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.
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.
L'Hôtel de Ville
Grand Gallic menus suffer from repetition compulsion. Breton lobster; Bresse poultry, truffles, foie gras; ducks from blabbity-blah carved and caressed at your side—these are the fuels that ignite into Michelin stars. But look past the familiar ingredients, and the chef's individual style becomes clear.
So just who is tending the pots at L'Hôtel de Ville (formerly Girardet)?Is it the specter of Fredy Girardet, the genius chef who retired from here in 1996?Or his star protégé-successor Philippe Rochat, who's determined to cast off the Oedipal yoke?Let's credit them both in a period of transition.
The chefs delight in quivery texture. An amuse-bouche of a fennel-wrapped morsel of trout in an herbal gelée leads to a jellied consommé de petits pois lavished with frog's legs and caviar. They know how to mix French and German, high and low: the folksy macaroni timbale encircles a rich fricassee of sweetbreads and chanterelles. They treat seafood with Japanese reverence—just taste the brilliant still life of barely cooked scallops arranged around a sea urchin shell filled with satiny mousse. And they cherish the Mediterranean: the tastes of grilled sea bass, artichokes, olive oil, and aged vinegar are layered to create a Riviera feel in your mouth. Add great bread, glorious cheeses (try the chèvre d'Aubonne and the Gruyère Hauteville), and a sommelier eager to showcase the region's crisp floral whites, and the result is magnificent.
Rochat has refreshed Girardet's original dining room (carpets in search of an airport lounge, beam-me-up-Scotty lighting) with Missoni carpets and Venetian stucco. As for the service, expect a tribunal of men who carry themselves with the gravitas of heart surgeons, all rushing to your side to minister to a crumb.
1 Rue d'Yverdon, Crissier, Switzerland; 41-21/634-0505, fax 41-21/634-2464; dinner for two $272.
"Bonjour, Alain Ducasse," says a custardy voice. "Reservation next month?Of course. And in which hotel are you staying in Paris?" I stammer out my friend's address, in a quartier favored by West African immigrants.
The voice turns acidic. "Please confirm early on the day of your lunch." I call back a month later. "We've canceled your reservation because you're not staying in a hotel," the voice says. "But—I happen to have a table." Click.
From the discreet lobby of a Belle Époque mansion in the ritzy seizième, an elevator sucks us up to the inner sanctum of haute gastronomy. You half-expect the trompe l'oeil bookcases, magnificent chairs, and heroic draperies to be wearing NO TRESPASSING signs.
And our menu dégustation (the medium-priced one)?The amuse-bouches (prosaic spinach puffs; Jabugo ham with balls of pedigreed melon) don't live up to the room. The staff serves with a smirk. But Ducasse's mastery of the Mediterranean shines in the lobster with a cold white-bean salad perfumed with basil and olive oil. I ask the waiter what's in the sprightly sauce—coconut?Almonds?He mutters something and marches off in mid-sentence, returning with foie gras ravioli in truffle sauce, marred by dense dough and too much butter and salt. If the fillet of sea bass is overcooked and forgettable, the pigeon is neither: it's livery-tasting and nearly raw (the waiter said "rare"; I didn't expect sashimi). A scary claw sticks out from the plate.
To forget the disturbing bird, we attack the desserts—rhubarb macerated in strawberry syrup, and a tart bejeweled with raspberries that must belong to some über-species.
Then, with an odd smile befitting the city of the Mona Lisa, the maître d' hands us the check. We brace ourselves, read it, and reel in shock all the way back to our undesirable arrondissement.
59 Ave. Raymond-Poincaré, Paris; 33-1/47-27-12-27, fax 33-1/47-27-31-22; lunch for two $316.
Comme Chez Soi
At Comme Chez Soi in Brussels, my dinner date—Mom—tries to distract me from the subtly spectacular food. She adores the petite dining room, confected in the style of the Art Nouveau architect Victor Horta. But friends had suggested we book the chef's table, set in an annex just off the kitchen and surrounded by brick walls grafittied with superlatives from celebrity guests. We wait for dinner entombed in their salutations.
My Russian mother is new to all this, so dinner turns into Q & A. Over the amuse-bouche (a delicate piece of rouget with a tart, creamy sauce and wisps of crisp endive): "Why did that waiter sneer when you wanted to order two different tasting menus?"
"Because at this kind of restaurant, they prefer you order one tasting menu for the whole table. But I always ask anyway."
Between the cold consommé—perfumed with Thai spices—and the precious sturgeon fillet bathed in a red-pepper emulsion: "Why is the maître d' showing family pictures to all our neighbors while completely ignoring us?"
"Because at Michelin-starred restaurants you're either intimate or… intimidated."
After buttery slices of squab in a star anise-tinged reduction: "Look, that young chef brought an infant into the kitchen. Why is he holding it over a pot?"
"Because—I don't know, Mom, maybe he wants to baptize it in court bouillon. Eat your mandarin tart! Aren't you impressed by this gorgeous food?"
"Nyet," she says. "Give me a huge kitchen and eighteen sous-chefs, and I could cook better than this."
"Maahmmy! I love your borscht, but really…"
23 Place Rouppe, Brussels; 32-2/512-2921, fax 32-2/511-8052; dinner for two $117.