Recently a friend and I had a four-hour lunch at the most unusual of Paris' Michelin three-starred restaurants, a place called Pierre Gagnaire. There are only seven such spots in the city, a mere 19 in all of France. You might think such a long meal's journey into night would finally collapse into tedium. But no, it's the opposite. You inevitably slow down the entire seven-course meal to a tortoise-like pace. Tastes linger, and you want plenty of time to savor the subtle distinctions of the ingredients, to marvel at the ingenuity of the chef's art, which seems as strikingly complex as a theatrical text of Racine.
It is patently unfair, of course, to compare a grand restaurant like Pierre Gagnaire to anything in Portland, any more than one might reasonably lament that the Schnitz is not the Paris Opéra. But during my first course of pâté of boar and doe with a jelly made from Maury wine and cream of pralined quince, I started to think of what we can learn from the French, and they from us.
There is something important in the notion that when you reserve a table in a Parisian restaurant it is yours for the afternoon or evening. The restaurant assumes that you've come to eat, whether you're savoring the exquisite combination of tiny rock fish wrapped in a briny seaweed, dappled with a velouté of salt cod and caviar, surrounded by oysters poached in a pepper consommé (my second course), or, if you are dining at an old-fashioned bistro, tucking into a basket of dried sausage, blood sausage and a tangle of garlic salamis. It's their culture, but too many of our restaurants cater to pangs of hunger, not the need to experience. The French believe that beautifully prepared food enjoyed with an expert's knowledge are the basis of civilization.
Service at this kind of restaurant is deft and unobtrusively yet instantly aware of your every need. All servers' antennae are at the alert. As soon as I tasted my companion's artichoke soup, a waiter swooped down and with a graceful gesture relieved the spoon from my hand and in the same continuous motion gave a new one to my partner--a move as fluid as Tiger Woods' backswing. The sommelier huddled with us over the wine for a full 10 minutes, asking countless questions and providing us with exactly the information required to make it feel as if we ourselves had chosen the precise bottles he had suggested. At such restaurants the wine steward takes the first sip, to make sure everything is perfect. I have seen a sommelier reject a bottle because he suspected the wine was corked. Would we have discerned that problem? I'm not sure.
Part of the reason I have resisted fusion cooking is that the incongruity of flavors often seems to me arbitrary or strained, the result of a chef merely toying. Gagnaire is different: He pushes the envelope with such informed daring it makes you breathless. He will grill a pigeon with juniper berries, stuff it with cèpes, surround it with slivers of eggplant mixed with exquisite and miniature Brittany shrimp, and then arrange tuiles of bitter chocolate around it to intensify the dark hues and lend a touch of earthy sweetness. There are so many flavors on a Gagnaire plate you can put any combination of them together and make it work.
This suggests another feature of French restaurant life we have not yet approached: a nuanced awareness of how ingredients and hence entire dishes work with one another. When an accomplished chef like Gagnaire builds a concept, he knows precisely where each item comes from. He brings together forest, sea, meadow or farmyard from a common region, each flavor enhancing the other because they were meant to be together and have, in effect, a homecoming on your plate. Even when the juxtapositions seem bizarre, the pairings prompt one to imagine they are as naturally conjoined as lungs and breath.
But even as I was relishing one Platonic scallop (toasted to a burnished mahogany but still underdone inside) accompanied by smoked herring wrapped around astonishingly fresh cucumbers, and a frothy custard of Breton sea urchin, I thought about what we can teach the French. This will seem ironic because Gagnaire's restaurant is responsive to the cuisines and the cooking techniques of other nations. But most French restaurants are not; they are firmly rooted in native traditions, often excessively and chauvinistically.
My French friends who have not traveled to the United States recently are usually skeptical when I tell them how good our cooking has become. If they believe it's true, they presume we've imported French chefs. But the truth is two-fold. American cooking has gone back to its own regional roots, and we have borrowed daringly from a range of international cuisines, employing not just ingredients but techniques that, for the most part, have not interested the French, such as charcoal grilling and barbecuing. As a nation of immigrants, we do not hesitate to take what we need from anywhere and everywhere. When it comes to food, ironically, it is the French who are the imperialists, attempting to imprint their gastronomical culture on the world, and we who are the gleeful assimilators, remaking our cuisine with global ingenuity.
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