APRIL 12, 2006 - Sometimes I like to go back through old cookbooks for dinner ideas. Julia Child’s classic “The French Chef” was one of my favorite references up until the point US Customs seized the shipping package for reasons that remain a mystery. But if memory serves me correctly, her approach to 60s French cuisine was full of American substitutes, some of which seemed to be drawn as much from the wet bar as from the specialty section of the supermarket. I recall a recipe for Charbonade de Boeuf that included “gin, vermouth, scotch or whatever else might be handy”.
French cooking has evolved through the years, of course, and like everything else in a global economy, it’s getting a face lift. In Paris, last January, on a night when bone chilling winds blew from the north, I stopped into one of my favorite restaurants, La Fermette du Sud -Ouest, located in the 1st Arrondissement steps away from Les Halles. Interestingly, the building is a one time convent, become post-Revolution coaching inn, become old fashioned restaurant with loft. Run by a retirement age couple, the Fermette specializes in the cuisine of the southwest of France. And that means, maigret de canard, palette de cochon, and my absolute favorite, salade aux gesiers. In the latter recipe, lettuce is scalded with a dressing of vinegar and duck fat and then tiny, caramelized and preserved gizzards are strewn atop. The warm, slightly acidic taste reminds me of southern-style scalded lettuce that is often found in early June when the first young leaves appear. Another specialty is grilled sausage accompanied by huge haricots de Soissons - those great white beans that exceed the size of anything available in the US. Finish off a meal with the heavenly chocolate cake, served in layers like a millefeuille atop a hazelnut crust, and you have a perfect old fashioned and hearty meal fit for the coldest of winter nights. When we ordered a half bottle of wine, the owner simply brought a full bottle of mellow Bordeaux and told us to stop whenever we’d had enough.
The restaurant is normally nearly empty, and the husband and wife proprietors look as if they spend most of the day dreaming of their state-subsidized pension soon to come.
On other side of the restaurant revolution, Joël Robuchon’s Atelier is alive and well on the Rive Gauche, just off the Boulevard Saint Germain. His tapas-style approach to haute cuisine raised eyebrows in the summer of 1993 when the restaurant opened, but since he’s gone on to influence more than a scattering of other chefs. Alain Senderens has closed Lucas-Carton and just reopened the space as a modestly priced eatery.
When I first visited L’Atelier, in the middle of a horrific heat wave in August 2003, the only blemish to report was the uneven service, and unfortunately not much has changed. Last month, I arrived without reservation on a Saturday night, and was told there was no room in the inn - at least at the principle bar, but that I could be placed at an annex. Thirty minutes into that seating arrangement, a waiter took the order. Forty five minutes later, without even the appearance of so much as a crumb, I was asked to transfer to the main bar, along with another diner, a rotund British gourmand, who was au courant on the latest culinary buzz.
The idea of L’Atelier, that of presenting a series of small plates en dégustation, is all fine and good, and as my anonymous dining companion informed me, the University of Paris Culinary School had researched the matter and found that most people prefer to be presented with a series of small dishes, intricately decorated, so as to make them feel as if they are eating less. His chair groaned in response.
But if you’re going for a series of courses, you need to get the timing right. My first plate, a warm salad of pigs feet served in puff pastry and garnished with black truffles and slivers of parmesan cheese, had barely been placed in front of me, when the second, the famous wild mushroom soup, a poached egg veiled by a garnish of chestnuts and parsley purée, was sat along side to get cold. Next up was a new addition to the menu, a row of clams broiled with parsley butter served atop a mound of sea salt. The idea made for a lighter and more convincing version of escargot. Then finally, another favorite - squab breast wrapped in cabbage leaves and bacon then plunged into a fragrant broth until the poultry was just barely pink (this while the bird flu was sweeping Europe), served with a purée of potatoes - 95% octane butter. Lovely. Dessert equally lovely - three types of chocolate presented simultaneously hot, cool and frozen. Better yet is the soufflé of Chartreuse with a heart of pistachio ice cream.
At L’Atelier, you can find a good selection of wine by the glass, though the 15 Euro Médoc for which I opted seemed heavy on oak, and a dead ringer for something Australian.
As my dining companion, the British DJ-Gourmand explained, moderately priced French wine is only trying to imitate better selling California, Australian and now New Zealand vintages. He hailed the waiter. “Just keep the glasses coming,” he said.
Joël Robuchon has developed the way forward for French cuisine, and with costly restaurant staffs being downsized at all but a handful of elite culinary haunts, almost exclusively to be found in the 8th Arrondissement of Paris, his idea certainly has merit. La Table de Joël Robuchon opened a year and a half ago across town, and now new “Ateliers” are planned for London and New York. One already exists in Tokyo. So who said that the entrepreneurial spirit was dead in France?