Sunday, July 3, 2011

Lessons from Paris

It's easy to get caught up in the humdrum of everyday life, getting tunnel vision and too comfortable in your daily existence. Every once in a while, it's essential to get out and remind yourself what the world at large has to offer. It's easy to forget in a food city as diverse as Houston that there is much to learn from the broader globe. A recent trip to Paris reinforced that. Here are some lessons learned, perhaps running the danger of veering into generalities. For ease, exceptions to the general rules are left out.

1. Seasonal still rules the day, from Michelin Three Stars to bistros

Paris in April? Prepare for showers of morels and asparagus. But the refreshing thing is how deeply entrenched seasonal eating is in this culture. Restaurants don't trumpet the fact that they're serving what's local and of-the-moment. It's understood. This is the level of food appreciation -- an innate devotion to the freshest and best -- that has defined French food since the time of Marie-Antoine Careme and even earlier. (For a terrific discussion of this subject, and generally good writing on an array of topics, consult Mike Steinberger's excellent book Au Revoir to All That and his blog.)

This dedication to seasonality and freshness is the foundation of an admirable respect the French have for their food and the act of dining. And it is this fundamental and powerful building block that arguably is France's greatest culinary export right now. Take, for example, the two dishes pictured below. First, a glorious salad of fresh morels and asparagus from Le Bristol, the stunning three-star Michelin restaurant on the Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré. It is a testament to seasonality, the finest ingredients, and artistic presentation.

Second, an equally delicious and seasonal preparation of morels, this time from the superb Bistrot Paul Bert. It's nothing more than fried eggs with morels and mushroom cream. Simplicity on a plate, yet providing a depth of flavor that, without supreme freshness of ingredients, would come across as heavy and plodding. Seasonal cooking doesn't only allow a chef to honor place and freshness; the right ingredients at the appropriate time inform the texture and weight of dishes.

2. It's about technique, not gimmicks
Look back at those stunning fried eggs from Bistrot Paul Bert above. It's all well and good to have the best ingredients, but they won't be worth a damn if you can't cook them properly. To cook simply and to showcase your ingredients is a risky proposition because, without expert technique, the food doesn't stand a chance. One striking thing about restaurants in Paris is their unwavering adherence to technique. You expect and demand perfect execution of basic preparations in high-end restaurants like Le Bristol, but the high quality of technique across the board is impressive. Just because a dish may be humble doesn't mean it isn't worthy of respect that borders on reverence.

Take boeuf bourguignon, the king of peasant dishes (now that's a paradox). Shown here in a faultless preparation from Christian Constant's inviting Les Cocottes, there was notable care in crafting a pure sauce that spoke of the beef without being tarted up with any gimmicks. The meat was cooked to that easy-to-know but hard-to-reach point of being fall-apart tender without the chuck toughening up again. Too often, simple dishes like this come out with tough meat, as if the cook has assumed he could braise it indefinitely without fault. Or by needlessly cooking the beef sous vide for days to make a splash by writing "72-hour boeuf bourguignon" on the menu -- there are places for advanced techniques, but they aren't always necessary.

Another good example of the triumph of technique over gimmicks comes from Chef Jean Louis Nomicos, whose Les Tablettes recently opened in the 16th arrondissement. This appetizer course has several moving parts: a glorious mushroom puree that relies on just a hint of richness that doesn't interfere with its pure flavor, perfectly sauteed white asparagus, freshest morels, and gloriously crisp sweetbreads.

3. A meal is an opportunity to be exploited, not an obstacle to overcome
How many times have you eaten a bowl of cereal or a sandwich while standing up? Maybe had lunch at your desk? That's not enjoying your food. Sure, sometimes it might be necessary, but it is hardly any way to live. It's important to realize that just because you won't necessarily eat high on the hog doesn't mean you can't eat well. The dish pictured below, "Best of Cod," is another superlative creation from Le Bristol. Essentially a sauteed piece of fish with a bit of citrus over it, this is an over-the-top example of how basic food can become a celebration, even an exercise in genius. The cod was cooked perfectly. A parsley jus and shellfish surround the plate. On top? Nitrogen-frozen pearls of lemon and orange and slices of spring onion, which give the dish an uncanny bit of texture and temperature -- all simply enhancing the fish as easily as a squeeze of lemon would.

Meals are a great social occasion. You can spend twelve hours at the office, but at least do yourself the favor of, once a day, sitting down to a proper meal to reconnect with friends or family. Shoveling in a bowl of pasta or wolfing down a 24-ounce steak to refuel the system isn't living anymore than eating a sandwich standing up. Take a moment. Have a pan-seared filet mignon with a slice of lightly sauteed foie gras on top and savor the people around you. You don't have to geek out about the food. Use the food as a vehicle to connect with those you love and your own life.

4. Like writing, food needs editing
So many dishes suffer from too many flourishes -- a gastrique that muddles the overall flavors of the food, an extra dose of potent and unnecessary ingredients give a plate an overinflated sense of self-importance. Too many ingredients in a sauce end up competing with one another, rather than allowing the sauce to sing and complement the food. There is a powerful temptation to believe more is more, particularly in this Super-Size-It society. Once again, Christian Constant -- this time at his Cafe Constant -- demonstrates the opposite is true. A simple roasted chicken with sauteed potatoes and a bit of lettuce as a garnish is satisfying, utilizes the best ingredients, and doesn't try to be more than it is: good, hearty food that lets you nourish yourself and enjoy the company around you.

More to the point, if you are cooking with the best ingredients, they need very little to bring out their finest qualities. Bistrot Paul Bert again serves as a fine example, with the roasted root vegetables and braised beef cheek with bearnaise pictured below. Basic, even humble, ingredients cooked with fine technique. You rarely need more ... well, maybe some wine.

5. Humble wine is just fine
The American wine press always seems to be abuzz about the next "cult" wine from California or futures prices of increasingly out-of-reach classed growth Bordeaux. There is talk about value, but it's surprising how few true value wines come out of California. When is the last time you had a meaningfully good wine for $10 that was produced domestically? It tends to be the exception rather than the rule. There's Two Buck Chuck and Gallo plonk that predominates supermarkets. But why isn't there something the equivalent of French vin de pays coming out of American wine regions? Even reasonably good, less expensive wines on Houston wine lists tend to be from Spain, New Zealand, and Italy.

One of the beauties of restaurants in France is that, for 15 to 20 euros, you get a solid wine with genuine varietal character. It's not laden with oak or trying to pretend to be more than it is. Sometimes it comes to the table in a multi-use bottle that has no label and no cork. It's refreshing and enhances the food -- and epitomizes that wine is an indispensable part of the meal.

There is a beautiful sense of security about wine consumption that the French have on a daily basis. Wine is part of setting the table, like a knife and fork, a social lubricant and celebration all in one.

It is the ease with which the French still approach their meals that can give Americans a goal to strive for: slow down, enjoy your food. It's a good thing to appreciate your food -- the quality of what you put in your body and also the manner in which you consume it.

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