June 24, 1974 | Vintage Insatiable

Paris is my Oyster

        Less is more. What an elegant idea…so Zen. Obviously I’ve been blinded too long by the school of “more is more.” But the taste of the insatiable voluptuary is in for a shock. Certain Parisian kitchens are enchanted by an almost Oriental simplicity. Come be stunned by a raw scallop.

         That first dreadful oyster. I remember by my sick terror. Upstairs at “21,” a visiting naïve from the provincial steppes of Michigan, I was determined to please, steeled to cross the Styx of sophistication, quoting Yeats, spicy with the scent of Carnet de Bal. I contemplated that slurpy raw morsel of gray protoplasm at the end of a fork held by the matinee idol of my teenage sensibilities. Is this what the world is all about? This mock cannibalism? “They are waiting on the shingle,” Lewis Carroll’s “Lobster Quadrille” mocked me from the back of my head. “Won’t you come and join the dance?”

       “How do you eat it?” I asked. Playing for time.

       “You bite. You chew.” He looked at me doubtfully. Discouraged. “You could just, hmmm, slurp it down.”

       And I did. Thinking: Yeeeck.

       Time blesses the mouth… creating passions for the very foods once despised and a taste for textures once too hideous to imagine. Ah yes, raw scallops.

       We were a trio of gastronomic adventurers last fall, arriving without reservations for lunch at Le Duc. All the tables were taken, most of them by businessmen hidden behind mountains of crustaceans. Even the bar had become a lunch counter piled high with Le Duc’s elevated panaché de fruits de mer et crustacés – a briny still life of the sea’s most esculent beasties. So we perched at a little leather tufted cocktail table and eyed the saucer of strange, glistening white flesh flecked with coral and fresh-cracked pepper. “Coquilles Saint-Jacques,” said proprietor Jean Minchelli, with a Mephistophelian smile. “Coquilles crues.” Scallops. Raw.

      These Corsican brothers -- Jean the inventor and Paul the chef – are wickedly handsome, and wry, stubborn, charming. A champagne and seafood breakfast two weeks earlier was a dazzling introduction to the crunch and crackle of Le Duc’s tiny pepper-scented shrimp (no bigger than commas), moist langoustines, sweet meaty giant crabs, elusive barnacles, sea-scented prairies (small clams), celestial Belons, and the house’s way with raw tuna, minced and mixed with parsley, fresh green peppercorns, and a dash of olive oil. So if Jean Minchelli says raw scallops...who could say no?

       Fresh from the shell a moment before, the scallop is sliced thin as prosciutto, then anointed with a drizzle of shallot-scented oil and a hail of fresh cracked pepper. Fresh and delicate, the taste is subtle, the texture unreal, wondrously voluptuous, provoking a shock of joy that makes you suddenly grateful for all your senses.

       Next day, booked on the four o’clock flight back to New York, I felt it utterly wanton to leave without one more taste of Le Duc’s raw scallops. We asked the driver to pull up to Le Duc and wait with the baggage. There were more scallops, tasting even fresher and more seductive than I remembered. After oysters, clams and barnacles, there were more of the tiny pepper-steeped shrimp to eat, feelers and all, and baby clams in a mustard tarragon sauce with too much thickening.

       Then a curiosity, a rare steak sliced in two, layered with oysters in a parsley-flecked sauce…an odd coupling. My friend, the Parisian publicist Yanou Collart, expressed my own reactions. “It’s a mixing that does not fit to my mouth,” she complained.

       Back in Paris this spring, I hunger for another taste of Le Duc’s raw scallops. Alas, the season is over. (It runs from October to May.) So we are eating raw salmon, lightly sprinkled with oil and studded with fresh green peppercorns. The salmon first…it’s fragile and subtle, wants to be savored all alone. Then the house’s splendid pedestal of shelled  creatures. “If you remove the gray stomachs of the Belons, the oyster is sweeter,” advises Yanou, a Le Duc loyalist. “It’s called ébarber…to unbeard the oyster.” I am torn. I came so later to oysterdom, I’m loath to surrender one-third. There are baby clams and clams in a shell your decorator would adore – they look varnished. The giant crabs are fat with gently steamed meat. There is much dipping and dabbing into crocks of mild mayonnaise, and sweet butter to grace the crusty whole-grain country bread. The waiter brings a steaming casserole with langoustines trailing over the edge – as if they’ve fainted from the steam. “À la nage,” says the menu, and what a nage, the broth so preciously peppery that our group’s pepper-fetishist, eating it with a spoon, cries, “I’m hallucinating.”

       What are we eating? “Cèpes de la mer,” Minchelli says, “mushrooms of the sea.” The ribbons of “cèpe” are chewier than that velvety mushroom flesh, but zesty with the perfume of garlic and thyme and butter. “Sea anemone,” someone guesses. No. It is abalone, tenderized with a rolling pin.

       Earlier gluttony stirs regret, but still, it is impossible to resist delicate ceteaux – baby sole – and loup, exquisitely limpid. Rougets make me wary. Once at Le Baumanière in Provence, the smell alone was so strong, I almost lost my appetite. (I recovered.) but these are tiny rougets, gently fried – “ortolans of the sea,” says Minchelli – to eat bones, head and all, and only mildly briny.

       There is a fine Muscadet on the table – Muscadet 1972 of Louis Métaireau – but Le Duc regulars prefer young red wines, lightly chilled, and we are drinking an unclassified Burgundy from the house of Camus…surprisingly, it works. Revival, not to mention survival, is enhanced by a bracing trio of ices – currant, mango, and passion fruit. This admittedly excessive feast cost $30 a person. But the boulevard Raspail is so far from West End Avenue…dare one leave something for next time?

Le Duc, 243 boulevard Raspail.

***

        Less is more. The tortured artifice of la grande cuisine is being challenged by the Young Turks of French cooking. The sauce that masks is forsaken for the herb and the flavored butter that exposes. But at Le Pactole, rough, genial, chef-patron Jacques Manière insists it was sheer laziness that inspired his miraculous coquilles au varech – scallops steamed under seaweed, served in a pool of caviar butter. “You take a kilo of caviar and half a kilo of butter,” says Manière, with a shrug. The taste is haunting. In the silk and saltiness of the caviar butter, the tender scallops are radiantly sweet.

       Manière came to serious cooking at 40, untrained. He began as an office canteen vendor with just one table for friends. And today, a decade later, he is ranked with France’s gastronomic superstars. The house of Pactole is unassuming, though you might suspect something momentous from the pileup of cars parked on the sidewalk outside on Boulevard St. Germain. And Manière can be proud, stubborn – at times, alas, uneven. But when he is good, he is brilliant…as when he takes calf’s liver and simply steams it, creating a texture as rich and silken as foie gras.

       Tonight’s dinner is spectacular and yet mildly flawed. Manière’s “crazy salad” to start – silken, rosy foie gras scallops (cooked in cream for half a minute), julienne of mushrooms, baby string beans, and ribbons of lettuce, in a delicate vinaigrette. Then the celestial scallops in caviar butter. A fricassee of lobster follows in a masterful cream, heady with the perfume of an 1850 Madeira. The lobster is sweet but regrettably tough. Still, no one can resist spooning the last drops of sauce. We are eight and consume two magnums of a fine fruity Bandol, Domaine à Tempier. No one asks for dessert. It simply appears: a tiny slice of splendid strawberry tart, a mound of floating island, and smartly tart raspberry sorbet. With lobster and caviar priced predictably high, dinner cost $32 for each of us.

Le Pactole, 44, boulevard St.-Germain.

***

         The tiny shop next door to Pactole is so quaint it must be genuine or something borrowed from a Walt Disney back lot. There are heavy iron pots hanging, thick slabs of lard, a mountain of tub butter, great wheels of country bread, tubs of tiny pickles and olives, great chunks of cheese, jars of preserved goose and duck and mushrooms, tripe, blood sausages, salami flecked with pepper, and cider from Brittany. That is the provenance of Madame Mira, the patronne in a red plaid newsboy cap. Her irrepressible singsong delivery would reach the back row at the Belasco. This hokily charming little charcuterie was still open at ten, when we arrived for dinner next door in May. What an ideal outpost for outfitting a picnic or assembling a midnight snack. It’s a fantasy for gastronomic voyeurs. Inhale deeply.

 

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