It’s the Troisgros in Roanne, France, where heaven is said to be tasting pâté de foie gras to the sound of trumpets
For the third time in 30 minutes,a waiter replaced the butter dish, because it looked messy; another topped up my glass of Meursault-Charmes 71. Their attentions went unacknowledged; I was busy counting down before I attacked the first of the fresh white asparagus, pointing out like missiles from their puff-pastry launching pad. If there is anything perfect in the world, that asparagus was it; if there is any perfect restaurant in the world, I was thinking I had found it — Restaurant Troisgros, Roanne, France, just northwest of Lyon.
I needed Troisgros. My faith in good food had gone through a terrible time of questioning. My last assignment had been a grim one - eating at fast food chains across Canada to find out which regurgitated the most edible fodder. My enthusiasm and my digestion lay in ruins; only a treatment at the ultimate restaurant, a three-star recommendation from the Guide Michelin, could restore me.
So, as I sat there buttering a hot rye wheat roll, I was torn between happiness and anxiety. I was happy because Troisgros was responding to my compulsive need for perfection, and anxious because I wondered if the next course could possibly be as good as the one before. If that sounds exaggerated, let me explain. George Bernard Shaw once observed, “There is no love sincerer than the love of food,” and I know exactly what he meant. I am all in favor of motherhood, patriotism and the tender passion, but what makes my heart flutter and my knees tremble, what really turns me into a swooning schoolgirl is a five-course meal, all laid on with linen and silver, bowing waiters and glowing candles. And, like many lovers, I am fickle — last week’s passion is this year’s cold fish. That is because I am constantly yearning for perfection; somewhere out there, I know, is the gastronomic grail, the absolutely flawless meal. For years now I have been tacking from restaurant to restaurant in my relentless quest, a kind of gourmet’s Captain Ahab, with fork and napkin in place of harpoons, obsessively pursuing my destiny.
That’s why I took my vacation in France. France is the only nation in the world with 16 restaurants that rate Michelin’s three stars. It is a nation of gastronomes, a place where some of its citizens, like Robert Courtine, writer and gourmand, despised Charles de Gaulle because he popped the bubbles on his bouillon with a knife. In France it is front-page news when a third star appears in the latest red Michelin, or one is lost. Some years back, when the Relais de Porquerolles, a left-bank Paris restaurant, lost its two stars at once, the chef promptly shot himself.
In Canada, fussing about food is considered frivolous, if not downright wicked. We think of ourselves as clean livers, high thinkers and plain eaters, and no Canadian politician likes to be spotted at an expensive restaurant tucking into Beef Wellington and imported wine. He knows it will hurt his public image; freeze-dried pork chops in a wet canoe in Quetico Park are all that’s permitted.
The French are not like that. One Saturday afternoon 10 years ago, I was taken to Lasserre, a fashionable three-star in Paris, for lunch. Lasserre is an intimidating restaurant, and my friend, a member of our External Affairs department, promised to take me only under certain conditions — “Don’t gape,” “I’ll talk to the waiter,” and, “Let’s go dutch.” As I sat at the table, silent, eyes straight ahead, I noticed a man with a frantic facial tic directly in my line of vision. He was talking animatedly to someone as the waiter cleared away their vodka and smoked salmon and began to bring on the roast lamb and burgundy. I broke silence. I said, “I’m sure that’s André Malraux” (then Minister of Cultural Affairs). My friend replied without looking, “Nonsense, Malraux is easily recognizable; he twitches.” I said, “Turn around.” He did, and identified the man sitting with Malraux — Georges Pompidou, then Prime Minister. They lingered on for three hours, and when at last they rose from their cheese and soufflé it was without even a blush for the time spent. A few years
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later, I told this story to an unbelieving member of the U.S. State Department living in France. He went to Lasserre for' Saturday lunch. Same twitch, same Pompidou, same soufflé. God help Prime Minister Trudeau, Robert Stanfield and especially David Lewis if mean-spirited voters catch them in any place grander than Nate’s Delicatessen.
I take food seriously, enough to know that I couldn’t plunge straight into a three-star restaurant without some previous exercising of the digestive tract; it would be like trying for the four-minute mile after a single practice dash for the bus. So, the day before Troisgros, we stopped at Condrieu, south of Lyon, at the Hotel Beau Rivage, a terraced haven off the nightmarish Lyon expressway. The chef-owner of the hotel is Mme Castaing, one of only two female chefs in France to rate two Michelin stars — chefs in France, as in most countries, are traditionally men. Michelin must be anti-feminine, because I think the Beau Rivage deserves three stars. We ate grilled sole in a foamy butter sauce, cold salmon paté, a small bird stuffed with peppercorns, and a hot apple tart. Nothing, including the gratin dauphinois — thinly sliced potatoes simmered in thick cream and grated cheese — could be faulted.
When I enthused over the food and service, Mme Castaing begged me to write Michelin. “Don’t tell me you liked the meal, tell them.” An ambitious woman. Even though she’s near retirement, she’s aiming for that third star.
And who could blame her? In France, three-star restaurants rouse the same feelings in gastronomes that lepidopterists feel in the presence of a purple emperor, or a hummingbird hawk moth. The three-star restaurants are all exceptional, but I like those in the country better than the city ones, because they are closer to the basic ingredients, and give you more to eat for your money. Not that you go away hungry from Maxim’s or Lasserre in Paris, but the portions and number of courses are smaller. Most city three-stars offer each dish à la carte, while many country ones serve a whole meal at a set price.
For grand luxe, opulence, Pompidou and Malraux, go to Lasserre. Antique silver peacocks decorate each table, and the food is garnished with turnips carved into begonia flowers and Tahitian huts made from dried bread, bay leaves and lobster antennae. I remember an iridescent canard à l’orange actually spotlit like a great French monument; a little lamp standing on the tray accompanied the duck on its journey to the table.
Not that some of the country threestars lack opulence. Ousteau de Baumanière in Les Baux-de-Provence has swimming pools and little boys who re-, move ashtrays at one flick of the cigar.
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Auberge du Père Bise in Talloires has an outdoor dining terrace facing Lake Annecy, which appeals to the rich from nearby Geneva, a town that has more millionaires than there are flies on a wee hoosie. Movie stars, bankers and sheikhs from countries choking on oil often come to Père Bise for lunch. Recently one Middle Eastern host ordered two magnums of Chateau Margaux ’47 for his guests — more than enough for seven people. When one of the guests seemed to be particularly appreciative of the wine, his host ordered him another one, to take home unopened. I calculated, as I leaned over to catch the Margaux perfume, that the bill for the three magnums (to say nothing of the champagne and cognac consumed) came to more than $1,500.
Roanne is not the place for that kind of display. It is not a place anyone would visit except for gastronomic reasons; it lacks natural phenomena and significant ruins, and the dusty shops sell mostly galoshes and hardware. The Troisgros hotel faces the railway station and offers the kind of comforts a commercial traveler needs after a tough day sellingrubber goods — bath, TV, American motel furnishings. There is none of that historical claptrap of 18th-century courtyards and belle époque lobbies. In fact, there is no lobby to speak of, just a tiny office that looks like a dentist’s waiting room. Only a few out-of-date magazines on gastronomy, and the inevitable menu in the window, hint that this is a shrine for trenchermen.
The owners of Troisgros are a father and two sons, and the father, Jean Baptiste Troisgros, is often quoted for his views on women: “Women of 50 or 60 are nuggets of gold, still coquette, not faded, free, ready to be of service. When I see them, my mouth waters. This does not mean I’m interested in marriage; in France, nobody’s interested in marriage — except a few priests.” M. Troisgros also philosophizes on wine: “There is only one wine, red wine. The white wines, with the exception of Chateau d’Yquem and champagne, haven’t come to term. They are microbian people kept alive with penicillin.” Nevertheless, he was later quoted as preferring white to red wine with goat cheese.
Ideally, one should dine alone at Troisgros. Chitchat can only distract from the food; companions smoke, wear perfume, or mash the strawberries into a disgusting mess. But, because of the hazards of travel, five too many people sat at my table — imperfect beings with the usual bad habits. My husband over salts, without tasting his food first. One lady poured as much Tabu on her person as she did Chambolle-Musigny down her throat. Another kept crying for a salad, and the two gentlemen, trained in deportment by their Toronto mothers,
kept sneaking embarrassed glances around, for fear we were attracting attention.
We had tried to reduce some of the tension by drinking several Kirs — white wine just colored by cassis, a pungent black currant liqueur — at the bar, and with them we ate amuse-gueules, little pizza and ratatouille in puff pastry. Our menu was chosen for us by one of the Troisgros brothers — the reassuringly plump one, who breathes heavily and keeps to the kitchen most of the time — but the tall, dark, Mephistophelian brother suggested “mini-portions.”
The Troisgros dining room has no oak beams, and copper pots are not used as decoration, they are used to cook with. Emphasis is on understated elegance rather than Ye Olde Kitch. Flowered porcelain, linen tablecloths, and ample space between each table are considered important; so is service; our table was served by four waiters, clad in black, who knew exactly what they were doing.
First we ate braised escargots in herbs (but no garlic) and cream. Canned snails are anathema at Troisgros. These, fresh from their natural surroundings, were soft and luscious, not shriveled and nasty. Next came the asparagus I mentioned earlier, white, not green. We never see them in Canada, except in a can. Green or white, asparagus, especially in a sauce, is usually overcooked. These achieved that ideal state every Spock mother aims for — firmness combined with tenderness. The pastry boat holding them was so light it wafted back and forth on the plate.
Saumon à l’oseille (in sorrel sauce) is a French classic. Our next course was the Troisgros version. Sorrel, or sour grass, is neglected in North America, except in books with titles such as Let’s Eat Weeds, because the leaves have a somewhat bitter flavor. However, combined with egg yolks and butter, à la Troisgros, the sorrel taste was transformed into a subtle balance between distinctiveness and delicacy.
By this time, although the portions were sensible (“Huge portions belong in Switzerland,” says Troisgros père), we needed a breather. It came in the form of fresh lemon sherbet, swimming in
champagne. Rince bouche is what the French call it, which comes out ugly in English — mouth rinse.
Then the waiter brought the readyaired bottle of burgundy, ChambolleMusigny, 1970. “A young Hercules,” exclaimed one of the gentlemen.
The triumph that was served with the wine thrust me dangerously near that gastronomic grail: a mound of fresh goose liver from the Périgord region perched on a sweetbread, supported on a bed of spinach. A brilliant truffled sauce, which caught the reflections of the candles, coated the ensemble.
An 18th-century divine, Sydney Smith, thought of heaven as “eating pâtés de foie gras to the sound of trumpets.” Eddie Cantor wanted to die eating strawberries. According to legend, those who find their grail must die at once and mount to heaven. Although I believed I was eating the best Riz de Veau Sauce Périgueux in the world, my heart didn’t stop for more than a minute, so I waited for dessert.
Cheese, oozing Bries and reblochons; strawberries with fresh raspberry sauce and fresh fruit sherbets; caramelized snow eggs, the lattice work of the burnt sugar tracing a crazy pattern on the egg whites floating on their pool of limpid custard — we had our choice. I picked them all. With dessert, we drank champagne, Blanc de Blancs, choix de la maison, made from white grapes only.
The cost, even though dollars don’t buy many francs these days, was about $35 per person, all inclusive.
Nodding over my digestif, l’eau-de-vie de poire, chilled, I tried to concentrate my vaporizing thoughts upon the meal. Among the pantheon of three-star restaurants, I was aware that gastronomes place Troisgros near, if not at, the top. The grand style — grande luxe — often diverts the diner’s attention. Troisgros is not grande luxe. The brothers, who do the cooking, wander about in their hats and aprons, checking the plates in a good-natured way, in case a string bean has gone awry between the kitchen and the dining room. Never once did I feel that sneering condescension that is dealt out to North Americans at more pretentious three-stars. I have been made to feel uncomfortable at Maxim’s, but not at Troisgros, where the food is better.
The dinner was one of the very best I’ve ever eaten. But was it perfection? Niggling thoughts, nitpickers, bothered me. Two cream sauces in a row? Was the sorrel sauce unbeatable? (How do I know? I haven’t tasted them all.) Perhaps the concept of the perfect restaurant is an illusory one; perhaps there is no such thing. It is the search, the enduring belief that, at some other restaurant, there is an even better sorrel sauce awaiting my pleasure, that keeps me going.
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