Coming off of a two-week visit to France—with stops in Paris, Strasbourg and Champagne—I found myself asking the question: Does French food still matter?
Don't get me wrong. I ate very well. And France continues to be, for me, the Holy Grail of eating well. But I found myself feeling underwhelmed at some of the Michelin two- and three-star culinary shrines we dined in. So maybe the question isn't so much does French food still matter, but does haute cuisine still matter?
We've been here before. During much of the 1980s and early 1990s, we endured the fashion of cuisine minceur, a style of cooking and eating largely attributed to the innovative French chef and author of Le Grande Cuisine Minceur, Michel Guérard. It was a culinary trend that took nouvelle cuisine to its daintiest extreme. Literally translated as "slimming cuisine," cuisine minceur consisted of lighter fare, often served in maddeningly tiny portions, frequently along with gargantuan prices that didn't seem to match the meal. Some of those dishes made today's tapas and "small plates" meals look like an all-you-can-eat extravaganza at Chuck-A-Rama. Sometimes, less is more. In the case of cuisine minceur, less was less.
Now, I should state at the outset that I am not a fan of the super-size portions served in many American restaurants. I know many a chef—especially here in Utah—who feel customers can only justify paying $20-plus for a dish if it's the size of the spare tire in their SUV. I don't like feeling like I have to do battle with my meal, or that I need to walk away with a week's worth of leftovers in order to rationalize the price I paid for it. I'd prefer to see smaller portions, which might just affect a restaurant's food costs positively enough to allow the place to stay in business another year or two. It's not the portion size of haute cuisine or cuisine minceur that bothers me. It's the preciousness of the food.
Or, on closer inspection, maybe it's the illusion of preciousness in restaurants that bothers me. Exhibit A: a 2-hour and 15-minute lunch at Restaurant le Meurice Alain Ducasse in Paris. Our prix fixe lunch with a starter, main course and dessert at this Michelin 2-star eatery was priced at 110 Euros (approximately $125 U.S. dollars) apiece.
The amuse bouche was indeed precious: a single smoked oyster wrapped in a crispy tuile. The starter (entrée in French) sort of irked me: cleverly presented raciness au gross sel, or "vegetables in coarse salt." An assortment of steamed, bite-size veggies—carrots, turnips, zucchini, cipollini onions, etc.—were served in a bamboo steamer lined with large rock-size chunks of pink salt. The result: salty steamed vegetables, the food cost of which I estimate at around 1€. Of course, the recent million-dollar renovation of the Alain Ducasse restaurant and its drop-dead gorgeous décor is largely what you're paying for in a place like this, and those costs and the army of servers it takes to bring bread, butter, wine, etc., to the table are all factored into the exorbitant price of lunch.
The main course consisted of a small fillet of rouget (aka red mullet), the popular Mediterranean fish that is the cornerstone of most bouillabaisse preparations. It was served with a simple wine sauce and a couple of artichoke pieces. Alongside was a plate upon which two white asparagus with aioli rested, sprinkled with fancy salt. Dessert was grapefruit four or five ways: grapefruit sorbet, dried grapefruit, crystallized grapefruit, grapefruit wedges, etc. In restaurants like this, Madame gets a little folding stand that sits next to her chair on which to place her purse. That's $125 apiece for lunch, not including wine.
It's this type of food—and lengthy, ponderous meals—that I found myself much underwhelmed with in France. But does that mean French food doesn't matter? Nope. Because I realized during this trip to France that the food I love in France is much like the food I love here in American. It's regional.
It's not haute cuisine that makes me want to turn around and endure another 11-hour flight to Paris. Rather, it's the regional, time-tested cuisine I come for: things like cassoulet at Paris' Bistrot de l'Oulette or La Brasserie de I'Isle Saint-Louis, and choucroute garni (which I had back-to-back nights at Chez Yvonne and Maison Kammerzell in Strasbourg). It's the simple, grilled steak entrecote at Les Tables des Halles in Reims, and the wonderful pizza and family friendliness at Le Caruso Ristorante in le Marais. It's the fantastic couscous and tagine dishes at the wonderful Restaurant l'Homme Bleu, where North African cooking has become as Parisian as the delicious duck confit at Café Hugo.
I guess I realized that the food that matters most to me, in France and elsewhere, is honest, homestyle cooking. I love the gumbo and po boys in New Orleans and the pizza and pasta in New York City. I can't pass up the occasional Breath Enhancer burger at Lucky 13. I wouldn't think of visiting Philly without having a cheesesteak or two, or downtown Salt Lake City without an order of R&R BBQ's brisket. The sourdough pancakes at Brighton's Silver Fork Lodge are irresistible.
Maybe that makes me pedestrian. It's not that I don't appreciate innovative, fancy food. I just don't care for overpriced food that's precious for the sake of being precious. To me, it's flavor that matters.