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.
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.
We're not convinced that potatoes and lobster are an ideal pairing, but this presentation was a refreshing change. Most other entrées -- ours and those we watched being delivered to other tables -- were plated with military uniformity: A mound of mashed potatoes was flanked by asparagus spears and haricots verts. At a restaurant this expensive, the chef should consult his playbook more often.
We sampled a few other indulgences, too. Foie gras in a port reduction, a special that evening, melted on the tongue like cotton candy. Small black grapes offered a contrasting texture and gave the dish some backbone. We sipped a butterscotchy, raisiny late-harvest Riesling that had the same velvety complexity as the foie gras. Keraval's black-tie scallops were prepared in a spare Asian style, nested with spinach and nori (dried seaweed) in a lemon-and-ginger essence. (Credit for naming the dish goes to Daniel Boulud, who made the first black-tie scallops for a New Year's Eve bash at Le Cirque in New York City. Boulud's scallops were sliced, layered with black truffles and swaddled in puff pastry.)
Yellowfin tuna loin, though, was a disappointment. The loin cut is prized for its silky, viscous texture. Nevertheless, our waiter assured us that the fish would be best if grilled to medium rather than merely to medium-rare, which is usually recommended for tuna. In the end, it didn't matter how we requested it. The tuna arrived as well done as a Mrs. Paul's fish stick. To make matters worse, the black-pepper crust described on the menu did not show up for the fire drill, and the ginger beurre blanc was too meekly spiced to rescue the dish.
Desserts worth the caloric expenditure are hard to come by at Café de France. On our first visit, a roulade Marquis was made with dry chocolate cake and filled with an overbeaten Triple Sec mousse that also seemed to have been stiffened with too much gelatin. Tart tatin was withered and crumbly, too, and we wondered whether the pastries were left over from the previous service.
On our next visit, we shared a dessert we knew would have to be whipped up on the spot: a soufflé. Several are listed on the menu, and if the chef has the ingredients on hand, he'll make a soufflé in any flavor a diner requests. Raspberries are lovely this time of year, and our soufflé was studded with whole berries suspended in the froth like so many rubies. Our waiter poured warm raspberry crème anglaise into the center until the dome of the confection began to swell. French cuisine doesn't get any more traditional than the soufflé, and this little gem reminded us just how splendid tradition can be.
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