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Starry, Starry, Starry Nights : California cuisine is very good; but much as we hate to admit it, the three-star food of France is better

April 15, 1990|RUTH REICHL

Not all the great meals I ate were at three-star restaurants. And not all the meals I ate were great. There was a disappointing meal at Maison Blanche in Paris that featured, I thought, pretty silly food. Example: lamb on a confit of apricots so sweet it might as well have been lamb with jam. There was an even more disappointing meal at Paris' legendary L'Ami Louis; now that the aged proprietor has passed away, the restaurant has passed from charm into tourist trapdom. And there was a truly disappointing meal (and, it might be mentioned, a shockingly expensive one), at L'Auberge de L'Eridan in Annecy in the French Alps, near Geneva. It's the latest restaurant to be anointed with the 19.5 of Gault-Millau. The restaurant serves a prix fixe meal at almost $300 per person, and with the exception of a spectacular dish of jellied pork consomme topped with caviar, nothing was particularly memorable.

Amphycles, a much-touted, very hot restaurant in Paris was another bust: all the food was distressingly heavy. But I had an amazing meal at Guy Savoy, a chef who manages to turn out consistently wonderful food, year after year in the chic Paris neighborhood near the Etoile. And a memorable lunch at Pile ou Face, a small restaurant near the Paris Bourse that grows most of its own products at a farm in Normandy.

My most memorable meal in a two-star restaurant was at Arpege, where once again the personality of the chef came shining through the food.

Alain Passard's restaurant occupies the site of the former L'Archestrate near the Invalides; it's a small, slightly stuffy restaurant with too many mirrors and far too much red lacquer. And yet the food itself is fresh, light, almost Californian in the purity of its strong, clear flavors.

The best dishes we had were slices of raw scallop topped with Beluga caviar, with nothing to mediate between the flavors. And then a fish--St. Pierre (John Dory)--stuffed under the skin with lots and lots of bay leaves. There were so many bay leaves that the fish was virtually wallpapered with leaves and the flesh became infused with the flavor of the herb. It was a joy to eat.

It was followed by the most wonderful sweetbread I have ever eaten. The plump organ had been skewered with a whole sprig of rosemary, then cooked to silken softness. Eating it, you got just a mysterious hint of rosemary, which was brought out by the sweet-sour lemon sauce that was served in two hollowed out half lemons.

A salad of herbs was another wonderful touch. It was a tiny plate of strong flavored little leaves, a simple mouthful to clear the palate for dessert.

Desserts were a mille-feuille au chocolat, a currently trendy Paris treat. There was a chocolate souffle that the waiter served by scooping a ball of coffee ice cream into the middle so that it disappeared into the depths of the souffle in one sexy motion. And a sweet stuffed tomato a la vanille-- a fine reminder that the love apple is, after all, a fruit.

What I particularly liked about Arpege is that, unlike the food I ate in any other restaurant in France, the cuisine was not rich, not buttery, not dependant on a complexity of flavors. (I was also pleased to note that the restaurant's excellent sommelier has put a number of affordable wines on his list.) Alain Passard is still young, and it is just possible that his sort of cooking is an early clue to a new direction in France.

Arpege

84 Rue de Varenne, Paris. 45.51.47.33. Closed Saturday, Sunday lunch and from July 30-August 18. Prix fixe menu, about $75 per person ($27 at lunch).

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