ST.-PERE-SOUS-VEZELAY, FRANCE — We were just finishing dinner on the second night of our four-day stay at L'Esperance, Marc Meneau's remarkable restaurant here, and Meneau was at our table, telling us about his plans for a special lunch two days hence.
Eight old friends would be coming, he said. Like him, they all read and collect old cookbooks, and once a year for the past 10 years, he'd prepared a lunch for them based solely on recipes from these books.
This year's lunch, Meneau said, would have 28 courses.
At first, we thought Meneau was inviting us to attend the lunch, but my friend Lucy--whose ear for French is often better than mine--said no, he was only asking if we'd like to have him make an extra portion of one or two of those courses so we could taste them when we came to dinner that night.
" Certainement, " we assured him, fairly drooling in anticipation.
L'Esperance is in the Burgundy region of France, about two hours south of Paris. We'd first eaten there in 1979, when the restaurant had only two stars from the Guide Michelin, and we'd subsequently mentioned Meneau in a couple of magazine stories on dining in France. When Meneau cooked at L'Ermitage as a guest chef four or five years ago, several friends had gone with me to sample his efforts.
We were all disappointed in that dinner, and when we told Meneau so, he shrugged unhappily and said it was difficult to cook in a strange kitchen with strange products and a strange staff. But Meneau is a largely self-taught cook whose cuisine is the product of studying old cookbooks and experimenting at his own oven, rather than apprenticing with famous three-star chefs, and he seemed to take our criticism to heart.
The next time we had any contact with Meneau was in 1984, when I dropped him a brief congratulatory note after reading that he had just been awarded his third star by Michelin.
So we were not altogether unknown to Meneau when we arrived at L'Esperance several weeks ago; that, no doubt, helps explain why he offered us a sample from his friends' special lunch.
When we walked into the dining room at 8:35 the night of that lunch, Meneau was standing in front of the restaurant, bidding his eight friends au revoir ; they had just finished lunch.
He lost no time, though, in starting our dinner. Our first three courses were, as promised, from lunch: fresh eel in a red-wine gelee ; cocks' kidneys in a sauce of truffles, cream and Marsala wine; an egg souffle made with truffle juice.
Not a bad beginning.
The rest of the meal was even better. Superb.
When we checked out two days later, Meneau's wife, Francoise, gave us a copy of the entire menu from the lunch. Meneau's friends had also started with the eel-dish we'd had. Then they'd had various ancient preparations of tuna, lobster, mackerel and cocks' kidneys, followed by (among other things) three egg courses, two soups, three fish courses, five warm main courses, two cold main courses, three vegetable courses . . . and dessert(s).
We counted the courses. There weren't 28 after all.
There were 29.