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Haute Gastronomie Rides the Rails

June 08, 1986|GEORGIA I. HESSE | Hesse is a San Francisco free-lance writer.

PARIS — In the decades since the Chattanooga Choo-Choo choo-chooed into oblivion, American train buffs have nourished their nostalgia overseas aboard Japan's Bullets, in the berths of the reborn Orient Expresses or tearing along in the TGVs (trains a grande vitesse) .

But, mon Dieu! The quail, eggs, Champagne and wood strawberries set now board La Nouvelle Premiere, French National Railroads' answer for those who sleep at the Bristol and breakfast at Tiffany's.

The bon voyage begins in Paris at the Gare de l'Est in a particular salon d'accueil (welcome lounge), decorated in pastel tones and offering easy chairs, a bar, telephone and a staff ready to arrange rental cars or hotel rooms.

While one waits unhassled--bliss!--baggage is tagged and whisked away to the appropriate car with admirable dispatch.

Boarding is announced. Calm and cool, passengers stroll the few yards to their seating car, outfitted with soft leathers, warm tones and lattice-like dividers. In addition to traditional train seating, small, salon-like settings are suited for from four to 10 travelers.

Soon it's time to take a little something. Step along to the bar car, a soothing haven where the barman, it is promised, "is dedicated to your slightest desire." Orange juice for a mimosa has been freshly squeezed, bien sure , or one might order a specialty as breathtaking as Le Rose (Scotch, Cognac and cherry eau de vie ).

A Light French Lunch

Then it's time for a light lunch. Frivolites de saumon fume au caviar to begin; why not? Followed by a short fish course, say, Filets de rougets a la fondue de tomates a la coriandre before the lamb-- Agneau pastoral aux herbes fraiches en salade --and the cheese, dessert and coffee. Clearly, the whole will be accompanied by wines of suitable vintages.

How long has this been going on?

Since September, 1985, Nouvelle Premiere has welcomed passengers on the Paris-Nancy-Strasbourg line aboard two trains, the Gustave Dore (named for the painter-illustrator born in Strasbourg) and the Jean Lamour (for the ironworker who created the Place Stanislas gate in Nancy).

"Haute gastronomie at 100 miles per hour!" is pledged. "A prodigy of culinary virtuosity has been realized. Travelers may take the time to live in a space entirely conceived for their comfort."

The thing is, it's all true. The rules of service aboard Nouvelle Premiere were established by Jean Gillet, manager of Paris' Hotel Meurice, and Rene Schumayer, former maitre d' of the Ritz.

As for the cuisine, it was designed to be "light, straightforward and inventive, without straying far from tradition." Impossible? Not for chef Joel Robuchon of Paris' three-star Jamin.

Six Cars in All

At this writing, four passenger cars (28 non-smoking seats, 20 smoking), a 29-seat bar car and a 36-seat dining car (one also may be served in the passenger car) are available, departing Paris-Est at 6:45 p.m., arriving in Nancy at 9:23 p.m. and Strasbourg at 10:37 p.m.

Return trips depart Strasbourg at 10:23 a.m., leave Nancy at 11:36 a.m. and reach Paris-Est at 2:18 p.m.

If the experiment is successful, more runs on more lines will be added.

Reservations are obligatory for Nouvelle Premiere, as one should expect. Tickets cost 440 francs (in the neighborhood of $62) on the Paris-Strasbourg run and 335 (about $48) between Paris and Nancy.

The menu I enjoyed (above) touched $70 without wine, and was worth every franc.

Franceshrinkers

Training in France in 1986 also offers a new program of sightseeing rail tours called Franceshrinkers. Running through Oct. 17, the tours are designed especially for English-speaking visitors and consist of five fully-escorted rail-motor coach trips out of Paris. Destinations are Normandy, Burgundy, French-speaking Switzerland, Loire Valley and Versailles-Chartres.

Also new is the France Vacances Special railpass, available for first- or second-class travel and allowing 9 or 16 non-consecutive days of train travel within a month.

For riders of the rails, these may be the Good Old Days.

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