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'Gigi' Comes True

Cooking: Star Leslie Caron finds that she has a passion for food. She has opened a restaurant in France where the accent is on simplicity.

February 01, 1996|ANNE WILLAN | Willan's most recent cookbook is "In and Out of the Kitchen in 15 Minutes or Less" (Rizzoli, 1995)

VILLENEUVE, France — When Leslie Caron played a girl taking lessons in the art of cooking cassoulet and pouring coffee in "Gigi," she could hardly have imagined that one day she would be running a restaurant. The idea began at home, where Caron often handles the cooking.

"I have big eaters as friends," she says, "and I like to give them things they don't have in their daily meals." Dishes must be quick and simple, like duck maigret cooked on the grill or a pot au feu of fresh and smoked fish. She often uses a pressure cooker for "potatoes and green things. Guinea fowl steamed in white wine takes only 15 minutes."

From these beginnings has come La Lucarne aux Chouettes, the Owl's Nest, in the historic Burgundian town of Villeneuve sur Yonne. Caron had long eyed the row of derelict houses lining the river Yonne, a perfect site overlooking an ancient stone bridge.

"I thought the restoration would be done in six months," she says. "But conversion was more work than starting again. The houses were literally falling down, and when a roof collapsed, we knew we had to do something."

The something turned into a restaurant, and from the start Caron has had a clear image of its style.

"I'm looking for country food which is simple, not frightening, something Burgundian but lighter than traditional recipes. We try to live off the land, using local ingredients in season. Our goat cheese is made three miles away and greens come from the market. Most important, menu prices must be democratic."

In Marc Daniel, former head chef of the renowned Lasserre in Paris, Caron has found the ideal associate. Their 155-franc ($31) four-course menu includes such starters as oxtail carpaccio, terrine of mackerel and smoked haddock, and oeufs a la meurette, farmhouse eggs poached in the local red wine. Main courses cover fish, poultry and meat, each with a little twist of originality.

Caron brings back ideas and Daniel puts them into practice. "I'm strong on herbs," Caron says. "Marc uses much less butter, his sauces are thin, and for flavor he compensates by using generous amounts of herbs."

Caron's love of cooking stems partly from her childhood (her mother was French and she was brought up in France) and partly from living in Hollywood with her first husband, George Hormel of meat-packing fame. The household boasted a French chef, and Caron's eyes light up as she recalls, "He taught me choux pastry, sauces and how to spin angel's hair sugar." From him she learned the importance of good bread and coffee, the latter strong and black: "It's the final touch."

For the last three years, much of Caron's time has been taken up at La Lucarne, but she has recently starred at the Edinburgh Festival and spent time in Blackpool filming "Funny Bones" with British director Peter Chelsom and co-stars Jerry Lewis and Oliver Reed. The theme is vaudeville, and in one number Caron plays Cleopatra with a live snake in her hair. "I was the only one who wasn't terrified," she confides with a smile.

Home is Paris and the little village of Chaumont over the hill from Villeneuve. Personal meals are plain, revolving around yogurt and fresh fruit, and Caron maintains her slim "Gigi" figure. "I never, never eat between meals."

La Lucarne beckons often, and no wonder. Sheltered on a peaceful, tree-lined river bank, it is an impressionist painting reborn, thanks to Caron's vision.

"For cooking, you must have the passion," she says.

CREAM OF MUSSEL SOUP WITH SAFFRON

This soup served at the restaurant is also excellent made with clams; their shells are thicker, so allow more time for them to open over the heat.

2 pounds (2 quarts) mussels, washed

6 shallots, chopped

Saffron threads

2 cups dry white wine

2 cups half and half

1 bunch chervil, chopped

Salt, pepper

Place mussels in soup pot and sprinkle with shallots. Cover tightly and cook 2 minutes over high heat.

Meanwhile, stir big pinch saffron into white wine and bring to boil. Add to mussels. Stir. Cover and continue cooking until mussels open, 4 to 5 minutes. During cooking, stir once or twice so mussels cook evenly.

Remove mussels with slotted spoon and boil cooking liquid until reduced by half. Discard any unopened mussels. Reserve 8 to 12 mussels for garnish. Remove mussels from remaining shells. Add half and half and chervil to reduced liquid and simmer 1 to 2 minutes. Taste soup and add salt and pepper to taste. Add mussels to soup and heat gently 1 minute. (If overcooked, mussels will be tough.) Spoon into bowls and top with reserved mussels. Serve soup at once.

Makes 4 servings.

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