Supposing an artist were to be judged chiefly on his ability to duplicate what another artist had created. That's often the situation in the restaurant world--a consulting chef is given free reign to create a menu, and the resident chef is left to carry the ball.
Jean-Pierre Lemanissier, new executive chef at Antoine in Le Meridien Hotel, is facing this peculiar kind of scrutiny right now. When you open the menu, the first thing you see is the slogan "The Cuisine of Gerard Vie," which has got to be intimidating to whoever Vie's proxy happens to be. But that's nothing new here. This restaurant has been ruled by consultancy since its opening 6 1/2 years ago.
Original consultant Jacques Maximin, of the Hotel Negresco in Nice, dominated the tenure of three chefs, including a brilliant young createur named Bruno Cirino, now achieving un grand succes on his own at the meteoric Chateau Eza in southern France. More recently Antoine has relied on the consulting skills of Vie, cuisinier of Les Trois Marches in Versailles. And to my mind it speaks volumes that American chef Roy Breiman, Lemanissier's predecessor in the kitchen here, has gone off to join Cirino at Chateau Eza.
Lemanissier has no particular link to either Maximin or Vie. He has an ultra-solid background, from his apprenticeship under the legendary Paul Bocuse and long tenure at West Hollywood's L'Ermitage under the late Jean Bertranou, to his fruitful associations with the controversial Patrick Terrail, who owned the celebrity-drenched Ma Maison. Lemanissier was head chef at Ma Maison during its final years, and cooked, in my opinion, with distinction.
But the fact remains that he has to cook Gerard Vie's food right now, and that is not necessarily a good thing. Vie's food is light, capricious and erratically conceived, using unexpected spices, fruits and even nuts in a great many dishes.
Sometimes these dishes work brilliantly, as in the case of the restaurant's signature dish, homard aux pates fraiches. The dish is basically nothing but steamed Maine lobster on a bed of fresh linguine with tarragon sauce. But the meat has been removed from the shell, making it joyously easy to eat, and the simplicity of the combination works like a charm.
Mille-feuille of salmon and crayfish with orange and star anise is another Vie dish that's destined to be around forever. Ethereal slices of salmon stand in for puff pastry, a wonderful symphony of minced vegetables and crayfish acts as the filling and the superb sauce Nantua adds the crowning touch.
But other times Vie's dishes fall with a thud, and one can only hope that they will go quietly to their fates. The menu's braised pheasant in an apricot walnut fricassee and the roasted supreme of duck with honey and coriander are two such bombs. The former is a dish straight out of the Middle Ages, heavy, fruity and wild-tasting, with a leaden density. The latter is a sticky, gooey waste of perfectly good duck meat, with a candy-sweet sauce that insults the American palate.
Lemanissier will shake things up. He's a chef with a mind of his own, and one who is obviously seeking artistic control. Eventually, the menu will be mostly his, though the transition will have to be gradual.
He recently strutted his stuff with aiguillette de canard: duck breast fanned out in thin slices over a delicate brunoise of vegetables in ginger-soy marinade. Despite being a bit too salty for my taste (read: heavy on the soy sauce), the dish showed real flair. The same evening, another off-menu dish reaffirmed his talent: spinach-stuffed quail. The quail, achingly tender and flavorful in a rich brown sauce, came flanked by a potato basket filled with turnip, squash and carrot--grown-ups' vegetables more appropriate for quail than the summer fruits with which so many European chefs try to buy us off.
Those of you familiar with this restaurant may be happy to know that it still runs as efficiently as a Swiss watch. Stolid maitre d' Adam Gutteridge continues to man the podium, as he has since the restaurant's first days. The restaurant still looks like a series of Louis XIV drawing rooms, all round-back leather chairs, crystal, fresh orchids and silver service, its salmon-colored walls and flickering candles a comfort to the senses.
Lemanissier will augment Vie's menu nightly with his special dishes, and you'll want to try them. He likes to think of his food as cuisine spontanee --spontaneous cooking--meaning, based on whatever is especially good on a particular day or whatever suits his fancy. I've recently sampled his meli-melo of salmon with mache, potatoes and caviar, a delicious surprise of slightly seared smoked salmon on lumpy mashed potatoes with a generous heap of black caviar on top, and one of his spa dishes, an unexciting, overcooked breast of chicken filled with spring vegetables.