The French Cuisine Revival Is Just Getting Started

George Reynolds wrote . . . . . . . . .

Modern French gastronomy has never not been in crisis, in rupture from itself. Nouvelle cuisine was a response to the cream-laden excess of Marie-Antoine Carême and Auguste Escoffier; cuisine minceur distanced itself even further from their approach. Roger Vergé and Michel Bras made immaculate, seasonal vegetables, not animal protein, their raison d’être; Alain Passard (briefly) went one better and rejected meat entirely. Bistronomie stripped haute cuisine of its pretensions, occasioning just the latest cri de coeur in a century-long tradition of pundits proclaiming this as the moment when classic French cooking definitively died.

In America, the story of French food, on the surface at least, is simpler: It was the pinnacle, then it wasn’t. There are any number of reasons why it was toppled from its position of pre-eminence: the emergence of viable alternative models; the winnowing away of pomp and circumstance from menus and dining rooms in the wake of the Great Recession; health concerns and simple fashion too, probably. Whatever the cause, the postwar giants — La Côte Basque, Le Cirque, Lutèce — closed one by one, and a more symbolic door seemed to have shut with them.

The reasons for French food’s resurgence in the years since Time magazine deified its new, emphatically non-French (and decidedly male) Gods of Food are as multifarious as the reasons for its original decline: Simple fashion, again, is probably only one of them.

But certainly, by the time Lucky Peach was asking its panel about the future of gastronomy for the Fall 2016 “Cooks & Chefs III: Fine Dining” issue, the gastronomy of the past was once again on the table. Christopher Kostow, the chef of California’s three-Michelin-star Restaurant at Meadowood, predicted chefs would soon be “looking further back and asking ourselves why we have rid ourselves of certain things”; trailblazing Alinea chef Grant Achatz was even more specific, predicting the return of “old French-style restaurants” — nothing less than “a resurgence of classicism.”

Really, he could have been describing Le Coucou, which opened in New York City in June of that year with a theatrical Gallic flourish, toques and all. Chef Daniel Rose intended it as a modern homage to Lutèce, perhaps the most emblematic of the grand postwar restaurants championed by then-New York Times critic Craig Claiborne. And if current New York Times critic Pete Wells didn’t quite match the four stars eventually bestowed by Claiborne on Lutèce, he nevertheless thrilled to the similarities between the two restaurants, and Le Coucou’s recontextualization of what he termed “the old high style.” Somewhere willing to serve authentic Lyonnaise quenelles de brochet in 2016 New York was undeniably distinctive — “an unmistakable outlier,” per Eater NY’s Ryan Sutton — but was also far more than a mere novelty play: It felt significant enough to move Eater’s national critic Bill Addison to predict that 2017 would finally (once again) be the year of the “proudly French restaurant.”

Fifteen months on, that feels like a pretty good call. Achatz himself is midway through a six-month exploration of 20th century French gastronomy at Next, in Chicago; Nouvelle Cuisine will replace the Cuisine Classique theme at the end of this month. In New York, Le Coucou now has a sibling, La Mercerie, which twins an innovative retail concept with an all-day menu boasting crepes and more recherché fare, like the tourteau fromagé; a couple of blocks away, Frenchette flies the tricolore for more affordable bistro dishes (and, less traditionally, natural wines). Grand Café in Minneapolis was one of last year’s most anticipated (re)openings; in the span of a few months, the West Coast has seen first Bar Crenn and now Canard come to the party, two of the highest-profile newcomers of 2018 so far. And Balthazar, Keith McNally’s oft-imitated ode to Parisian brasseries in New York City, is up for a James Beard Award for Outstanding Restaurant, 21 years after its first opened.

What is striking in each of these cases is not that they are French, but quite how unapologetically French they are. Where for the past decade or so French influence largely needed to be ironized, deftly reimagined, or otherwise attenuated — think the celeriac en vessie or carrot tartare (really more of a carrot à la presse) at Eleven Madison Park — in 2018, the truly old-fashioned and excessive is back on the menu. Some of the more recent openings may share some of their DNA with the Montreal maximalists Joe Beef — like Grand Café, whose riff on the Paris-Brest substitutes a mousse of chicken livers cooked in cognac and cream for the more common praline — but more often than not it is canonical Gallic gastronomy, without further mediation or reinterpretation, that is on offer.

Words that once functioned as shorthands for a very specific form of fine dining fussiness and fustiness — beurre blanc, tarte flambée, soufflé, mousseline, mille-feuille — are once again reclaiming their rightful place on menus embracing, not scorning, the past. In parallel with the rise of culinary New Romanticism, with its personal narratives, organic style of plating, and bouquets of edible flowers, is it time to speak of a neoclassical revival, too?

However small in scale (for now, at least), the resurgence is not confined to places that self-define as capital-F French. At the genre-bending New York City restaurant Momofuku Ko, one of the signature dishes — previously an occasional fixture on the tasting menu, now available daily at the new bar — is something that a French chef from a hundred years ago would recognize as a classic pithivier: burnished, flaky, beautifully scored pastry encasing a savory farce (now duck, previously pheasant and foie gras). Pies like it have recently appeared on menus in Hong Kong (at Belon, courtesy of British chef Daniel Calvert), and in London (at both the Laughing Heart and Portland). In each case, old-fashioned grand cuisine is positioned in a context that otherwise scans as completely contemporary.

This juxtaposition is part of the pithivier’s appeal for chef Sean Gray, who likes how it feels “kind of out of place” alongside other dishes on the Ko menu. But he sees it as far from a stagnant fixture there, despite its popularity; for him and his team, it has become almost a provocation: “How good can it be? How good can we make it?”

It’s no idle question: A dish like this, which involves at least a dozen steps across multiple days, is pure, old-fashioned, labor-intensive technique at its most exacting. Which, of course, is also part of its appeal. For customers, there’s the wonder at seeing something you definitely couldn’t do at home; for head chefs mindful of the need to educate their young charges, there’s the training aid that it represents; for the person cooking it, there’s the accountability of taking control of a technically challenging process that can span multiple days.

This being 2018, there’s the Instagram angle, too. In a feed cluttered with rainbow-unicorn prettiness and tweezered terrarium plating, the stark geometric shapes and neutral colour palette of the neoclassical dish stand boldly and strikingly apart; the British chef Calum Franklin has amassed tens of thousands of followers (including at least one famous fan) on the back of this sort of immaculate, precision-engineered craftsmanship. Image-sharing has doubtless helped fuel the aesthetic’s reemergence, affording likeminded cooks a platform to show off their creations and spur each other on to even more elaborate extremes.

From top left: quenelle Lyonnaise; asparagus with hollandaise; tarte tatin with vanilla ice cream and caneles at Bar Crenn in San Francisco

The furthest extreme to date — and the signal neoclassical opening of 2018 so far — is surely San Francisco’s Bar Crenn. Every element of the design, from the decor to the servicewear (lovingly plucked from Parisian flea markets) has been specifically selected, Crenn says, to “tell the story” of 1920s and ’30s salon life, to recreate an atmosphere in which “people gathered and exchanged ideas” with far more freedom than they do now.

The free exchange of ideas between past and present influences Crenn’s work more broadly: “You cannot go forward or be inspired,” she says, “without being aware of your heritage, where you came from.” And while some chefs might be looking back to the past with perhaps misplaced nostalgia — the heyday of French cuisine was also a time of imperialism, racism, and sexism — for Crenn the journey back in time through her culinary tradition is both personal and thoughtful; it is precisely this approach that informs the menu at Bar Crenn, which positions uncompromising French icon-dishes from the likes of Alain Ducasse, Paul Bocuse, and Pierre Koffmann alongside equally uncompromising riffs on French classics, like pâté en croute from Crenn herself.

It’s a juxtaposition that foregrounds quite how much of a boys club French fine dining has historically been. There is something strikingly transgressive, too, in the finished dishes being eaten not in the grand ateliers of Lyon or Paris but as “bar snacks” in a room that abuts one of America’s most progressive temples of fine dining. But, in Crenn’s eyes, this conversation between different schools of and approaches to high-end gastronomy is central to the overall effect: “If you put a Monet, and a Gaugin, and a Dalí on the wall, they may all be from different backgrounds and eras, but they are still in dialogue. And that dialogue might spark something.”

Bar Crenn itself is in a sort of dialogue with two other San Francisco restaurants, each opened by another chef with multiple Michelin stars to their name. Perhaps its most obvious analogue is Monsieur Benjamin, the modern bistro from Corey Lee whose lengthy menu is inspired by “the great Parisian bistro culture and traditions of French cooking.” And although this is clearly one crucial element of the neoclassical resurgence, Bar Crenn’s drive to recontextualize French traditions puts it in conversation, too, with In Situ, Lee’s project across town. There, modern culinary masterpieces play off each other in the suggestive setting of SFMOMA; it is a framing device that speaks volumes about the role that restaurants play in the curation and/or conservation of different schools and traditions.

Merely preserving the past is not enough for chefs like Crenn; for her, there is no point in going back if it doesn’t also help us to move forward. Postwar French restaurants in America were always museums, in a sense; visions of classical French cookery frozen in amber for half a century or more. But at Bar Crenn — as at other exemplars of the French neoclassical wave — the exhibits are finally coming to life.

Source: Eater

French-style Starter with Escartgots

Ingredients

6 dozen canned snails
3 shallots, peeled and finely chopped
3 garlic cloves, peeled and finely chopped
2 tbsp olive oil
3 tbsp chopped hazelnuts
1-1/2 tbsp unsalted butter
2 tbsp green Chartreuse (a French liqueur)
2 cups whipping cream
lemon juice
grated lemon zest
2 tbsp chopped parsley
salt
black pepper

Method

  1. Drain the snails.
  2. Sweat the finely chopped shallots and garlic in the olive oil over medium heat until tender, then add the hazelnuts, followed by the snails.
  3. Add the butter and continue to cook gently for 6-7 minutes.
  4. Pour in the Chartreuse, turn up the heat, and boil until the pan is almost dry.
  5. Add the cream and simmer until the mixture has the consistency of a sauce.
  6. Season well and finish with a few drops of lemon juice and a little finely grated zest. Serve in little pots with a sprinkling of parsley.

Makes 6 servings.

Source: The French Kitchen

In Pictures: Food of Bar Boulud in London, U.K.

French Regional Cuisine

The Restaurant

Opinion: What is the Signature Dish of Hong Kong

Food is an obsession in Hong Kong; the estimated 15,000 or so restaurants say as much. Yet, it has always baffled me why a city with the next meal on its mind doesn’t have a signature dish to tell the world about.

There’s without doubt a drink, milk tea, and the obvious savoury and sweet snacks – fishballs, egg waffles and that oddity of condensed milk and peanut butter on toast – but nothing stands out for a meal.

Isn’t it time we chose from the seemingly limitless list of what’s on offer to better promote our exceptional local cuisine?

That thought comes to mind each time I travel beyond Hong Kong. Every mainland city I have visited has a must-try speciality promoted above all others – in Foshan, there was blind man cake and wonton soup; in Xiamen, oyster omelette and shacha noodles; in Tsingtao, pork and cabbage buns and chilli sautéed clams.

Each of Asia’s countries would seem to have a national dish, or at least one that is closely identified with it.

Among them, Singapore has laksa and black pepper crab, Thailand tom yum soup and curries in a variety of colours and spiciness, South Korea has kimchi pancake and bulgogi, and Japan, sushi and sashimi.

For some travellers, these foods are more associated with the place than a flag, costume, flower or other symbol that has been chosen to push culture and identity, and draw tourists.

Ask visitors what they like about Hong Kong and the food invariably gets a mention. Surprisingly, it’s often the top attraction for Asians, being named ahead of sightseeing or shopping. The Hong Kong Tourism Board had its priorities somewhat in order when putting together its Discover Hong Kong website, nestling “dine and drink” in between “things to do” and “shop” on the index.

I’m not so certain it’s highlighting the right treats, though; under “must eat”, it has the headings “Chinese barbecue”, “dim sum”, “Hong Kong-style milk tea”, “local snacks”, “noodles and congee” and “sweets”.

Delve deeper, and the picture gets blurred, with a vast array of items, not all of them synonymous with Hong Kong. There’s barbecued and roast pork, and barbecued goose, steamed and deep-fried shrimp dumplings, siu mai, barbecued pork buns and pastries, cheung fan – also known as rice rolls – and spring rolls.

Under the noodles and congee category are Cantonese and Chiu-Chow-style congee, fish ball rice noodles, wonton noodles, stir-fried beef noodles and – most authentically Hong Kong of all – cart noodles, a cheap street-side snack sold from wooden carts in the 1950s that has survived under the hole-in-the-wall restaurant business model.

Local snacks of note are pineapple buns, egg tarts, faux shark’s fin soup, wife cake, mini egg puffs, sticky rice pudding, white sugar cake, fishballs, stinky tofu, beef offal and the delightfully named three stuffed treasures, usually minced fish stuffed into eggplant, green pepper, tofu puffs, smoked red sausage or mushrooms and then grilled. Among the sweets are red bean soup, tofu pudding and sweet rice dumpling.

Many of the items are staples of dim sum, the Hong Kong institution that families, old friends and office workers noisily interact over, most usually for brunch or lunch.

The casual meal that comprises a sampling of any of hundreds of dumplings, buns, rolls and balls washed down with cups of tea, is by far our city’s biggest export, taken by Hong Kong migrants to every part of the world.

But as synonymous as it may be, it is also typical of Cantonese cuisine and culture, and found in neighbouring Guangdong province.

Among the offerings are classics that could easily be in the running for the signature dish of Hong Kong, the top contenders being steamed shrimp dumplings and barbecue pork buns.

By adding the restaurant offerings of roast goose, shrimp wonton noodles and cart noodles, you have my shortlist of what Hong Kong should be promoting to tourists as a “must-eat”, alongside dim sum.

Now, the challenge is, which is the most representative of Hong Kong? My vote goes to shrimp wonton noodles.

Source: SCMP

Study: Eggs Not Linked to Cardiovascular Risk

Eating up to 12 eggs a week does not increase cardiovascular risk factors in people with pre-diabetes or type 2 diabetes, new research finds – despite conflicting dietary advice continuing around the world.

University of Sydney researchers aim to help clear up conflicting dietary advice around egg consumption, as a new study finds eating up to 12 eggs per week for a year did not increase cardiovascular risk factors in people with pre-diabetes and type 2 diabetes.

Published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition today, the research extends on a previous study that found similar results over a period of three months.

Led by Dr Nick Fuller from the University’s Boden Institute of Obesity, Nutrition, Exercise and Eating Disorders at the Charles Perkins Centre, the research was conducted with the University of Sydney’s Sydney Medical School and the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital.

In the initial trial, participants aimed to maintain their weight while embarking on a high-egg (12 eggs per week) or low-egg (less than two eggs per week) diet, with no difference in cardiovascular risk markers identified at the end of three months.

The same participants then embarked on a weight loss diet for an additional three months, while continuing their high or low egg consumption. For a further six months – up to 12 months in total – participants were followed up by researchers and continued their high or low egg intake.

At all stages, both groups showed no adverse changes in cardiovascular risk markers and achieved equivalent weight loss – regardless of their level of egg consumption, Dr Fuller explained.

Despite differing advice around safe levels of egg consumption for people with pre-diabetes and type 2 diabetes, our research indicates people do not need to hold back from eating eggs if this is part of a healthy diet.

A healthy diet as prescribed in this study emphasised replacing saturated fats (such as butter) with monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats (such as avocado and olive oil),” he added.

The extended study tracked a broad range of cardiovascular risk factors including cholesterol, blood sugar and blood pressure, with no significant difference in results between the high egg and low egg groups.

“While eggs themselves are high in dietary cholesterol – and people with type 2 diabetes tend to have higher levels of the ‘bad’ low density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol – this study supports existing research that shows consumption of eggs has little effect on the levels of cholesterol in the blood of the people eating them,” Dr Fuller explained.

Dr Fuller said the findings of the study were important due to the potential health benefits of eggs for people with pre-diabetes and type 2 diabetes, as well as the general population.

Eggs are a source of protein and micronutrients that could support a range of health and dietary factors including helping to regulate the intake of fat and carbohydrate, eye and heart health, healthy blood vessels and healthy pregnancies.”

The different egg diets also appeared to have no impact on weight, Dr Fuller said.

“Interestingly, people on both the high egg and low egg diets lost an equivalent amount of weight – and continued to lose weight after the three month intended weight loss phase had ended,” he said.

Source: The University of Sydney


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