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A nod to bouillabaisse diplomacy

What better way to lure visitors back to sunny Provence than to send over its best chefs?

March 03, 2004|David Shaw | Times Staff Writer

Tuscany seems to be every American's dream destination these days. The very word "Tuscany" has become a magical incantation, an evocation of all that is natural and beautiful and comforting and accessible in our modern, turbulent world.

But before Tuscany, there was Provence. Before Frances Mayes and "Under the Tuscan Sun," there was Peter Mayle and "A Year in Provence." Yes, Provence -- the land of Van Gogh and Cezanne, of daube and pissaladiere, of lavender-covered hillsides, open-air markets and fields filled with olive groves and perfumed by wild herbs -- once occupied the same bliss-filled niche in the American imagination now inhabited by Tuscany.

Then came what I've come to think of as the Italian ascendancy in this country, and everything changed -- triggered not only by the undeniable appeal of Italy and Italian food but by forces as disparate as the popularity of pizza, the high prices and stiff formality of French restaurants and the refusal of France to join President Bush's war in Iraq.

So I wasn't surprised when tourism officials in Provence sent four of their best chefs to Los Angeles recently to try to drum up some renewed interest in their area.

Provencal cuisine is essentially home cooking, not restaurant cooking. Most of the truly great restaurants in France are in Paris and Burgundy and Alsace and in and around Lyon. There's not a single Michelin three-star restaurant in all of Provence.

But these chefs -- and others -- are trying to change that by modernizing the traditionally simple Provencal dishes and by augmenting the great natural bounty of the fields and waterways of Provence with products from other cultures.

This is especially true in Marseilles, where -- as M.F.K. Fisher once wrote -- freshly caught fish "have a different flavor and texture and smell ... than in any other port in the world."

But it's not just the local fish that distinguish la cuisine Marseillaise. Ships routinely pull into the Old Port, bringing herbs and spices and other foodstuffs from Italy, North Africa, Asia and elsewhere -- rice from Thailand, hazelnuts from Turkey, olive oil from Tunisia, saffron from Spain.

Lionel Levy, the 30-year-old chef at Une Table au Sud in Marseilles, calls his food "contemporary pan-Mediterranean," and in a cooking demonstration at the Regency Club in Westwood with his three colleagues, he prepared and served pan-seared scallops in a celery root puree flavored with a zest of grapefruit, lemon, lime and orange.

When I told him I found the tartness of the citrus a sharp, almost shocking contrast to the sweetness of the scallop, he nodded happily and smiled and said, "I like to shock. You should taste this dish the way I make it in my restaurant, with Corsican lemons."

Levy, whose father is Moroccan and whose mentor was Alain Ducasse, grew animated as we spoke, ticking off one "shocking" dish after another.

"In my restaurant, I make a veloute of chestnuts with sea urchin sauce," he said. "And crostini with the liver of the rouget [red mullet] and some bone marrow. And an artichoke ice cream that looks like the heart of the artichoke, surrounded by crystallized artichoke leaves. And a tarte Tatin on which caramelized fennel takes the place of the apples, and I cover it with a sauce made from cumin and caramelized carrots. And .... "

Determinedly Provencal

I interrupted him. I'd enjoyed his scallops and his conversation. And I'd liked the Hawaiian blue prawns -- substituting for Mediterranean langoustines -- bathed in saffron butter that morning by Francis Robin of Le Mas du Soleil in Salon de Provence. And the gratin of red fruits in a zabaglione flavored with fresh thyme and Muscat de Beaume-de-Venise made by Dominique Frerard of Les Trois Forts in Marseilles.

But I was most intrigued by the fourth Provencal chef, Christian Etienne, and I wanted to speak with him before he left.

Etienne was raised in Avignon, a beautiful, ancient city surrounded by ramparts, where for the last 13 years he's been the chef-proprietor of Restaurant Christian Etienne adjacent to the historic Palace of the Popes. (Nine popes ruled from Avignon through most of the 14th century.)

Etienne seemed to me the most determinedly Provencal of the four chefs, both in what he said and in what he cooked. Maybe that's because I think of the tomato as the quintessential Provencal ingredient -- it's known there as "la pomme d'amour" (the apple of love) -- and Etienne is just crazy for them.

At the Regency Club he made a tomato vinaigrette to accompany rougets flown in from France. He also served a "tomato tartare" in which the chopped-up pieces of tomato were flavored with shallots, chives and olive oil.

"I went to the Santa Monica farmers market," he said, by way of explanation, "and the tomatoes were beautiful. They reminded me of home. So I wanted to cook with them here today."

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