June 10, 1974 | Vintage Insatiable
Gael Among the Bries
The May rains are bleak. The town is gray. Traffic creeps. I am sulky from a taxing transatlantic flight. There is champagne on ice in my Parisian friend's fridge -- and Contrexéville, the water that claims to keep you thin. Neither strikes me as balm for traveler's malaise. But here is a green-gold pear. One bite, and suddenly I know I am in France. The pear is a rare kind of miracle. It tastes intensely like…pear. And so the insatiable sybarite is on the loose again in Truffleland.
There is a terrible vacuum in Paris for the serious voluptuary. Le Pot au Feu is no more. The stylish oasis of soul-stirring feasts that booked its tiny tables perhaps six weeks in advance is gone…closed to make way for construction. There were rumors its brilliant young chef, Michel Guérard, might move into Maxim's. A consummate audacity! Perhaps bold enough to make that waxworks breathe.
Guérard is keenly ambitious, already splintered…with one hand (or a few fingers) in the saucepans of Reginskia and one foot (or a few toes) in the jellybean-painted kitchen of Regine's, the newest club privé and the absolute in chic imperative. Imagine James Jones and Yves St. Laurent a table apart. Memberships went to la crème de la crème of movers and shakers and certified tastemakers, chosen by a committee of five. So there they sit, in the mirrored and marbled aviary, sipping Scorpions in elephantine balloon glasses, $6. Regine's pride is Michel Guérard's $24 prix fixe dinner, wine included. Reports conflict.
Now Guérard confides he will move to Eugénie-les-Bains, a sulphurous retreat in the Lande region of France, south of Bordeaux and east of Biarritz (as the gourmand flies). Guérard was married this spring in his bride's ancestral château. The top three buttonmen of La Nouvelle Cuisine Française (formerly La Grande Cuisine), France's kitchen Mafia, came, each one bringing a different dish. And now Michel has been experimenting with hautes diététiques to grace the menu of Les Prés et Les Sources d'Eugénie, his brides luxurious spa dedicated to hedonistic slimming. Anyway, Guérard is talking about gâteau d'herbes (a confection of sorrel, spinach, chard, cabbage, greens, and herbs), fish cooked in seaweed, consommé in crayfish jelly, salmon with lemon and green peppercorns, veal à la vapeur, and meats grilled on vine branches with a sauce "zero calories" -- it's thickened with purée of vegetables instead of egg yolks or flour…a fantasy of sinful slimming.
Paul Bocuse is France's most honored cusinier and the irrepressibly brilliant don of La Nouvelle Cuisine Française, but everywhere Guérard is the most imitated chef of the moment. The Troisgros brothers of Roanne are offering his extraordinary loup cooked in seaweed -- with attribution -- though they flatly refused to serve it one day last fall to gastronomic pilgrims who had eaten it a few days earlier at Le Pot au Feu. "We don't ask for comparisons," the Troisgros explained.
Guérard's clever toss of throwaway luxe, his salade des gourmands -- foie gras, truffles, string beans and artichoke hearts in a delicate vinaigrette -- has inspired dozens of variations. At the Pavillon Royal in the Bois de Boulogne, you can taste something called "caprice of the crazy years" -- foie gras, truffles, asparagus, trevise rouge) the red leaf of Italy), and mushrooms with two sauces, one spiked with raspberry vinegar, the other with champagne. Guérard himself has invented a numbing salad for Reginskia called "full of the sea" -- poached oysters, scallops, crayfish, a bit of caviar tossed with string beans, and asparagus in a sauce scented with sea urchin.
Even a commoner can learn, hanging around kings. Claude Verger used to peddle professional restaurant equipment -- door to door. And his rounds took him to all of France's greatest kitchens. Verger was more than a casual voyeur. He began to play around with sauces, a little butter, a soupçon of parsley. One day he invited Michel Guérard for lunch. Guérard was impressed.
When Verger opened his Barrière de Clichy, a dumpy little bistro on a sullen street at the edge of town, Guérard brought his chums for lunch (on Monday when Le Pot au Feu was shuttered)…his friends of the kitchen Mafia and influential media mouths. Tout Paris heard the rumbles. They came to sit in the dowdy little room at rickety tables rocking on broken tile to eat crayfish meunière, snails en cassolette, and fillet of sole sauced with subtle elegance.
Overnight Barrière de Clichy glowed with such chic -- and money -- that Verger quickly opened Barrière Poquelin, installing Bernard Loiseau, a chef from the Troisgros kitchen, and spending two hours a day commuting.
Verger can be brusque with strangers even as he indulges his pets, but his craftsmanship is worth that risk. Michel Guérard took us to taste his protégé's cooking. Jean Didier, editor of the Guide Kleber (a Michelin competitor) joined us…not exactly the ideal setting for a critical tasting (and not my usual way), but certainly weighted toward a sublime lunch. And it was.
We drank Château Branaire '66, slightly chilled, with a radiant salad of tenderest crayfish tossed with perfect string beans and delicate chicory in a light vinaigrette, because certain resident gastronomes are drinking chilled red wine with everything.
Verger kept finding odd bottles behind the bar, decanting them, begging comment. Something without a label proved to be a Château Haut-Bailly 1918. We drank it with tender medallions of langoustine in a shiny beurre fondu perfumed with shallots and tarragon reduced in wine. Our lunch cost $17 each without wines, a rather stunning tariff in such tacky surroundings, but lobster here (as everywhere) is priced as if it were a vanishing species.
I could not have imagined myself capable of ecstasy over a turnip, but turnips sautéed in butter as if they were potatoes -- only teasingly more assertive -- had everyone at a later dinner marveling. We'd started with a salade delice, Verger's outright imitation of Guérard's truffle-foie-gras-string-bean mix, and a fragile mousse of loup (a striped basslike fish) in an ethereal sauce flavored with lobster. The turnips came with rabbit stew; the rabbit, alas, was tough and a bit dry. But there was duck impeccably roasted, with peaches, veal kidneys in sherry sauce -- rare, as ordered -- and a celestial odd coupling of chicken and crayfish. We drank a '67 Château La Lagune ($16.50) and shared the special house dessert -- hot apple tart - very handsome, but the apples lacked flavor. Dinner for four with wine and tips was $18 each.
La Barrière de Clichy, 11, rue de Paris, Clichy, 737.05.18. Closed Sundays and the month of August.
Eager epicures from abroad tend to come unhinged in Truffleland. There is never time enough to taste so many tastes. To survive, ignore lunch. See a movie, make love, write a sonnet. Or picnic prudently in the Tuileries, the Bois de Bologne, along the Seine or…in bed. It can be adventure to collect a crusty baguette, some fine cheese, a slice of rough country pâté and a little carton of céleri rémoulade. But caveat carnivore! One Paris afternoon, sworn to total abstinence, the Kultur Maven and I were drawn as if by supernatural forces to the window of Fauchon, the Tiffany of supermarkets. What torture! "Perhaps we could buy…just one thing," the Kultur Maven said. "And sit by the Seine to eat it." So we walked into what Fauchon's proprietor calls "my delicatessen," sniffing, sighing, and breathing heavily. Finally we settled on a magnificent little pastry-wrapped pâté. "Pâté Impérial," the label read. We carried the neat little sack toward the Seine. As we came to Le Pont Royal unable to wait one minute longer, I cried, "Now." K.M. unwrapped the thin roll of pastry from its tissue and took a bite. Silently he passed it to me. It was a Chinese egg roll. Cold. And as beastly as any cold egg roll would be.
If you live in France, you must have lunch. You might fall into a cheerful neighborhood bistro, something like Chez René. And if the stars are with you, there will be boudin on the menu -- the charcutier's celestial alchemy of blood and fat. Listen, you who are faint of heart…I beg you, taste. Here the boudin is sautéed, slightly charred, and served with the quintessential purée of pommes. Yes, it's only applesauce, but what have they done to it? Some lemon, perhaps; a dash of Calvados…caramelized, saintly.
The waiters are intimate and teasing. The room is noisy, crowded, smoky with the cigarettes of neighborhood businessmen eating oysters, perfect tomatoes accented with shallots, céleri rémoulade, boeuf bourguignon, coq au vin, excellent blanquette de veau, giant triangles of fresh grape tart (the grapes unpitted, the crust rather primitive, the tart quite marvelous), or a delicious raspberry charlotte and the house fruity Beaujolais, at $3 a bottle…bringing lunch to $7 or $8 a person.
How to resist? Virtue is never as rewarding as a fabulous lunch.
Chez René, 14 boulevard Saint-Germain. Ode 30-23. Closed Mondays and August.
L'Orangerie is more theater than gastronomy -- an artful feeding station, a mise en scène, wonderfully romantic in a style maintained with remarkable consistency. The house itself is old and handsomely mellowed with giant mirrors and candlelight, and, at the bar, a bouquet of white flowers tall as a tree. Carved wooden sphinxes with ridiculous eighteenth-century hairdo's guard the door that swings to a chic clientele: Helmut Berger, Anna Karina, Jerome Robbins, fashionable luminaries, Henry Kissinger, and often, not so long ago, a neighbor named Pompidou -- all come to dine on the house's simple limited $17 prix fixe dinner.
There is a candle on the table and a single rose in full bloom wilting in its heat; toasted country bread and a bowl of fromage blanc -- thinner than sour cream and zesty with herbs, predominantly chive. Foie gras, smoked salmon, crab cocktail, scrambled eggs with truffles or a bizarre hot (but not wilted) salad of mild chicory and pork bits nesting perfect poached eggs…all are offered to start. But someone must order panier de crudites -- the house's breathtaking still life of raw vegetables served with a murky green vinaigrette and thin slices of gentle Parma ham. The vegetables are arranged as lovingly as if they were orchids -- an arbor of celery, quartered red cabbage, gleaming baby onions, beautiful mushrooms and fennel, cucumbers, rather tough endive, a slightly proletarian tomato, avocado, red peppers and carrots, curls of chicory (they call it frisée), and baby artichokes that must be quartered to get at their crunchy hearts. Everyone dips into the vinaigrette or the fromage blanc.
Entrées are mostly grilled or boiled and modestly sauced -- turbot hollandaise; grilled côte de boeuf (a bit coarse), tough, not as juicy as it ought to be; a much too fatty rack of lamb; delicious sweetbreads on a bed of buttery spinach and calf's liver sautéed with a splash of sherry vinegar, the sauce nicely piquant but the liver not really rare enough. Wine comes with the $17 dinner, a Côtes de Provence or an admirably mellow little Bordeaux, Château de Barre, but there is a wine list for the more demanding. Champagne to go with all that candlepower is $30. The chocolate mousse is an insult to the cocoa bean, and the strawberry tart is simply berries pressed into whipped cream on a decent crust -- but the ices come from Berthillon, the master sorbetier. Everyone orders a mélange of banana, rhubarb, and passion-fruit.
So never mind that it's not gastronomy -- it's a romantic setting open Sunday night, a gently pause between mind-blowing feasts. L'Orangerie has a consistency that would be welcome in Paris's more erratic and temperamental temples of serious eating.
L'Orangerie, 28, rue Saint-Lous-en-l'Ile, 633.93.98. Open 8 P.M.-2 A.M. Closed August.
Click here for Vintage Listings Page.