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The Olney Table : The French Perplex

February 02, 1995|LAURIE OCHOA

Where would you take two of France's most respected cooks to lunch in your hometown?

Certainly not a French restaurant. What could they say, but, "Gee, it's almost as good as what you get in France."

Italian food poses almost the same problem--like taking a San Diegan out for Mexican food on a trip to Australia.

Steak? Maybe. But wouldn't that be feeding the old meat-and-potato stereotype that so many of our friends abroad believe about American cooking?

You know your guests value authenticity of flavor over trendiness in presentation. And it would be nice to show them something they can't easily find back in the South of France.

So here you are in a Chinese herbalist's shop looking at dried sea horses with cookbook author Richard Olney and the acclaimed cook Lulu Peyraud, subject of Olney's latest book. Lunch across the way at the Chinese-Islamic place went reasonably well--unlike your scaredy-cat friends, Olney and Peyraud not only ate the eel, tripe and beef tendon, they liked it.

Of course, Olney was correct in pointing out that too many of the dishes had the same seasonings, but he had high praise for the sauteed pea pod leaves. After all, they were local, seasonal and fresh--Olney's essential criteria of good cooking--and they weren't mucked up with a lot of sauce or anything else that would hide their flavor.

"You know," says Olney, after contemplating the case of tiny bone-white sea horses and checking out the displays of ginseng, sea cucumber, dried mushrooms and other medicinal remedies, "there's not much meat on a sea horse."

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