By Cheryl Baehr
By Nancy Stiles
By Cheryl Baehr
By Mabel Suen
By Cheryl Baehr
By Nancy Stiles
By Cheryl Baehr
By Tara Mahadevan
Eighteenth-century Swiss philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau was ahead of his time in more ways than one. He was a vegetarian who advocated eating locally grown seasonal produce. But Rousseau was downright dismissive of France's great cuisine. "I would say myself that only the French do not know how to eat," he harrumphed, "because so specialized an art is required to make food eatable for them." Incidentally, Rousseau also had a prophetic passion for coffee. Perhaps a bracing mocha frappé would have jolted him out of his ill humor.
But Rousseau does have a point, no? The classical French chef alters his raw materials so completely that they become virtually unrecognizable except to the palate. Rousseau and his confreres would probably have preferred Chez Panisse to Café de France, where chef Michel Keraval prepares fastidious meals that are highly processed, so to speak, in the French manner. Keraval's culinary signature falls somewhere between cuisine bourgeoise and haute cuisine, two modes of cookery that evolved together and intersect more often than they diverge. He transforms simple ingredients into elaborate ballottines and mousses, napoleons and charlottes. It's a brand of cooking that critic William Grimes once dubbed "refined rusticity."
The preparation is traditional at its core, yet it reflects the influence of nouvelle cuisine, a nimble style characterized by minimal manipulation of ingredients. The principles of nouvelle cuisine include shorter cooking times, less reliance on refrigeration and exclusion of flour-thickened sauces in favor of lighter gastriques, coulis, essences, glaces and the like. But Keraval doesn't risk more than a few cautious half-twists. He always sticks the landing, but the performance can seem a little flat.
Keraval and his wife, Monique, own Café de France. They've cooked confit and cassoulet at their downtown restaurant since 1979. In June, the restaurant moved to the former Fio's La Fourchette space in Clayton. The dining room looks just as it did when Fio's occupied the building.
7515 Forsyth Blvd.
St Louis, MO 63105-3401
A la carte menu:
Maine lobster ballottine $11.50
Black-tie scallops $8.50
Lobster bisque $6.50
Maine lobster tail $32 (market price)
Pepper-encrusted yellowfin tuna loin $22.50
Raspberry soufflé $8.95
314-678-0200. Hours: 5-9:30 p.m. Mon.-Thu., 5-10 p.m. Fri.-Sat.
Their menu has retained its character, too. It consists of a three-, four-, five- or six-course prix-fixe menu and à la carte selections. We've concluded that the à la carte items are more desirable but not worth the considerable additional outlay. Our à la carte dinner cost $120 for two people, not including drinks and tip. Diners who wish to drink alcohol must count on spending a hefty sum on wine. Café de France has an impressive cellar, but few bottles costing less than $40 are available, and many fall in the $80-to-$150 range. That dinner for two soared to $220 when wine and a tip were factored in.
Keraval stowed his creativity in a lockbox when he designed the prix-fixe menu. Mr. Rousseau would have been thoroughly piqued by the vegetarian selection, "plate of seasonal vegetables." Surely a chef as talented as Mr. Keraval can do better than that. Most of our prix-fixe meal was curiously autumnal. In a napoleon of woodland mushrooms, the fragile purity of freshly baked puff pastry was apposed with the meaty sensuality of earthy mushrooms. A "chilled" cucumber bisque, though more appropriate for the season, was tepid and watery, with the flavor of unripe melons. A Burgundy reduction sauce draped over the beef tenderloin concealed a pocket of Roquefort and sautéed mushrooms. Quail was plumped with a pheasant "mousse" whose texture was closer to that of moist breadcrumbs. The accompanying slices of poached pear were infused with the distinctive musky edge of cloves.
The à la carte side of the menu is Keraval's treasure chest. The advent of nouvelle cuisine gave French chefs permission to depart from the time-honored recipes recorded by La Varenne, Carême, Escoffier and others. Keraval dabbles with such vivacious flavorings as ginger, paprika and jasmine tea. He fortifies sauces with champagne, cognac and pinot noir. He tosses in a handful of morels here and a few pickled cucumbers there. And he uses trophy meats that are best prepared with a practiced hand: extraordinary cuts of prime beef and baby lamb, as well as whole pheasants and duck breasts with thick mantles of fat that render out during cooking.
The late Richard Olney, author of the classic work The French Menu Cookbook, counseled against featuring the same main ingredient in more than one course of a French meal. But on our second visit, we threw caution to the wind and went on a lobster binge. We began with a Maine lobster ballottine, a dish of meat, game birds, poultry or seafood that has been rolled, tied and roasted or braised. In our ballottine, the lobster was bound with a loose leek custard rather than with the traditional aspic. The sausage-shaped roll had been cut into small circles and was served at room temperature. On each round, a dab of jellied red currants (a trendy ingredient in New York this summer) echoed the lobster's sweetness and balanced the sumptuous custard with a pulse of acidity. But despite the ballottine's highbrow pedigree, this little production looks for all the world like a sliced pimento loaf.
The ballottine was followed by a bowl of lobster bisque, whose richness was bolstered by a fine stock. The feast concluded with Maine lobster tail. The lobster meat had been removed from the shell, cut into scallops and blanketed with champagne sauce. The bubbles in the sauce burst during cooking, of course, and the subtlety of the champagne is lost as it simmers. But the dry wine makes the sauce fairly hum with acidity. To present the dish, Keraval pipes mashed potatoes onto the plate in the shape of a fish. Then he ladles the lobster meat and sauce into this moat.