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Europe's Three-star Restaurants Reviewed

Having grown up in proletarian Moscow, I'm not one to fetishize foie gras or swoon over budget-busting Bordeaux. So what would I say to a tour of Michelin three-star restaurants, Europe's gourmet Elysiums?Eh—not a part of my five-year plan. Too much pomp, richness, and rigor.

But rumors have been flying that the grande table is on its last legs, threatened by fast-food invasions, a wobbly financial future, new culinary cults from America and Asia, and the great fusillades of fusion. Alarmed, I booked a flight, rented a Peugeot 106 (not the deluxe conveyance preferred for this sort of indulgence), and set off on a spin through the kingdoms of haute.

Troisgros
On a traffic island opposite a railroad station in the ugly French industrial town of Roanne (near Vichy) sits one of the world's most esteemed restaurants. For all I know, Troisgros could be some heartless establishment charging extortionate prices for butter-slathered food on silver-domed plates. Warily, I nurse my aperitif in the garden.

That man with the aristocrat-at-the-races demeanor, kissing the English couple?He's the maître d'. The cuddly gentleman-farmer kissing—well, everyone?He is chef Michel Troisgros: son of Pierre, brother of Claude, nephew of the late Jean, all of them culinary royalty. Michel and his wife, who runs the adjoining hotel, seem eager to feed me. I feel reassured.

Two trifles dance out of the kitchen: a perfect oyster accented with hints of wasabi, and frog's legs beignets, savory lollipops dunked in a curry-touched rémoulade. Each dish that follows is a feat of revisionism; voluptuous, classic tastes are rendered sexy and fresh. The lushness of foie gras is countered by a tart Banyuls wine reduction and raw baby onions. Lemon, soy, and clarified butter meld into an intriguing, nutty foil for the pristine roast lobster.

Beurre blanc passé?Not when it's rethought with gemlike slivers of grapefruit and minuscule croutons for texture. Accompanying a lovely piece of turbot, it is suddenly the world's most sensuous sauce.

I'm smitten by the service, which is both youthful and magically old-fashioned. Cheese trolleys whiz merrily around the sleek blond, modern room. Carvers prowl, eager to slice and fillet at your whim.

The desserts are devastatingly good. Tiny croquembouches filled with pistachio cream come in a slick of vibrant apricot sauce. The bitter coolness of a chocolate granita tart is better than any digestif. Watching the other guests swooning in ecstasy, I decide that if grand dining will make it into the next millennium, this is how it's going to go: with nothing lost from the past, everything gained from the future.

Place Jean-Troisgros, Roanne, France; 33-4/77-71-66-97, fax 33-4/77-70-39-87; dinner for two $215.

Auberge de l'Éridan
Americans, who tend to treat dining as drama, find the dour formality of luxe European restaurants hard to swallow. Don't expect pomo whimsy: you're here to partake in a rarefied ritual.

Leave it to Marc Veyrat, a former shepherd, to break out of the mold. With a $9 million loan that left him nearly bankrupt, Veyrat transformed an inn on Lake Annecy, east of Lyons, into a stage set for his brazenly stylized cooking. The Martha Stewart-meets-Brothers Grimm production at Auberge de l'Éridan includes a barnful of farmhouse antiques, a coffered ceiling painted with clouds, and cheese carts so sheathed in foliage you'd mistake them for camouflage units. And who needs a floor show when the chef swaggers about in a floppy black hat, dangling strange flora in front of bewildered patrons?

Veyrat is part botanist, part installation artist. His food, inspired by the flavors of Haute-Savoie, arrives in quaint pottery, on pieces of bark, or on framed slabs of glass adorned with blossoms and leaves, resembling flower-pressing kits. One of these holds thin disks of "doughless ravioli" made from carrot, parsnip, or wild celery, stuffed with bouquets of mountain herbs. A piece of féra (a type of lake fish) is embellished with mushroom froth and a tangle of roots. As a single-bite intermission, a poached quail egg rides on a spoon, doused with a purée of oxalis, a sorrel-like herb. The immaculate rack of baby lamb nests amid a cluster of pinecones and wild thyme in a cast-iron pot.

I feel like a cow let loose in a designer meadow.

Veyrat heads the Group of Eight, a conspiracy of renegade chefs (including Troisgros, Alain Passard, and Pierre Gagnaire) poised to revolutionize French gastronomy. Over the $50 dessert—a quintet of brûlées in flavors such as carrot and lavender—my companion asks Veyrat to comment on the state of French haute cuisine.

His flowery expletives still ring in our ears as we reach Crissier, an hour away in Switzerland, where we'll have dinner at L'Hôtel de Ville.

13 Vieille Rte. des Pensières, Veyrier du Lac, France; 33-4/50-60-24-00, fax 33-4/50-60-23-63; lunch for two $232.

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