May 28, 1973 | Vintage Insatiable
Chez La Mère Charles: A Mouthful of Stars
Geography is not my game: too precise, too rigid, too serious, nothing to bite into. But my favorite map of France is sensuously subjective. It is fickle, teasing, ambivalent and wry… the Guide Michelin's cartographic reverence to the great tables of France.
What a wondrously myopic road map. The slumbering village of Collognes-au-Mont d'Or is marked in giant black letters because the three-starred kitchen of Paul Bocuse is nestled there beside the River Sâone. But the bustling metropolis of Lyon (pop. 535,000) is less boldly printed. Though the very word Lyon evokes fantasies of gastronomic ecstasy, there are no three-star tables there, only a brace of two-star and a dozen with a single coveted rosette. Yes there is a town named Dijon but it is written faintly, practically italic, in the road map of haute nourriture. The tiny town of Illhaeusern screams and vibrates. Nice whispers and almost fades into oblivion. Disciples of the gastronomic faith crisscrossing the Gallic holy land this summer will scan this oblique map in omnivorous delirium.
We are dawdling along a small country road. Three neat white pigs lie ossified in the noon sun. And now, by the whimsical rules of gastronomic typography, the eyes alert the taste buds – nineteen kilometers north of Lyon, Mionnay is a two-star pleasance.
Alert now! It would be easy to hurtle through Mionnay in the flutter of a navigational maneuver. You arrive, you unfold the map another latitude, you have departed. The pale stucco bulk of Chez La Mère Charles and its colorful border of restrained perennials promise nothing. Yet what an impressive cluster of affluent chariots – the silver Jaguar, the trio of Mercedes, a small everyday Rolls. Not a parking space is left on a crisp fall Sunday. So we pull into the courtyard – bourgeois patio, tile and gentle greenery. The inn itself is unassuming. The masonry has rudely settled. There are angry cracks in the hallway plaster. And the room – how drab, stiff, unwelcoming. A room that makes you want to get lost in a good book or… each other. Love… push-ups… a long walk… twenty minutes in the Lotus position… herbal bubbles in a steaming tub: the ritual anticipations of the incurable sybarite consume the afternoon.
The evening air is buttered with great expectation. "We are friends of the Newmans," we inform Madame Chapel, the owner-chef's wife. (If there is anyone as dedicated as I to slow death by mayonnaise, it is Naomi and Richard Newman. Both Newmans work in Wall Street. His father is a power in imported cheese. Naomi studied cooking in the kitchen of Julia Child's sidekick, Simone Beck. Richard got into wines tentatively in '59, when everyone was touting '59 as the year of the decade – and plunged in '61, which was the year of the decade. He showed me his cellar book one day. The Newmans will be drinking the great '61s a long time after those of us without foresight are drinking our agreeable little Côtes du Rhône and those of us who were timid are exhausting our '66s. The Newmans do the gastronomic circuit twice a year. They don't call it spring and fall. They call it mushrooms and game. Three times, quite by chance, our zigzag eating paths crossed: in Paris; ten days later, north of Cannes; then, after a fortnight, at Fauchon, the glorious delicatessen of Paris. "Have you been to Mionnay yet?" they would ask.) I study there every move. When I grow up…
The chef is onstage. Alain Chapel is too tightly wound to be truly warm. He is an actor in an exquisite drama: the Michelin Stakes. Two stars reaching resolutely for three. The room is alive with the vibrations of his ambition. Sunday mouths from nearby Lyon can make do with the 60- or 80-franc prix fixe menu. Newman intimates like us inspire Chapel to divine excess. Off he goes to kill a fatted bird of three in our name. We cannot stray. Almost immediately there are apéritifs before us and we are surrounded by creatures of the water. Salty little amuse-gueules (to delight the mouth) in princely plentitude, complements of the house. Tiniest bait with crisp fried parsley in a folded napkin boat; two kinds of shrimp; three of the largest oysters in captivity and a small sauceboat of what look like well-bred midget snails. Shy creatures, these periwinkles – they elude the tine of a tiny fork. A waiter brings toothpicks to impale the elusive beast. The toothpick breaks. What I need is a safety pin…
But now we are bid to table – a giant round before a great stone fireplace. There are fresh coral roses in a ceramic pitcher and a thumping slab of butter – two pounds, at least, engraved with a pressing of a cow. The timing is exquisite, metered with pride and ambition. The waiters’ faces smile, anticipating our irrepressible joy-sounds. The service is neither overly formal nor overly intimate. And the attack never ceases. One blow after another to each vulnerable sense.
First a soul-stirring pâté of eel and pike in pastry wrap, graced with a two-toned pool of lemon yellow: one side simply beurre fondu – lacquer-shiny butter essence – the other pale matte beurre blanc, a subtly spiked buttery puddle. An artful pause, and then Alain Chapel's gâteau de foies blonds á la Lucien Tendret. All French aristocrats have troubled livers. The aristocratic chickens of Bresse are no exception. And these blond livers are theirs, elegant and abused from an indulgent diet of rice, corn, milk and bits of cheese. Such excess makes them pale but flavorful. What mastery to sieve and cream and mold these tormented livers into a gossamer flan and mask it in a silken crayfish sauce with one handsome crustacean as a flame-red banner.
The bold sweep continues. But our spirits falter now. A quartet of birds, tinier than the smallest canary, jolt the insatiable hunger with their innocence. A pair of ortolans for each, roasted to a crisp, lying there feet up, head, beak and all. Macbeth hesitates. But Lady Macbeth draws back and coolly stabs her bird, rare bird. A rusty geyser stains the cloth. Out, damned spot. The ortolan crunches. Lady Macbeth eats it, bones and all.
To restore humility, the chef has steamed a truffle-padded chicken to velvety beneficence. Then, to gild the simple boiled bird with its sculpted carrots, potato and turnips, he has fortified its poaching bath by reduction plus a measure of foie gras and a swirl of butter and heavy cream. By its side, strange bedfellow, a mystical mushroom mélange – cèpes, chanterelles and mousserons – sautéed in butter with chive, chervil and parsley – trailing that diabolic scent of wet earth. At some point the ‘67 Bâtard-Montrachet of Louis Latour ($12.50) runs low and we sip a fruity Chenas ($1.85 the half-bottle).
And now, in that euphoria that floats on the edge between excess and ecstasy – giggly, feeling slightly wicked and very clever to have found this road, this inn, this extraordinary meal – we are numb as the cheese cart nears, an exaltation of goat and cow. Do we dare? One taste of a chalky cream – half-goat, half-cow – and then dessert, excruciating overkill, strikes in three dazzling waves. First a regiment of ice creams and tart, tingling ices – we taste a pineapple ice of supernatural impact. Then a pride of tarts and a sublime chocolate cake, a tapestry of texture. And fruit – raspberries in a small wooden box and arrogant wild strawberries, the tiny fraises du bois. Senses reel. On the table there is a tray of bite-sized pastries, and – inside a handsome faïence tureen – homemade chocolate truffles. And fresh, strong coffee, Costa Rican, the waiter says. All this costs a princely $73 for two. As we stagger upward to the spartan bedchamber, tomorrow seems much too near.
No Ambition at Restaurant Bourgeois
Tomorrow. The miracle of survival does its old soft shoe. We are hungry. “Il y a étoile et étoile,” the Guide Michelin advises. There are stars and there are stars. The tiny hamlet of Priay, sixteen kilometers northeast of La Mère Charles, is marked in ink as bold and black as that of Mionnay… two-star country. But what startling contrast. If Alain Chapel is a dauphin radiating drive and potential for the three-star throne, then George Berger of the Restaurant Bourgeois is a solid peasant… honored, fulfilled, content.
There is no Mercedes at the curb, no silver Jag – indeed, no cars at all in front of the primly curtained café front. Just as I am about to stumble from the sidewalk directly into the kitchen, the Kultur Maven discovers the proper entrance. Inside, the room is dim, deserted except for an old woman watching television and snapping away at a mountain of string bean. Is it a misprint? Mistake? Mischief? I feel like a character in a story by Roald Dahl, the city slicker about to be outwitted by some canny country rube. But there are voices beyond, and from the kitchen a woman emerges and escorts us to the near-empty dining room.
My faith is flagging.
Did I for a few fleeting moments find La Mère Charles's quiet country elegance and spartan inn unpromising? The hotel Bourgeois's electric enthusiasm is slightly threatening. There are blown-up murals indirectly lit, flowers fresh and straw, stuffed birds on the wing, reeds and cattails in a pebble-studded pot, a trough filled with pine cones, a gargantuan watch on the wall. Nothing is missing that the incurable scavenger could want except a rooting sweet potato plant pierced with toothpicks.
There is no menu, just an agreeable woman offering fish or chicken. She caters casually to simple hungers, modest appetites. She seems baffled by the insatiable demands of pilgrims come from afar to taste and explore and be numbed by gastronomic brilliance. She will bring us the house terrine and a hot pâté and loup in a cream sauce. And then?
She smiles. “Haricot verts.” String beans. Is this what discipline and sacrifice has brought us? Stinging black coffee, nothing else, for breakfast; brisk country walks; lunchtime fasts; one hundred touch-toes… for green beans? She is persuaded to bring us chicken… and crayfish too. Clearly, we are mad. She shakes her head. But we are plugged into the Great Tasting Game Plan and we cannot accept merely to be gentled with green beans.
There are stars and there are stars. For the Kultur Maven, dinner chez Bourgeois blooms in contrast to yesterday’s. He basks in the languor of love and pride without the tension of competition, in a house with no pace to be set, no genius to prove, no star-gazing, no pretension. And it is a glorious feast at a modest $24 for two. Its equal in New York would block traffic and bring carping critics to their knees. But for me, it is more difficult to isolate the evening. Better it were a week northeast of Mionnay. I can lose my senses in the majesty of a superb sauce, but I can't help noticing a sloppy plop of fractured fish. Chef Berger's art is naïf. The truffle-studded terrine, with a medallion of foie gras, is a primitive beauty, scented with Madeira – served in two clumsy slices with cornichons fished from the crock. It may be a splintered mess, but the moist, sweet fish is exquisitely sauced. Madame is wise in her string bean obsession. These are skinny, fresh-picked aristocrats tossed with tomato, heart of artichoke and foie gras. The crayfish are cold and salty in their parsley-flecked broth. But the chicken, in bulk to unnerve the average gourmand, is slightly overdone, its sauce faintly oversalted, though you will never hear me complain about an excess of morels.
There are only five cheese arranged on cornhusks, and some of them have a life of their own. We taste a creamy Saint-Marcellin, half-goat, half-cow, again – made for the house at a nearby farm. Dessert comes in a giant mixing bowl – a great cloud of praline-studded meringue in a thick vanilla-scented cream. And we drink Mâcon Chardonnay ($2.50) from the house’s reserve because it is good and Madame refuses to let us drink anything fancier.
Georges Berger of the hotel Bourgeois is a long-distance runner, just cruising. But last fall Alain Chapel was in an uphill marathon. When Chapel's father bought La Mère Charles in 1939 it was a little country bistro. Twenty years later, it won a Michelin star. It took a decade to win another. How long for a third? Chapel shrugs. He is running circles around the competition. In March, just 35, Alain Chapel won his third star. My favorite map – fickle, teasing, wry – has gone into a new edition.
Click here for Vintage Listings Page.