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The Last Supper

March 05, 1997

I went to Switzerland last fall. For dinner.

I left Los Angeles on a Wednesday morning, arrived in Lausanne on Thursday afternoon, had my dinner that night and was back in Los Angeles in time to take my wife to dinner in Chinatown on Friday night.

Crazy? Sure.

But eating well is my hobby, and when I heard that my favorite chef in the world was about to retire, I decided instantly that I had to have one final meal in his restaurant.

I first ate at Restaurant Girardet in 1979, when I got married at Lausanne City Hall, so that my bride and I could have our wedding dinner there that night. Nine years later, a widower, I remarried and my new wife and I ended our honeymoon with four meals at Girardet--the last one at a table in the chef's kitchen.

Overall, I'd eaten at Girardet 10 times in 17 years, as I reminded him when I faxed him a letter requesting a reservation for lunch or dinner on any one of about 25 days between mid-October and his retirement date.

But my personal history at Girardet proved irrelevant. The restaurant was fully booked for lunch and dinner for the rest of Girardet's tenure.

Fortunately, I bumped into a French chef friend and when I told him of my problem, he told me that one of his best friends lived in Geneva, where he was "one of Fredy's best friends."

"Tell me what dates you can go," he said, "and I'll call him."

A few days later, there was a message on my answering machine at home instructing me to call the maitre d' at Girardet at exactly 10 a.m. my time (7 p.m. in Switzerland) the next day.

When I called, maitre d' Jean-Louis Foucqueteau said he thought he could juggle things to accommodate me for either lunch on Nov. 6 or dinner on Nov. 7.

Then I asked my wife, Lucy, whether she wanted to go. No. Flying 6,000 miles for dinner is not her idea of a good time. But a food-loving Times colleague and occasional lunch partner said he'd love to join me.

A free airplane ticket was the only way I could afford or justify this trip, so I called American Airlines, where I had accumulated enough frequent flier miles for one free, off-season transatlantic round trip. But the airline had already booked its quota of free tickets on the flights I needed.

I called back every hour for four hours until I reached an agent who managed to find space and an itinerary that would work for me.

I arrived in Lausanne, took a brief walking tour of the town and headed for Girardet.

He and I spoke for about 30 minutes after which I told him, "We're entirely in your hands, for one last time."

That's what I usually do in restaurants where I know the chef's talents and the chef knows my tastes. When Lucy and I were at Girardet for those four honeymoon meals eight years ago, he made nine small courses each time--all different from one another and all different from anything I'd eaten during my four previous visits.

My final dinner at Girardet was not as good as those four, but it was pretty sublime nonetheless.

It began with a feather-light crepinette filled with sweetbreads, tied at one end with a chive and served in a mustard sauce. Next came lobster--two succulent pieces in a sauce flavored with coriander and accompanied by Belgian endive cooked with saffron. Then, a ragout of two kinds of scallops in a Champagne sauce, topped with caviar. Like the lobster, the scallops were perfectly cooked, so fresh they were almost sweet, the texture as I like it: soft and unctuous but with a hint of firmness.

The next dish was one of the best I've ever tasted: thin tubes of macaroni, standing on end, side-by-side, in a perfect circle, like a crown. Inside were baby frog's legs and wild mushrooms. On top were white truffles.

Anything would have been anticlimactic after this dish, even the St-Pierre--a whole roasted fish, prepared with tarragon and shredded ginger--and the superb wild partridge stuffed with chestnuts.

Nothing could top the truffled macaroni, and my colleague and I drifted through a variety of cheeses and an assortment of desserts--a pastry, three kinds of sorbet and three kinds of ice cream--still talking about it.

Before I knew it, it was well past midnight. We'd finished two bottles of white wine and one bottle of red wine--plus a glass of Armagnac apiece. I smoked a cigar, we paid our bill and it was time to bid our farewells.

"La derniere fois," Girardet said when he stopped at our table. "The last time."

--DAVID SHAW

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