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The Terrible Threes

March 05, 1997|S. IRENE VIRBILA | TIMES RESTAURANT CRITIC

In 1978 I had been living in Paris for almost a year, subsisting on omelets and salads, charcuterie and fabulous obscure cheeses, supplemented by occasional visits to inexpensive bistros or wine bars, when I was treated to my first three-star meal.

Actually, it was my first experience of a restaurant that had been awarded even one of the coveted Michelin stars. It's not that I wasn't passionately interested in food: I spent all my time reading about food, browsing in wine shops and outdoor markets, hanging out with butchers, bakers and cooks. I knew some wonderful home cooks in Paris, and they had given me a generous and thorough grounding in the rigors of French cooking.

But the French people I knew didn't really think about restaurants in terms of Michelin stars. Although they may have been to one of the fabled grand restaurants at some point in their lives, speaking of the experience ever after in hushed, reverent tones, those stars didn't have anything to do with the way they ate.

I was thrilled, however, when I was invited to join a group of friends for a meal at Troisgros, the celebrated three-star restaurant in Burgundy. There's nothing quite like starting at the top.

I arrived in Roanne on the train from Paris just at dusk on that gray fall day. Like most three-star restaurants in France, Troisgros had been started a generation earlier as a much humbler place than it became; it was, in fact, just across from the train station. I strolled across the square and met up with my friends at the restaurant's bar.

After a glass of vintage Champagne, my friends and I were ushered past the old-fashioned dining room and into the kitchen for a little tour. They'd just remodeled, and I remember Jean showing off the gleaming new stove tops, the refrigerated drawers beneath the fish station, the efficient pastry kitchen. And there, in one corner of the kitchen, was our table, the perfect vantage point from which to watch the brigade of young cooks in tall white hats go about their business quietly and intently.

We talked and drank gorgeous old Meursaults and Volnays. And all the while, Jean Troisgros cooked for us. He plied us with thrush mousse scented with juniper berries and salmon in sorrel sauce; he served us his famous civet de lievre (hare stewed in red wine) from a copper braising pan. The bread was crackling and fragrant. The butter tasted as if it had been churned that morning.

It was a sublimely sensual meal, worthy of every star. It was akin to the best regional cooking I had experienced up to that time, raised to the nth degree. And I am certain that it made even more of an impression because it was experienced in such a wonderfully intimate and congenial setting.

What I didn't know then is how hard it is to find that synergy of food, wine, setting and soul in the three-star restaurant experience.

Today, 20 years later, when trying out every three-star restaurant has become a rite of passage for enthusiastic gourmands (Americans, in particular), it seems inconceivable that French people haven't made the same obsessive grand tour of the great restaurants of France. It's inconceivable that all who have the means and the chance wouldn't be engaged in racking up notches on their foodie belts. The conventional foodie wisdom: If you haven't the cooking of Robuchon or Girardet (both now retired), tried out Ducasse's or Gagnaire's new place or passed judgment on the latest wunderkind, then you can't really be passionate about food.

Not true.

The risks and the pressures involved in reaching and maintaining three-star status have turned chefs into hard-nosed businessmen trying desperately to keep their over-burdened finances afloat.

Most of the starred establishments have lost that sense of family and culture that made going to restaurants in France such an appealing experience--for me, at least. You can sense the tension in the staff. And see the panic in the eyes of the chef when confronted with a half-empty dining room, torn between bowing and scraping to customers, surveying the army of chefs, cooks and apprentices needed to staff the kitchen and hurrying back to his office to go over the figures once again.

The overwrought decoration, the number of employees, the gold and silver flatware, the elaborate bathrooms and the even more luxe hotel, where clients expect to be pampered to the maximum, all feed into some antiquated idea of what constitutes luxury. After all, restaurants in France date only from just after the French revolution, when the nobility's chefs were suddenly out of jobs and had to fend for themselves in a suddenly uncertain world. And what they had to offer, the middle classes wanted: the chance to indulge in the same haute cuisine that once graced royal tables. In other words, to eat like a king. Lobster. Foie gras. Caviar. Black truffles. The endlessly repeated litany of the three-star restaurant.

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