The Most Exciting Cooking in the World
The great excitement in French cooking is not to be found anywhere in France, but in Switzerland...in a tiny crossroads suburb of Lausanne called Crissier.
As a youth, Freddy Girardet played soccer. He never did a serious restaurant apprentissage. He helped out in the family bistro. Then, on a wine-buying excursion to Burgundy, friends took him for lunch at Les Frères Troisgros. That lunch was an epiphany. Now, listening to Girardet, tasting his extraordinary food, one begins to understand Joan of Arc’s visions. There is no doubt that this satin-voiced man -- handsome, with a sensual flare of features -- is driven by some transcendent vision. Not a single superlative I have read or heard about the inspired chef of Crissier is exaggerated.
Cuisinary pilgrims come begging for miracles. And Girardet delivers.
Yes, a salmon is only a fish, after all. An artichoke is a thistle; watercress, a weed. But in Girardet’s hands, a fish, a thistle, and a weed become a poem that haunts. There are times when the gourmand tom-toms beat louder than a rumbling tummy. And Girardet is already feeling the heat of sainthood. The restaurant is booked weeks, sometimes months, in advance. He is pursued with seductive offers to teach, to produce ethereal cookouts abroad, to distill the essence of his inspiration into a text. “I can’t,” he says, “I won’t. Not now. Everything is still evolving.”
And so quickly, too. Last fall, his suburban inn was known as the Hôtel de Ville. By spring it had become the Restaurant Girardet, though Crissier still leases town-hall offices on the second floor. Late last fall we escaped the bitter chill outside for the restaurant’s warmth and careful simplicity: pristine lace curtains on wooden rings, tufted leather banquettes, unremarkable drawings, a single candle on each table, country breads in a shallow wicker basket beside a stunning fling of orchids. Appetites primed by the rumored greatness, we put ourselves into Girardet’s hands. There was a quality in his sly smile...the confidence of a Don Juan, amused that you do not know your seduction is inevitable.
Dinner began with a faintly effervescent Swiss white wine and a delicate scalloped tart, about as big as a silver dollar, carrying a tenderly poached oyster sprinkled with caviar in a puddle of butter. Then came foie gras of duck, fast-seared and gossamer inside, mossy with chervil and parsley. Then a puzzling wonder—langoustines in a silken green chive cream, their flesh so fragile and tender they might have been raw or perhaps merely “cooked” with lemon...as if all other prawns before these had been coarse imitators. Next, the firm white fish Saint-Pierre, with the briny scent of sea urchin, in cream with twig-thin string beans, julienne of carrot and turnip, and tiny flowers of broccoli, each with a perfect measure of crunch. We sipped a Swiss Pinot Noir, lightly chilled, perhaps too chilled, with pigeon, and ate crisp, perfect rösti potatoes and lardoon-studded cabbage, tossed to a degree of doneness that may have been decreed by Aristotle if he’d been a vegetarian.
From a pram of perhaps three dozen Swiss cheeses, we tasted a nutty ripe Vacherin, chèvre running at a pace not to be resisted, and the tête de moine, called monk’s head because tradition requires that it be shaved with a knife into a grainy, soft mound on the plate. We marveled over the exquisite play of tart and sweet in a passion-fruit soufflé --flourless, creamy, astonishingly light. Stunned and silly from the glorious excess, I fumbled over extravagant compliments. Girardet shrugged modestly. “Come for a week,” he said. “I’ll cook you ten different dishes every day.”
Memory has a way of exaggerating ecstasy. Not this time, though. Back in Crissier this spring, I found the joy surpassing memory. Girardet had been touched by the gospel of the nouvelle cuisine, had mastered it and gone on. He doesn’t stumble. His control of fire is magic. He has discovered not how long but how little a shrimp or fish can be cooked. No one is as daring and as consistently accurate in...I hate to say undercooking, but suddenly everywhere else I go everything I eat is overcooked. When the breast of a chicken emerges from Girardet’s kitchen it is so moist and tender you are willing to believe he’s invented a new breed of bird. He uses herbs as they are rarely used in France. He blanches parsley, tosses it in butter as if it were spinach. And it works. A thin, peppery broth is studded with small slices of achingly sweet melon and bits of raw salmon and loup de mer, the basslike fish of the Mediterranean. And, teasing, he calls it gazpacho.
That evening...the next noon...if I run the reel fast it’s a kaleidoscope -- a dizzying immersion of the senses. Technicolor. What a range of textures, perfumes. Innocent prologue: a tiny vegetable tart. Fruity Swiss wines. (Girardet deserves the medal of honor from the Swiss government. He flatly refused to let us order even one red wine of France.) An elegant salad -- little nuggets of foie gras, sautéed hot and soft and sweet, with crisp string beans, slashes of mushroom, asparagus, and a hint of walnut in the oil. Then melting curls of crayfish -- brilliant testimony to how little a crayfish needs to be cooked -- with artichoke slices in a sauce enriched with artichoke purée. Fingers of the mild white fish saint-Pierre are garnished with a marmalade of onions and a silken tomato butter beneath a diadem of slightly charred zucchini—a storm of tastes, onion-sweet, tomato-acid. Rose-pink kidneys are spiffily crumbled and served with that parsley disguised as spinach and chewy morels in a bit of butter and cream.
Lunch next day began with an intensity of green -- a pool of puréed sorrel and watercress with ethereal lobster. Fabergé might have designed the ballotine of fish, and a breathtaking mosaic of lake creatures -- perch, féra, trout -- and the orange of carrot, the green of artichoke. In the center of the rectangle, something pale peach, moist and soft -- it had to be salmon, but no salmon I’ve ever eaten anywhere had that mind-blowing texture. “If there’s a heaven, this is what they’ll serve the good kids,” marveled my sybaritic friend, a man whose hunger for new tastes gives another dimension to the concept of excess. A gourmand’s gourmand.
We’d ordered duck. Now he’d spied a handsome rack of lamb being carved across the room. “I want to go over and pick up a chop,” he confessed. “Stop me.” Behind me, Louis, the stylish maître d’hotel, was carving the duck with the skill and nonchalance of a master surgeon. Thin, perfect pink slices of breast were carved with turned carrots, turnips, and the tiniest onions tossed in butter to a caramel glaze, and a sauce, nothing more than natural cooking juices, a splash of fruity Brouilly wine, and a swirl of butter. The duck legs were served separately with a reprise of the same vegetable garnish and a certain awe for our stamina.
Desserts tend to blur in the aftermath of such sensory indulgence, but I can recall a sublime gratin of orange slices in a kind of crème brûlée, the clarion tang of a splendid lemon tart, and masterly sorbets: lime, tea, melon, strawberry so intense we both actually wept. Yes. If Girardet had handed me a napkin, I’d have eaten it. He is scaling a creative Mt. Everest. He is nowhere near the peak.
Crissier. telephone (21) 34 15 14 Six course prix fixe 90 Swiss francs ($40) à la carte 32-64 francs ($14.40-$28.80)