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All smoke and swagger?

Anthony Bourdain has a certain rough charm. But what he does to coq au vin is brutal.

October 20, 2004|Leslie Brenner | Times Staff Writer

Stacked up in towering displays at the front of the bookstore, it begs to be bought. Wrapped in a brown-paper-bag book jacket, it makes anything glossy look pretentious -- or worse, precious. The handsome, lanky chef presides in handsome halftones on the cover, his arms crossed defiantly over his chest. It's not just "Les Halles Cookbook." It's "Anthony Bourdain's Les Halles Cookbook."

Make no mistake. Anthony Bourdain is not just a celebrity chef. He's not just the author of the mega-selling "Kitchen Confidential" and star of "A Cook's Tour" on the Food Network. He's Bourdain. A man's chef. A literary chef. He's had a byline in the New Yorker, but he's macho enough to call a pork a pig. Foul-mouthed and full of bravado, he's the guy who's going to take the, well, you know what, out of recipe writing. He's the guy you go to if you want a little attitude with your steak frites.

The book (Bloomsbury, $34.95) is all the rage in the online foodie forums, where Bourdain enjoys god-like status. When I heard about it I had to have it. I used to eat at Les Halles in New York City when I wanted a decent hanger steak. The restaurant wasn't, as Bourdain calls it in the introduction, "the best [expletive] brasserie/bistro in the country." But it was honest and fun and felt almost French. And I imagined that what Bourdain would do in a cookbook might be refreshingly no-nonsense.

I wasn't wrong. "This is basically a French version of gefilte fish," he prefaces the quenelle recipe. Or, "Yee-hah! Rack of lamb! Just like they make it on ocean liners...." "And if you can't properly roast a [expletive] chicken then you are one helpless, hopeless, [expletive] bivalve in an apron."

I started cooking.

Since Les Halles is really a place for meat (with a French-style butcher counter up front), I went for the cote de boeuf. "For your serious meat-eating guests," writes Bourdain, "this is the way to go. When you approach the tableside with two of these intimidating monsters, and then carve them up in front of your guests, they will tremble with shock and awe, basking in your magnificence and casual impertinence."

I seared the bone-in rib steaks on the grill pan and finished them in the oven, but first I made the bearnaise sauce. I wasn't afraid -- despite the note that says, "Know this. If you haven't made bearnaise from scratch before, you will surely [expletive] this sauce up. Don't worry. Just do it again. This and hollandaise, more than any other sauces, seem to smell fear and uncertainty."

I can make hollandaise with my eyes closed. And I have made bearnaise before. If you cook it gently over a double-boiler, it's not hard.

But what happened here was utterly bizarre. It did seem like an awful lot of shallots and tarragon (1 bunch, leaves only, finely chopped) with the vinegar. I followed the directions, reducing the mixture "until nearly dry." I placed my egg yolks in a warm metal bowl. Then I added the reduction, a few drops of water, as Bourdain suggests "as a little insurance against curdling" and placed the bowl over simmering water. The instant I started to whisk, the thing seized up in a blob. It was downhill from there.

The meat itself was perfectly delicious, though there was no reason to mess with a grill pan when searing it in a skillet would have been easier and just as good, and the book offered no advice about how to carve the hulking steaks. The bearnaise was so hideous-looking -- grainy, oily and ochre-colored -- that it aroused curiosity; everyone tried it. Then one guest choked on a chunk -- a chunk of sauce! -- and had to leave the table.

I would like to say that the first course had been so good that it mitigated the disappointment of the bearnaise, but it wasn't. It was a mangled heirloom tomato salad. "If you can't get a good tomato, don't make the [expletive] dish," says the headnote. The recipe specifically calls for heirloom tomatoes, then it has you quarter them, degorge them by salting, let them sit, then brush off the salt and remove the seeds. It wasn't pretty, and a shame to see all that flavor go down the drain.

Which brings me to Bourdain's attitude toward ingredients.

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