Sunday, October 5, 2003

Despite few bad meals, French food superb

I knew something was terribly wrong when I noticed the whipped cream alongside the walnut tart was spewed from an aerosol can. More clues arrived before dessert: cold sauteed duck in tepid cream sauce; less-than-fresh-tasting trout cooked and served in aluminum foil "papillote;" and halved cherry tomatoes, as if plucked from a salad bar, displayed as garnish.

It sounds like the description of an American chain restaurant meal, but the scene of this culinary crime was the three-star Hotel Le Cro-Magnon in the Dordogne Valley of France, where evidence of prehistoric man was first discovered. After this ambush, we felt like someone in a cave could've thrown the meal together.

It was especially disappointing considering American-born French restaurant writer Patricia Wells raved about Cro-Magnon in her Foods of France (Workman; $16.95). Our three-course meal wasn't cheap either - about 75 Euros (or $90) for two, without wine.

I was most crushed, of course, by suffering a bad meal in France. It's not supposed to happen.

French food-bashing

But that's not fair. France is a big country with more than its share of restaurants - some excellent and some cooking thawed trout in aluminum foil. (Besides, Wells' ravings were published 16 years ago. Who knows how many changes in chefs and owners Cro-Magnon has seen since that favorable review.)

Still, French food-bashing - no doubt kindled by high expectations - is becoming fashionable.

"The French nouvelle cuisine revolutionized the culinary world in the 1970s," wrote Arthur Lubow in the Aug. 10 New York Times Sunday Magazine. "But over the last decade, French innovation has congealed into complacency."

Unfortunately, I can't claim Lubow's perspective. My visit to France was only the second in six years. But I can serve tales of wonderful food I ate there: sweet, succulent mussels in the little Atlantic coast town of St. Jean-de-Luz and nearby in Cibure, the freshest grilled tuna topped with a wisp of vinaigrette and fried garlic chips. In Paris, I relished bistro staples such as homey leg of lamb, rich entrecote Bercy and silky chard gratin.

Even at a chain restaurant outside Charles de Gaulle Airport, the chicken cordon bleu arrived moist and the bifteck hache (hamburger) came charred on the outside, perfectly medium-rare in the middle.

And at perhaps the hottest and most innovative Paris restaurant, L' Atelier de Joel Robuchon, where reservations aren't accepted and diners order al la carte while sitting at a sushi-style bar, I marveled at the stunning flavors: a chanterelle cream caressing a poached egg, crispy slivers of briny fried red mullet on sweet red pepper sauce and bright basil sorbet with white peaches.

High standards

Clearly, French chefs still can cook. And even though I didn't drop in on strangers for dinner, I suspect the same is true of French home cooks. Despite the proliferation of American-style supermarkets, stocked with frozen dinners and other convenience foods, the French maintain their voracious appetite for buying fresh and local fish, cheese and vegetables at open air markets.

At home or in restaurants, the French make time to eat. Many stores and shops still close at mid-day to allow employees to enjoy lunch. And in small towns such as Port Vendres, in the south near the Spanish border, school children have the option of going home at mid-day to eat with their parents. In school cafeterias, students eat several proper courses, including cheese.

Yes, it's true everything is not right with the food of France. It in fact may be the most stale and inconsistent since the Revolution, when the chefs of the former aristocracy introduced fine cuisine to the bourgeois.

But even though the Italians are close and the Spanish are gaining, France is still the best place on Earth to eat, I believe. French consumers are so demanding at the table, they don't allow sub-standard restaurants like Cro-Magnon to survive for long. The night of our disappointing dinner, only seven people were seated in the dining room. None was French.

When Americans become that discerning, maybe our food will rank with the best.


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