard Pacaud's unfussy, elegant cooking.
    
        Tonight, the phones are out. Mme. Pacaud is gracious, but the staff seems distracted. Asked to find a good wine for under $45, the sommelier is quick to recommend a $35 Bordeaux that is not the least bit wonderful. Dashed at being defeated by our own penny-pinching, we brighten over a sprightly pumpkin mousse in a splash of acidy tomato. I know -- sounds ghastly. But it works. A flying saucer of crackling sesame sits on perfectly cooked langoustines napped with a delicate curry sauce. Wild salmon wears a crusty mantle and the savor of olive oil with a crunch of sea salt. Grilled chicken thigh is crisply battered, too, in a devilishly piquant sauce. And the oxtail is a voluptuous melt of beef.
    
        Do the noodles seem a bit tough, the lobster and sole slightly listless in a fricassee with morels? Perhaps I'm just annoyed because I asked for one $52 portion so three of us could taste…and the three over-generous portions the kitchen sent escalated the price to $80 on a bill of $380 for three.

        The chocolate soufflé is too bitter for me, and Grand Marnier sabayon does nothing for sublime pineapple sorbet. Indeed, though I love the clarity of Pacaud's touch, his jewel-box rooms, and these cabochon raspberries in tiny tartlets, I don't feel a full-fledged three-star swoon.

        L'Ambroisie, 9, place des Vosges (4e), 42-78-51-45.

***

        There is a fanciful tile salute to COMMERCE and INDUSTRIE flanking two indolent pink flamingos on one wall, but the carnivores at Les Gourmets des Ternes are oblivious. They argue and scoff and sip red wine (two and a half bottles gone on our right) in this nearly-a-century-old bistro where all that matters is lunch -- and the special "pièce de boeuf grillée."
    
        What an amazing chunk of meat this is, tender and chewy all at once, with admirable character -- "from a female bull," a friend explains. I'm assuming that's a cow with ambivalence, but never mind. From the violet writing on the plastic-jacketed menu to the bistro classics -- egg and mayonnaise, radishes with butter, artichoke vinaigrette, mushrooms à la grecque, tasty headcheese (not too bouncy) -- all this seems happily familiar. Only the celeriac, shards rather than julienne, in a mustardy dress, breaks the rules.

        For dessert, and an after-dinner drink in one, order the baba. It comes with two bottles for splashing -- rum syrup and spirits strong enough to wake a flamingo.

        Les Gourmets des Ternes, 87, boulevard de Courcelles (8e), 42-27-43-04.

***

        In the food-obsessed circles I nibble about in, L'Ami Louis is a Paris ritual, a ramshackle shrine to gluttony, immune to time and fashion. So religiously devoted are L'Ami Louis's regulars that the eating didn't stop even when beloved Antoine Magnin died last year at 84. The story is, Louis, the maître d', found him one day with a gun in one hand and a bottle of brandy in the other, failing fast. Antoine agreed to ride in the ambulance, but only next to the driver, and his last day on earth was full of joy, says Louis, "because his nurse was so beautiful."

        Nothing is changed. The room is warped and preserved, forever shabby. Paul, the sullen ex-maître d', is gone, and Louis, plump and cheerful, welcomes you in English. He and the waiters twirl, a trio of Baryshnikovs, under the photos of Papa Antoine while the kitchen crew, three Tunisians who've been there twenty years, delivers the same massive slabs of ethereal foie gras (one portion easily clogs the arteries of four), the same garlicky snails, fat green asparagus, whole baby lamb, and crusty farm chickens, with fat fries -- they'll bring thin ones if you ask, but not always crisp, not always brown, possibly greasy.

        No one will sneer if you share. In exchange, try not to cringe at the bill. Ours, with two bottles of wine and a platter of prime imported fruit for dessert, was just under $400 for four.

        L'Ami Louis, 32, rue du Vertbois (3e), 48-87-88-48.

***

        There are six Faiola brothers. And if you think you're seeing double, you are. Antonio and Claudio are twins. I suspect they've been taking lessons from Sirio. Stresa, the Faiola clan's small, no-frills joint behind the Plaza-Athénée, is as hot as Le Cirque and twice as crowded. Even now, Antonio is trying to shoehorn one of our quartet into a space already occupied by an outraged squatter. With a wave of his hand, he plants three fashionable X-rays on a banquette for two.

        Lips pucker the air, collagened cheeks touch…everyone knows everyone in three or four languages. Ann Getty pops down for a moment to chat, then is led to Siberia, in the rear. "She can't know this restaurant," my Parisian pal notes, "or she would not cross the Maginot Line." At lunchtime, Stresa gets a media and movie crowd, and fashion icons from the couturier communes down the block. Ask for the back room only if you need to make a deal. Otherwise, conversations, even husbands, are shared.
    
        After twelve days of haut devotion, the mouth longs for a simple bowl of pasta, a pizza…anything Italian. With the right connections -- Lagerfeld, Ungaro, Belmondo, LaCroix can get you in -- you'll find soothing spinach ravioli with just a touch of butter and a hint of cream, spicy penne arrabiata, and good enough carpaccio with tomato, Parmesan, and leaves of basil. When the spinach is weary, the veal carelessly cooked, the calf's liver listless and gray, club members do not complain. A moist and flavorful osso bucco can save the day. X-rays don’t eat, but we are happy with the chocolate cake.
    
        A perch on the hot seat could run up to $50 (if you're pretending to eat) for the most modest wines and simple fare, but the floor show is priceless.

        Stresa, 7, rue Chambiges (8e), 47-23-51-62

***

        She calls herself Toutoune -- the pert platinum blonde, in a crisp white smock and red leather pumps, whose $27 prix fixe draws knowing Parisians to her nondescript bistro day and night.

         A huge tureen of creamy garlic soup is set on the table to ladle as you will; it's sadly bland, so don't bother. Focus instead on Toutoune's house terrine -- fresh, full of taste and texture, not the predigested baby food now in vogue. Today she has thrown together a lively mousse of cod and avocado, peppery hot.
    
         The skate is a shade overcooked, the tasty coq au vin slightly dry, and the boudin in mashed potatoes lacks seasoning, but this is surely the best tête de veau I've ever tasted -- a sublime gathering of tongue, brains, and muzzle, poached to juicy perfection with a bouquet of root vegetables and topped by a tangy sauce gribiche, a near-mayonnaise flecked with capers, pickle, and herbs. If you love to eat but have never quite found the courage to taste calf's head, this is your moment.
    
         Cheese or dessert is included in your tab. The tarts can be gluey and primitive, but crème caramel scooped from the bowl is superb.

         Chez Toutoune, 5 rue de Pontoise (5e), 43-26-56-81.

***

        What's nouvelle? La cuisine bourgeoise. I can't believe how often I've read a variation on my eight-year-old headline -- indeed, just four weeks ago. Excuse me. I'd get up and take a bow, except I'm paralyzed by this lump of tripe in my tummy.

         Whisks for hire and other food-world mercenaries sang the requiem for la nouvelle cuisine more than a decade ago. Now, ten years later, we find a bit of blood sausage on a slice of apple at the most elegant inn. And even better, the great chefs -- alarmed to think that one day only the Japanese will be able to afford their gourmand menus -- are opening their own bistros.

         Indeed, Michel Rostang's Bistrot d'à Côté, in what was most recently a crémerie next door to his two-star maison, is such a crazy success, he will open a clone on the Avenue du Villiers this month. Tomorrow…who knows? It could be TriBeCa.
    
         Is it a bit too cute, with its shelves of majolica, crockery, Art Deco radios and clocks -- all of it for sale? Too cramped, with its bare postage-stamp-size tables, each of them different, pressed closely together? I find it cozy, cluttered, noisy, and warm.
    
         Unlike the cotton-fluff baguettes at your classic bistro, Rostang's are whole wheat and wondrously chewy. There are françoise olives on the table, wines by the glass, and a beef special of the day chalked on the blackboard. No old-time bistro ever saw an eggplant terrine this beautiful, with its crossed fillets of fresh anchovies and nail-polish-red tomato coulis. Lentils with cervelat sausage could use a gustier dressing, but rounds of pig's snout in vinaigrette are heavenly.

         The day's special duck stew with homemade noodles is a bit dry, but that lethal tripe -- in the style of Léon de Lyon -- is splendid, and I have to beg the waiter to take away my rich and crisp macaroni with bits of ham before I polish it off and have to be sent home wheeling my liver on its own trolley.
    
         If you have room for the chocolate cake with pistachio sauce or a lovely crunch of apples (needing just a squeeze of lemon for perfection) or sorbets of whatever fruits the market favors, two of you can eat for $60 or $70, including a carafe of the house wine. And Rostang himself is likely to pop in from his pots next door to cheer you on and confer with his mother-in-law at the caisse.

         Le Bistrot d'à Côté, 10, rue Gustave-Flaubert (17e), 42-67-05-81.

***

        It's been four years since my dazzling dinner at Jamin, five years since a desultory lunch that left me curious about the emperor's clothes. The hired mouths of two continents assure me Joël Robuchon is a genius. So here we are again in his tiny, fourteen-table salon, newly gussied up and very English -- all cerise and apple green, with faux bois paneling, Venetian wrought-iron chandeliers, striped banquettes, handsome Christofle flatware and silver service plates, white orchids nuzzled against pink tulips, a giant block of butter etched with Jamin's signature dandy.
    
         A shy perfectionist, Robuchon bakes his crusty but tasteless rolls twice a day, and everything on the plate is très Fabergé. A necklace of coral-tinged dots makes a two-tone sauce for dazzling lobster "en boléro" -- with spikes of truffle and perfect rounds of tomato, avocado, and green apple the size of ball bearings.

        Only men get menus with prices here (that's what cuts years from their life expectancies), but I've traded with my Gourmand Accomplice. "Good Lord…you've ordered a $100 starter," I congratulate one guest. She is thrilled. Okay, I exaggerated. The galette of truffles with bacon-scented onions is only $80, a miracle of edible architecture wafting its earthy bouquet noseward.
    
         Robuchon, a country lad from the Loire, was an early crusader for the cause of rustic cooking, elevating pig's head to sainthood and reviving the glory of mashed potatoes with a baptism of butter. Mythic now are his lamb baked in a salt crust, his chicken poached in a pig's bladder, his gentrified ravioli -- tonight's are plumped with juicy langoustine -- his lavish hail of fresh truffle. But our rouget and the roasted "pastoral lamb" are merely good, not thrilling. And the barbue (brill) in its stunning chiaroscuro of overlapping truffle and celery circles is a dullard in a Galanos.
   
         Jamin's ice creams are supernal, and the dessert cart's prize is an apple tart with a crumbly crunch of almonds. But the caramelized pear on a puddle of dark chocolate seems rather ordinary, and the crème brûlée has no crackle. We nibble candied orange peel and rich madeleines, numbed by the bill -- just under $650 for our four. No surprise, the chef fails to show his face. We're convinced he's out there…doubled over laughing.

         Jamin, 32, rue de Longchamp (16e), 47-27-12-27.

***

        Most of the listed fish specials are not available tonight at Guy Savoy's bright, lacquer-shiny, glass-partitioned contemporary digs, where Le Bernadin used to be. Dimpling, the baby-faced Savoy apologizes. He returned too late this morning from vacation in Africa to shop Rungis. No chef, no fish…already I'm impressed.
    
         His simple salads, his haunting way with vegetables, his crush on spinach, his winter stews, and his affection for innards won Guy Savoy acclaim very early, and at times his touch has faltered. But two years ago, dining late and recognized, I was wowed by his art. Tonight, again, he's cooking his heart out.
    
         A picket fence of baby leeks is a backdrop for silver-dollar potato pancakes topped with silver dollars of black truffle in a truffle-perfumed cream. Oysters are lodged in a jelled oyster glaze. And a wing of just-cooked skate paved with grilled potato rounds is napped with a tangy sauce dotted with cloves of astonishingly sweet garlic. The sweet-and-sour chicken is almost too salty, too intense, but shredded cabbage and a moat of cream soften the blow.

         Turbot grilled till its skin takes on a heady crunch perches on a pool of sea-tinged butter framed by ribbons of overcooked snow peas. What I love most about the pigeon is its delicate cabbage-wrapped innards, and Savoy's rare, almost raw aiguillettes of duck breast, with the bird's seared liver on vinegar-etched spinach, is a must. Asked to find us a budget red wine, the sommelier comes up with a good haut Medoc, Château Beaumont, at $35.
    
         Alas, with dessert, the house begins to stumble. Ice creams too sweet; ditto the chocolate sampler, too-cinnamoned fruit, very mundane little cookies. Most refreshing: a creamy gratin of citrus or the tequila mousse with pineapple.
    
         So far, the soaring tab of Savoy's tasting menu hasn't dimmed the fervor of his tables. But savvy and perhaps an ounce of pity has prompted him to open the Bisrot de l'Etoile across the street.

         Guy Savoy, 18, rue Troyon (17e), 43-80-40-61.

ON THE ROAD

         No wonder Marie Antoinette is laughing. It's a delicious merger of Rousseau and rococo here in Monaco. No one worries about the price of gold. They simply plaster the walls with it and dip forks in it and feed you pig's feet or cannelloni. And as word of Monte Carlo's brilliant entry into the gastronomic Olympics scatters, they should lay a golden carpet between the venerable Hôtel de Paris and the Nice airport so food-obsessed pilgrims can't lose their way to the glittering Louis XV.
    
         Is it a wee bit excessive, the thousand karats of faceted chandeliers in this gilt-and-marble rotunda with portraits of Louis XV's mistresses gazing down from dainty friezes? The period chests and podiums, real and fake? The golden wine cradles, flatware, and service plate that is never whisked away? Has Midas run amok? You don't make this major detour to feel at home. So unless you grew up in Versailles, you could honestly love this theater, the grand pampering, the staff's practiced snap and warmth. A few weeks ago, the president of Zaïre invited 90 friends to lunch in honor of his grandson's christening and emptied 42 bottles of Château Margaux 1945 at almost $1,200 each and spent $62,000. The two of us have reached a new high of delicious excess for a mere $250.
    
         At the eye of Monaco's cuisinary hurricane is Alain Ducasse, recruited by Monaco's powerful Société des Bains de Mer, determined to put its tiny princedom on a gastrointestinal wavelength. How could he resist? The Monégasques promised him everything…building him a $3 million kitchen bigger than a high-school gymnasium, with computerized video so he can keep an eye on all nine workshops, his lobster tanks and fish pools, the bakery and the smoker.
    
         Born in Landes, schooled in the kitchens of Michel Guérard, Roger Vergé, Alain Chapel -- with a recent postgraduate course in pâtisserie with Gaston Lenôtre -- Ducasse has moved his love affair with Provence and Italy to this wildly outrageous stage set. Here we are, being wowed by what he does with pig's feet and leeks, ravioli, potatoes, poking with gilded fourchettes. What a lark.

        How romantic to be a pampered twosome. Yet I keep wishing we were a crowd, so we could sample everything. Here comes a waiter with far-too-irresistible breads. A busboy bustles up with sweet butter sculpted in the shape of beggar's purses and the famous salt butter of Echiré in a wooden tub. Two tasting menus -- the "gardens of Provence" for me -- is as greedy as we can get (and hope to survive).

         There are possibly 50 vegetables, grasses, lettuces, and weeds of spring in Ducasse's larder. Tiny roots and onions ride in a pastry tart thin and crisp as a cracker, a clove of garlic glued into the lid as a handle -- a dish both witty and delicious. The sharp tang of pecorino-cheese ravioli plays against the sweetness of coconut soup. An even more exotic gathering of greens, spiked with truffles, is followed by the humble and rarely seen cardoon -- its taste half-celery, half-artichoke -- in a gratin with truffles and marrow.
    
         There is something silly about the chef's tightly furled, almost cigarette-like cannelloni -- overgentrification, I call it -- but his herb-flecked risotto with frogs' legs and wild asparagus is a beauty. And the luscious spit-roasted lamb, served with a small stew of its innards and socca -- a hot little pancake made with chick-pea flour -- gives a new elegance to that niçoise tradition.

         Surrender to cheese if you're tempted, then brace yourself for a dizzying attack of desserts: Monaco's aristocratic version of tirami su in coffee sabayon with a lush and velvety bitter-chocolate sorbet, mascarpone sorbet melting into fraises du bois, or the dazzling namesake invention, Louis XV -- chocolate ice cream tucked into praline layers that crackle on a haunting chocolate sauce.

         And that's just what you order. Soon, the sorbet cart will roll in your direction, and the sommelier touting dessert wine. Forget about resisting all the candies and sugary tidbits, the warm madeleines in a napkin cozy. By the time five different sugars arrive in golden bowls, you could be weeping that you don't take sugar with your coffee.

         Le Louis XV, Hôtel de Paris, Place du Casino, Monte Carlo, Monaco 98000, (93) 50-80-80

***

         Transplanted to the Riviera, any chef worth his salt can't help but fall in love with the flavors of Provence -- its bounty of splendorous fish, the vegetables that always seem sweeter, the berries and lemons that explode with perfume. Jacques Chibois was ripe for seduction.

         Coming from the hill country of Limousin in central France, "where the food seems sad," Chibois is a fervent apostle of la cuisine du soleil. His sunny touch accents flavor and the integrity of ingredients, and is the consulting spirit behind the menu at Adrienne in our own new Hôtel Maxim's de Paris.
    
         Perhaps Easter Sunday lunch is not the ideal moment for Chibois and the stolid middlebrow dining room of the Royal Gray, in the Hotel Gray d'Albion. Cannes is bleak and rain-drenched. The garden beyond the plate-glass window is desolate, though the room's giant burst of snapdragons and forsythia upholds the cause of spring. The burnt-strawberry-lacquered walls and the busy carpet seem even stodgier with Sunday's gathering of well-heeled fogies, the graying twosomes joined for an eternity in silence. But the crew in maroon blazers is efficient and professional, explaining in English without condescension, bringing just one glass of red wine…as if it were a rare bottle.
    
         Chibois uses the plate as a canvas, arranging still lifes with wild greens and sweet seared sea critters, sculpting with pasta and chocolate, a passion of mixed blessings on today's $81 tasting lunch. His truffle salad could be Monet -- a split quail egg, reeds of embryonic asparagus, lily pads of field leaves, and a thicket of truffle rounds sheltering a celestial swamp of artichoke, foie gras, and string beans in a thin mayonnaise. I hesitate, not daring to destroy it, but then the truffle fumes overcome. Oh, well, it's not as if there won't be another Monet along in just a minute. And the taste enchants.

         Almost as dazzling is the salad of saint-pierre with shoots of intense lettuces and lemon-lively pasta, though the fish could be more carefully cooked. Lobster is a bit tough, too. But roasted langoustines on a swath of coriander coulis with tendrils of squid under a leaf of pasta is exquisite, as is baby lamb -- four tiny chops spiked with cumin, escorted by plump violet artichokes, grilled shallots, and ribbons of scallion.
    
         Easter has inspired the pâtissier to sculpt white swans in sugar to guard the petits fours -- butterfly-shaped tuiles and peach-studded financière cookies. And though the "douceurs de sorbet" is a work of art (grapefruit, mandarin, and lemon sorbets) sandwiched between layers of chocolate (bitter, milk, and white), with rivulets of peach juice and vanilla syrup, the too-frozen texture reflects cruelty to sorbet.
    
         But I'll grant genius a few lapses. As the 35-year -old Chibois works the room "the way actors do," he seems happy, and so do his well-heeled patrons.

         Le Royal gray, Hôtel Gray d'Albion, 38, rue des Serbes, Cannes 06400, (93) 68-54-54.

***

       Bernard Loiseau stirs his pots in the Côte d'Or, where once the late, great Dumaine reigned, in the languor of Saulieu, the town the autoroute forgot.
    
         Chef Loiseau's purity and finesse are well documented. Even the crustiest critics have sung the legerdemain of his all-vegetable menu -- "legumes en fête" -- the panache of his dorade (sea bream) suffused with the savor of near-melted shallots and red wine, dainty frogs' legs in an aura of garlic and parsley, or crab perched on a silken artichoke-and-crab mousse.
    
         True, for a while he struggled to enchant with a medieval torture chamber of a kitchen and the musty little rooms of his fading old coach stop, knowing his two stars would never snag a third in such douleur. What could he do? He borrowed $1.7 million and sank a fortune into china, paintings, and country artifacts, sprucing up salons and rest rooms, creating an astonishing annex, every floor named for an idol -- Dumaine, Troisgros, Bocuse. Each apartment hints at a different period fantasy, a set for a Cecil B. DeMille epic, duplexes with great bursts of marble exuberance, the ground-floor suites opening to a grassy lawn and hidden garden. Now he can offer shelter from $28 to $278, but still the traffic is spotty.

         And yet he is smiling, his face boyish and eager below a retreating hairline. Early critics rudely called his cooking "cuisine de l'eau" because of its lightness. He prefers, "cuisine de jus" -- and his eyebrows soar with indignation when I ask if the artichoke mousse is made with cream. "Jamais," he cries. "Jamais."
    
         The lovely bourgeois dining room is less than half full at lunch today. The sommelier has found a rich Clos de Vougeot from Moillard ("sent by the maker for us to try") and pours me a glass. A pale-green cool cucumber soup sets the mood -- it tastes as fresh and clean as spring. My "holiday of vegetables" gets off to a shaky start with two mundane little basmati-rice-stuffed tomatoes, but a ragout of vegetables in beef jelly is a knockout. Next, a mosaic of celery-root and truffle rounds, then poached eggs sitting on a stew of fresh morels.

         With cheese comes house-baked bread, whole wheat studded with fig and nuts. The sheer burst of fresh apple in a pale-green sorbet clears the senses for more -- grapefruit sections on a caramelized crackle of puff pastry in a sauce of honey and praline, and sheer chocolate leaves with sublime ice cream in a sea of melted orange marmalade.

         Loiseau was counting on that third star in '87. But the just-released '88 benedictions did not bless Côte d'Or. Domestic drama -- Loiseau's discovering his wife in dalliance with the maître d'hôtel and throwing her out -- may have made the fusty red book wary. So he's waiting, longing to redo the kitchen, his eye on some acreage next door. "Bocuse tells me this will be my year," he confides, rushing off for a night in Paris. "It's fun to be a bachelor."

         Côte d'Or, 2, rue Argentine, Saulieu 21210, (80) 64-07-66.

***

        Friends back from a gourmandisiacal mission in Burgundy are so high on the cooking of Jean-Pierre Billoux that we have passed up half a dozen star-studded Valhallas for this detour to Dijon. Just two years ago, Billoux moved from the sleepy isolation of small-town Digoin to the Hôtel de la Cloche. Lunch is served upstairs in the mirrored dining room or in the garden, dinner in the vaulted stone cave below, theatrically lit, with long, pale-yellow cloths and enchanting Limoges -- a pastiche of flowers, butterflies, and a ladybug -- all welcoming and cozy.

        A chill drifts in, alas. The maître d' is neither amused nor challenged by my request for a Burgundy with good bouquet -- "not too strong, not too light" -- in the $45 range. He chokes back a derisive snort, then, clearly dubious, offers two or three bottles. His reluctant choice at $43 is, indeed…short and rather nasty.

         Given the man's attitude -- he wears it like armor, a defensive offensiveness -- bile might have soured a lesser chef's efforts. But not tonight. The gifted Billoux has imagination, a confident hand, an assertive flavor palette, and a winning way with regional classics. I can't remember ever eating snails so powerfully garlicked, the garlic so perfectly balanced. There are a dozen tender fat beasts, each it its own crock, and against all wisdom, I'm dumping their parsleyed bath on Billoux's house baked roll to the sticky end. Not that I am neglecting fragile nut-brown cutlets of sweetbread under a tangle of deep-fried leek strings, all scented with fruity oil and mellow vinegar.
    
         Paillasson is a luscious cliché of the moment. We're seeing potato pancakes everywhere. These are a prop for slightly too soft langoustine, again with a hint of acid liveliness. Shared duck with olives is rosy pink and moistened with a heavenly blend of stock, fresh green olives, and butter, escorted by tapénade on croutons. The legs, returned to the kitchen for more cooking, are served, tasty but tough, with salad, as still another course.
    
         Since our huffy host did not remind us that warm desserts must be ordered ahead, we are exploring the rolling cart, settling on a trio in chocolate -- a fudgy gâteau noire with nuts, thick chocolate cream in feuilleté, and dark, devilish flourless cake. Sorbets and ice creams seem a bit too sweet.

         Jean-Pierre Billoux, Hôtel de la Cloche, 14, place Darcy, Dijon 21000, (80) 30-11-00.

***

         What can an orphaned foodnik do on Sunday, when most of Paris's serious restaurants are shuttered? Indulgence is just an hour or two away. And it's all super-highway to Joigny, where we're headed after Sunday morning at the flea market.

         There, beside the River Yonne, is Michel Lorain's A la Côte Saint-Jacques, once his mother's boardinghouse, $2.8 million later a Michelin three-star, with indoor swimming pool and a subterranean stone passage under the highway to the lush new residence on the quai.
    
         "You're early," Jacqueline Lorain greets us. "Would you like to look at several rooms and choose?" The first is the grandest, opening to the lawn. The second looks like a Victorian garden party. But I can't resist Apartment 32, with its marble bath bigger than our Paris hotel room, a skylight, and a sliding door to the terrace -- a chance to sun in the tub. We call for fruit and nuts; a metal basket woven with leaves and flowers arrives, plus a tiny trunk filled with walnuts ($11).

         There is time to hike along the river and soak in bubbles and photograph night sneaking in. Most of the weekend crowds have gone and the one dining room in use is not quite half full, but the family dances attendance -- warm and welcoming yet formal, proper, professional. Only a waiter's inelegant stacking of dirty plates jars the perfection.
    
         Does Mme. Lorain -- the cellar master, fluent in three languages, greeting each arrival -- recognize a critic? If so, she pretends not to until we leave. And it's easy to persuade her to ask the chefs -- Michel and their son, Jean-Michel -- to give us two different tasting menus, a challenge of timing. There is a subliminal buzz, electric expectation in the air. This once, we'll splurge on a Vosne-Romanée. At $84, it's modest on the house's grand list but a blow to our budget. And worth it.
    
         My friend, on his first trip to France, would prefer oysters shimmering on the half-shell without the fuss and doodads tattooing his plate of oysters in a jellied "terrine oceane." But I will always forgive fuss when the flavor comes through. And it does, even more so in the vibrant gazpacho with curls of langoustine and ovals of zucchini purée arranged like petals around a core of minced pepper. Gently smoked sea bass with caviar in cream bursts with flavor. Small fillets of rouget swim in a fiery peppered sauce.

         One of us is served a pallet of voluptuous seared foie gras dotted with fresh currants; the other, sweetbreads overwhelmed by a too-intense sauce. The ribs of a young hare are like toothpicks, the flesh juicy and mild. And the chef's whole truffle wrapped in cabbage is an earthy triumph if you've developed a truffle craving, a joke if you haven't.
    
         The papa chef makes the rounds, lean and ruggedly handsome -- a little French girl looks up at him in awe, as if he were a movie star. Now chef Jean-Michel tours the tables, and then Madame again -- the Lorain quadrille, very deft and stylish.

         Cheese, too? Of course. It's time for the punch of époisses from the neighborhood, and Roquefort with nut-studded bread. Now we could be nouveaux riches buying jewels; the table is quickly aclutter with edible baubles -- caramels, nougat, chocolates, lemon tartlets, macaroons, jellies, and "la suite des desserts au chocolat." A baby soufflé, chocolate bitter and grown-up. Two wings of cake on a sea of white chocolate. Ice cream under a mint leaf. And a demitasse of pudding. Plus the inevitable chocolate truffles.
    
         Yes, upstairs our room has been straightened, the bed remade, the nutshells banished. I don't know much about chemistry. All I know is I never want breakfast till it arrives. This $26 tray for two has everything -- luscious jams worth eating all by themselves, yogurt, croissants, fresh-baked bread, even soft-boiled eggs.

         The farewell is even warmer than our welcome. And why not? We're leaving $556 behind. If fate has dealt you the proper bank account, you may feel you got your money's worth. Still, it's chintzy to charge $5 for the garage.

         A la Côte Saint-Jacques, 14, faubourg de Paris, Joigny 89300, (86) 62-09-70.

Insatiable, The Book, Bby Gael Greene



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