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Taste of Travel

Restaurants Where the Beef Isn't

With each week dealing a new blow to Europe's livestock industry, a visitor may well ask, 'Do I dare eat the meat?'

March 25, 2001|PHIL VETTEL | CHICAGO TRIBUNE

PARIS — In Europe, these are tough times to be a beef eater. First there was mad cow disease, or bovine spongiform encephalopathy, which riddles the brains of its victims with sponge-like holes. It hit Great Britain hard and has spread to the Continent, where updates on la vache folle (French) and mucca pazza (Italian) are heard almost daily.

Cattle contract the fatal, untreatable disease from eating contaminated feed. But infected animals may appear healthy for years before they develop symptoms, which include bizarre behavior changes. If they are slaughtered for meat, it can infect people who consume it. (There have been close to 100 known human victims so far, all but five of them British.) Burgers, sausages, meat on the bone and organ meats are thought to pose a greater risk than muscle meat because they are more likely to contain nerve fibers, which is where the apparent disease agents-mutated proteins called prions-are found. (Scrapie, a related disease of sheep, does not spread to other species, so lamb and mutton do not pose a threat to people.)

Britain believes it conquered its mad cow problem by destroying and incinerating millions of cattle and banning the use of ground-up slaughterhouse byproducts in feed, which was the practice that brought about the crisis. But a new catastrophe has moved front and center: Now foot-and-mouth, a highly contagious viral disease, is threatening much of Britain's livestock. Humans rarely contract the disease but can transmit it easily.

The infection causes blisters on the feet and mouth of cloven-hoofed animals-including cattle, pigs, sheep and goats-that result in lameness and make eating painful. The disease was identified in Britain on Feb. 20, and earlier this month British officials announced plans to destroy up to 100,000 animals suspected of having come in contact with it-besides the 200,000 already slaughtered in an effort to contain the disease.

Public events in affected areas have been canceled lest visitors carry the foot-and-mouth virus home as an unintended souvenir. In Ireland, Dublin canceled its St. Patrick's Festival. Despite the precautions, the first case of foot-and-mouth was reported in France on March 13.

People planning European vacations this year must ponder: Do I dare eat the meat? Will I find any when I get there?

The answer to the second question is yes. Though hundreds of thousands of animals are being slaughtered, no one is yet suggesting that meat won't be available.

The answer to the first question is something you'll have to decide.

Certainly there was no shortage of beef on restaurant menus in Paris and London when I visited in late February. Bistros and brasseries still feature entrecote of beef and osso buco (veal shank), steak frites and saucisses.

At McDonald's on the Champs-Elysees, people were digging into "Le 280," a 280-gram (10-ounce) burger. (But McDonald's has reported slumping European sales figures for the past two months and blames much of that on mad cow fear.)

For the wary, the simplest solution is to avoid beef while in Europe. You won't be alone.

'I never sold so much white wine in winter," said our waiter at Bon, a stylish restaurant in Paris. "This winter, no one orders meat. Everyone orders fish. It's bizarre."

Happily, avoiding beef in European restaurants is easy. Here's a collection of happening places in Paris and London where it will never occur to you to ask, "Where's the beef?"

Paris

Bon: The name means "good'-as in "good for you." Set menus at this sleek, multilevel restaurant include an all-vegetarian collection and a menu dietetique There are several sushi and sashimi options; indeed, you can skip the menu altogether and dine at the sushi bar. And there's exactly one beef item on the menu-a steak that is listed in the menu's "I Am Bad" category, which includes fried potatoes.

But a millefeuille of artichoke and crab, over a coarse-textured lobster sauce, tastes indulgent enough for me. Ditto for crab risotto, and sesame-scented dorade fillet over jasmine rice.

L'Arpege: Alain Passard made headlines recently when he announced that his brilliant restaurant, given three stars by the Guide Michelin, would no longer serve meat. Inasmuch as entrees at l'Arpege begin at $40 and crest over $90, we wondered what a $90 vegetable dish would taste like.

Well, it turns out there actually is one meat dish-a breast of pigeon-and still a fair amount of seafood (the highest-priced dishes generally involve lobster, truffles or both). As no one has discovered anything wrong with the seafood over here, we happily dug in.

Passard's creations delight the mind and palate. We started with his signature amuse-gueule, or pre-dinner nibble, a lightly cooked, in-shell brown egg with maple-flavored cream and a touch of wine vinegar. Next came heavenly quenelles of avocado and prawn mousses over black caviar. Sea urchins were coddled in a broth flavored with nasturtiums.

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