The stars, like dust

dinner paintingWhile the world’s culinary landscape flows swiftly on to unknown horizons, the lords of French cuisine laze enthroned in their mountaintop fortresses, trapped by tradition and (at times) arrogance, kings of only that which their ancestors surveyed.

At least, that’s the conventional narrative. Like any such narrative, there’s some truth to it. An awful lot of French restaurants are more than content to rest on laurels that have long dried into aromatic irrelevancy. Meanwhile, the center of culinary gravity darts about the globe: Cataluña, Sydney, Hong Kong, Osaka, Chicago, the Basque lands, Copenhagen…even London, for heaven’s sake.

But there’s falsehood, as well. Yes, effortless diners will eat a lot of effortless cooking (I don’t mean that in a good way), and there’s a truly depressing conformity even among places that should know better. But, especially in the cities, there’s life, too. Starting with a return to ingredient-based cuisine – and France, though sometimes it seems to have forgotten, is laden and lardered with incredible ingredients to fill the famished – and moving on from there to the same sort of multiple-input experimentation that has energized dining all over the world.

One category of French restaurant, however, is unusually hobbled by resistance to change: the Michelin-starred. What should, by one standard, be the pinnacle of a nation’s deservedly famous edible narrative is, far too often, merely a vastly more expensive way to eat the same dishes available everywhere else, though with better knife-work and brilliantly-gilded tableware. Only infrequently are dishes less than exceptional works of craft (though it does happen, and it most certainly shouldn’t at those prices), but often that’s all they are. The time when French chefs’ creations were regularly on the tip of diners’ postprandial tongues is now decades in the past. And even when they’re referred to, it’s either a tribute band plodding its way through a hoary classic of yesteryear (like Alinea’s tournedos Rossini, painstakingly authentic and retro by design) or a well-worn yet affectionate quote from a literary master (like Manresa’s “Arpège egg”).

I feel little sympathy for French restaurants who care so little that they coast through mindless repetition of their alleged hits, even if that repetition is reasonably edible. But I do feel some sympathy for the starred, for their temples must sometimes feel an awful lot like prisons. A constant flow of well-heeled tourists and internationalites (as for better or worse, that’s who fills the seats) expecting the pinnacle of French dining, but also expecting it to be French and classic through whatever preconceptions they view those terms. Further, the cost of culinary risk-taking is higher than elsewhere; no one who’s traveled all the way to France and laid down a well-fed AMEX platinum wants the chef’s mid-afternoon dalliances and fleeting notions on the plate. They want the tried and true, but they want it better…well, actually, they want it perfected. That’s a tall order for any restaurant, and unfortunately it’s also the same order, over and over again.

There are several paths out of the trap. One is to give up the yoke of the system, and some chefs have done that…abandoning their stars, toques, and so forth to run focused places with limited menus (and limited seating). That is, in fact, where much of the most exciting French dining is to be found these days, and as a concept it sits comfortably aside the other trendlet: return-to-the-roots caves à manger, which offer the foundational traditions from which so many hidebound restaurants have strayed, but free of trappings and expense, and letting those great French ingredients speak for themselves.

Another is to reject the system on its merits (or lack thereof). Like a winemaker dropping an appellation to which they’re entitled working with strange grapes or techniques, giving up both the help and the restraint of guidebook or critical approval can be the first step on the path to the fullest expression of a chef’s passion. Michelin has learned some lessons outside France (and failed to learn those lessons elsewhere), but in France it remains a rigid defender of Michelin’s France.

The third is to cultivate a reputation for risk-taking from the very start. This is how Adrià, Redzepi, Aduriz, Achatz, and all the rest get away with their high-wire acts of culinary adventurousness, in which only the unwary and unprepared actually expect every dish to be a success. One attends their restaurants knowing one is paying for the performance, not just the script.

But here the French are at a disadvantage, because given their rigorously formalized path of advancement within kitchens, it’s extremely unlikely that anyone could rise to the top of the system without many years of predictable tasks, churning out the classics in very familiar trenches; tasks and classics that would suck the energy from even the most determined. French chefs simply don’t move from the line at Momofuku Ko straight to the top job at Le Grand Véfour, whereas talented risk-takers could easily make the jump from latter to the former. And to attempt to stay the course is to become every more firmly lodged in the vise. It’s a beautiful, gilded trap, but it’s still a trap.

There are escapees, however. The barriers are not impenetrable. There are chefs, even among the most renowned and étoile-laden, who push against boundaries both real and imagined. No, I don’t think there is an El Bulli analogue in the DNA of any French Michelin three-star of whom I’m aware (though its worth remembering that Adrià often credited the most creative of his French peers for inspiration), but that doesn’t mean there isn’t movement.

rabbitIn 2011, I had a double helping of Pierre Gagnaire. The first course was at the fascinating Forum des Images in the in-progress ruins of Paris’ Les Halles, a repository of individually-viewable films and video of all sorts. My French, alas, is not always up to vocal expressions of the native arts, but there was a short documentary about the culinary maestro, and it made for interesting and (more or less) comprehensible viewing.

The takeaway: Pierre Gagnaire is nuts.

Oh, he’s not crazy in the sense that he wanders naked down streets muttering about the aliens living in his brain. At least, I presume not. Rather, he’s the sort of “nuts” common to a lot of ultra-creative types, in which the relentless need – far beyond an urge or even a desire – to create leads not just to obsession, but obsessive dissatisfaction. An obsession that actually keeps him out of his kitchen during service, because his fiddling, nervous presence makes it impossible for his team to execute his dishes.

And this nervous energy, this relentless double-branched drive towards More and Different, is on every plate at his eponymous, lavishly-praised restaurant. At least, every plate I see. If there are restrained Gagnaire classics somewhere on this menu – and there might be – they pass neither my eyes nor my lips. More revelatory is the fact that there’s not only more than one idea on a plate, there’s almost always more than one dish on a plate. Sometimes a half-dozen or more. “Tuna” becomes a mezze platter of notions and whimsy around the core ingredient; whereas a modernist might cause the diner to wonder what they’re getting, Gagnaire leads one to wonder if there’s anything they’re not getting. It’s exciting, it’s overwhelming, and it’s bound to dissatisfy many as much as it thrills others.

The food at Gagnaire is all over the map. I don’t mean qualitatively – everything I try is extraordinary, and that isn’t a universally-shared experience of this restaurant, even among friends whose palates I usually trust – I mean stylistically. If there’s a center of gravity to this food, other than Gagnaire’s feverish flux, I can’t find it. There are obvious global influences, and Asia is referenced with some frequency, but little is geographically specific. Yet it’s not really “fusion,” either. More like a fan-spread glitter-shower of ideas, visually captivating but feeling refined only to the extent that at some point, someone arbitrarily stops the twiddling and adornment and expels some sort of product from the kitchen. I suspect that in the mind and kitchen of Pierre Gagnaire, little is ever “done.”

What about the ancillary matters? Service is what one wants from this type of restaurant, with more than a bit of cleverness when warranted. Décor is a little on the modernist power-broker side, but still within the expected range. The wine list is long enough and itself a bit modern, but I’ve no trouble finding wines worth drinking (which isn’t always the case at highly-starred establishments…see below).

Krug Champagne Brut “Grande Cuvée” (Champagne) – Rich and heady, but really not all that complex or interesting. It’s like gilding and jewel-encrusting a turnip, frankly; yes, it’s all shiny and sparkly, but what’s the real point? It’s still a turnip, and doesn’t want to be gilt. The wine’s elegant, and maybe the point is that one should feel elegant while one drinks it, but that’s really much more about the drinker than it is the wine itself. (4/11)

Boxler 2009 Riesling Brand (Alsace) – A little sweet, a lot heavy, a fair bit alcoholic. There’s still plenty of honeyed minerality and bronzed musculature, with the stone fruit and gold of the site evident, but it’s just too boozy for my taste, and I’m not sure this is a quality one will want to live with for long. I’d say I was surprised by this result, but a legendarily hot vineyard in a big year…unfortunately, I’m not surprised at all. Dismayed because of what it portends for globally-warmed Alsace. Disappointed that this came from an extremely reliable producer. But not surprised. (4/11)

Darroze “Domaine de Rieston” 1990 Bas-Armagnac (Southwest France) – Armagnac turned up to 11, or maybe even 12, in darkly-oaked intensity laden with succulent dried fruit. Showy and rather fantastic. It is not, I think, designed to appeal to lovers of older, more reticent and well-matured spirits, but it’s impossible to ignore and, frankly, very difficult not to like. (4/11)

The verdict? I’ve certainly had more adventurous meals in more freewheeling locales. I’ve had better meals in the sense that perfection seemed within their grasp, even from this exact type of restaurant in this very country. But this is without question the most interesting three-star meal I’ve had within the borders of France, and as I leave I’d describe the experience not as satisfaction, nor even as admiration, but instead as an overwhelmed variant of happiness tinged with fatigue.

rodin sculptureAs noted earlier, there are other ways to rattle the shackles, and one of them is to offer a jovial middle finger to tradition while remaining inside it. This is more or less what Alain Passard and his long love affair with vegetables have done at his minimalist, reductive Arpège. To maintain, even escalate, three-star pricing yet serve a meal consisting primarily of roots, flowers, fruits, and leaves takes a sizable pair of something Passard would probably not serve at this restaurant.

For years, the primary complaint I heard from dissatisfied post-Arpège diners was, “this much money for vegetables?” I take the point on its economic merits, and Arpège is breathtakingly expensive, but never agreed with the assumption behind it: that there is something inherently unworthy about vegetable cookery, that the heating of flesh is self-evidently more valuable. One doesn’t spend three-star money for ingredients, which – with rare exceptions, and (somewhat ironically) Arpège provides a number of them – a little work could procure for any home cook’s use. That three-stars tend to lay on the truffles and fattened liver rather thickly is, again, not something one needs three-stars for. Rather one pays a stratospheric tariff for the skill with which those ingredients are utilized. And it has rarely been said, even by his detractors, that Passard can’t cook.

Just a few steps down the street from Arpège is the Musée Rodin, filled with nakedly passionate revelations of the essential, in which that revelation animates qualities unknown to the medium without the intervention of the artist. That describes what a fair number of chefs do, as well. Were Arpège a museum of sculpture, it’d be filled not with recognizable objects, or even chips and shavings, but with the undefiled rocks and stones whence they came.

Passard remains a gracious host, and any chef this famous willing to sit in an empty corner of his restaurant during service and graze, slurp, and smile at departing patrons has a refreshingly comforting notion of what it is that he does; it’s fairly apparent that he sees himself less as a performance artist than as a cook. And that, whatever flaws he may or may not have, an inability to relax is not one of them.

Yet I can’t help but wonder if the fact that, by the time I finally make it to his restaurant, animals are back on the menu reveals some slight diminution of focus. Every truly great dish I encounter is either entirely or in the majority comprised of plants, while the most disappointing bites are those in which plants play little to no role. Case in point: a plate in which nothing other than an array of seasonal vegetables, each cooked differently but with a perfection beyond perfection, is one of the most extraordinary statements of pure essentialism I’ve ever encountered. On the other hand, turbot – my favorite swimmer, and a fish that can be breathtaking in its singular complexity – is drowned in a gloppy cream and vin jaune sauce that utterly obliterates the fish (and doesn’t do much for the sauce, either). A you-can-read-through-it beet nigiri is an exquisite, naked pair of two perfect flavors (the beet and the rice), a beet “merguez” on the aforementioned place of vegetables is so good I fail to repress a gleeful laugh at the audacity of it, but chunks of poularde with another mélange of plants are nothing special and completely overshadowed by the continuing excellence of the vegetables (and, in this case, fruit).

The nadir is a chocolate mille-feuille that tastes like a pile of stale ashes and, aside from its wet core, is almost completely inedible. I have no idea whether this is a failure of intent or execution, but a failure it is. In fact, it’s one of the worst things I’ve ever been served in a restaurant.

The décor is really nothing at all, I’d suspect by intent. Service is on the casual side of what one might expect, which I think reflects the chef, but does no disservice to itself. The wine list is somewhat of a disappointment in that it shows neither the deep bench of classics some diners will expect, nor much interest in new directions in wine. That said, not “much” is not “none,” and there are a few dabblings with natural wine. Still, if one isn’t prepared to shower coin on still-too-young Names, drinking here is not as rewarding as it might otherwise be.

Laurent-Perrier Champagne Brut Cuvée Rosé (Champagne) – Pink, and tastes of it. Sharp, fruity, clean, soon dead. Next. (11/12)

Alexandre Bain 2011 Pouilly-Fumé “Pierre Précieuse” (Loire) – Sweet, flabby, and more than a little bit insipid. I get that this is natural, but it’s horribly boring as well. Maybe it works as an apéritif. But it doesn’t even have the nervosity to be a German riesling stand-in. (11/12)

Comte de Saint Victor “Château de Pibarnon” 2000 Bandol (Provence) – Halfway to excellence, but the halfsies are evident in the disjointed structural imbalances, which are slightly stewy and tending towards the fluffy at the moment. That’s not, I think, where this wine will end up. Otherwise, there’s blackened meat liqueur and herbal tincture…a pretty classic Bandol signature, with a rocky underbelly seemingly characteristic of this house. Wait on it. (11/12)

Lhéraud 1973 Cognac Petite Champagne (Cognac) – Forcefully classy. Like drinking fine pastries, with a boozy core. Is it as complex as an Armagnac of similar age? No, but it’s silkier. There’s your tradeoff. (11/12)

I want to love Arpège. I do like it, the disaster of a dessert excepted. But of course, a restaurant at its externally- and internally-imposed level – and here I mean both reputation and price – doesn’t retain the freedom to just be liked. It needs to be loved.

And that is also part of the trap.

This and other travelogues encompass multiple temporalities, for the blog format does not easily accommodate imposition of timeframes other than its own rigid sequentiality. That is to say: if I’ve visited a place on three separate occasions, posts arising from those visits will not be kept separate. All future travelogues will thus be undated, with only the dates that always follow wine notes indicating when they took place (or, when there are no wine notes, an alternative indication will be provided). Travelogues from the past are in the process of being unshackled from their own temporal moorings.

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