French Fine Dining is Haute Again

Mike Sula

In the spring of 2011, Grant Achatz opened his ever-changing Next Restaurant with a menu in tribute to the great turn-of-the-century chef Georges Auguste Escoffier, author of Le Guide Culinaire, the bible of modern French cuisine that cemented the foundation of Western fine dining. The menu featured extravagantly rich and rococo dishes such as supremes de poussinCarré d’agneau, and tortue claire, dishes that were so out of step with contemporary culinary practice they might as well have been totally new again, and I wondered if we were on the cusp of a resurgence of the luxurious food of La Belle Époch.

The answer was yes… and no. In subsequent years, more chefs have opened restaurants that emphasize traditional French haute cuisine, with all the bells and whistles of formal serviceware, lockstep precision service and the spectacle of tableside presentations that can easily be considered throwbacks.

On the other hand, did fine French cuisine ever really go away? “The restaurant by nature is French,” says Daniel Rose of Paris’ La Bourse et La Vie and Spring and New York City’s Le Coucou. “Even Chinese restaurants, with the way in which you interact with them. [You] walk in through the front door, sit down, and in some cases order a first course and second course and dessert is French.”

What's Old is New Again

Even if French fine dining has never gone away, there’s little doubt it’s having a moment. In recent years, William Bradley of San Diego’s Addison has seen a greater awareness of fine French food among his guests.

“I think that, like the Chanel dress, it’s one of those things that just never goes out of style,” he says. “But sometimes it’s not what everyone picks at every moment. Sometimes people just want to try the new and trendier thing for a while, but then they come back to the thing they love. French food obviously is something people have been loving for many, many decades.” That doesn’t mean he can’t apply modern cooking techniques to classic French dishes like his artichokes en barigoule ($28, recipe), which instead of braising the traditional way, he sous vides with a strained and chilled cuisson of wine, chicken stock, shallots and garlic. “We’re traditional in the way of getting a good flavor for the cuisson and then applying it to the sous vide technique, which gets you a very precisely cooked and more intense flavor.” He adds another modern touch by spiking the accompanying lemon aïoli with smoky piment d’espelette. The Midwestern-born Rose, who’d won acclaim at his two Parisian restaurants before he cooked professionally in the U.S., opened Le Coucou last spring and has found cooking traditional French food stateside liberating. His oxtail boulangère, served on the side of the filet de boeuf ($45, recipe), is “very old-fashioned” and features sliced Kennebec potatoes layered atop the braised oxtail meat used to produce the sauce for the beef.

"When I started coming up, all the cookbooks were about French technique and that was what everyone started with and then gravitated towards. We do want to preserve that heritage and that style of food, but I want to do it in my style and do it in a modern way." Greg Biggers, Café des Architectes, Chicago

“In some ways, it stands out more if I cook very orthodox French food,” Rose says. “And the more authentic I keep it, the more surprising and innovative it seems to people. Which is a great relief to me because it means I don’t have to be very clever.”

Thierry Rautureau of Seattle’s Luc is another French chef returning to classic potato dishes. He mastered the recipe for pommes soufflées as a young cook in 1978, cutting thin pieces of potato that puff like a zeppelin in hot oil ($9, recipe). “I love selling them because it makes a good impression on people,” he says. “Most people have not seen them before. And if they have, they’re ordering them again because they’re fun. They’re so light it’s like eating air.”

Luxe Liver

“In all the restaurants I’ve ever done, I’ve always had that French influence going on,” says Jason Paskewitz of The Blanchard in Chicago. “French technique has always been behind most of my menus. You could look at almost any recipe, and it’s derivative of something French somehow.”

If any ingredient in the French larder communicates indulgence, it’s foie gras, so Paskewitz devotes a section of his menu to fatty duck liver, featuring traditional executions like seared foie with red currant compote and vanilla gastrique, as well as fanciful modern novelties like a duck and foie gras hot dog with foie-spiked mustard. Last fall, he offered his interpretation of an old-school classic: a one-bite, deep-fried cromesqui filled with a liquid foie gras center, an hors d’oeuvre that goes all the way back to Escoffier. Paskewitz poaches the foie in cream and port wine and adds gelatin before puréeing it. Then he adds chopped truffle, allowing it to set and freeze. Cut into bite-size pieces, they’re breaded and deep-fried, plated on brandied cherry purée and sprinkled with powdered sugar ($6, recipe).

“It explodes in your mouth,” he says. “You have this little chicken McNugget bite, and you pop it in your mouth and ba-BOOM!”

At nearby Café des Architectes, Greg Biggers serves foie gras with fewer fireworks but no less flavor. He sears his foie, then serves it with crispy rabbit confit croquettes, plated with poached apple, parsley purée, roasted garlic aïoli and the salami he makes in-house ($18, recipe).

“When I started coming up, all the cookbooks were about French technique, and that was what everyone started with and then gravitated towards,” he says. “We do want to preserve that heritage and that style of food, but I want to do it in my style and do it in a modern way. We ask ourselves, ‘How can we take these Old World techniques, do them in-house, but present them in this modern way?’”

Le Wow

French fine dining is as much about the spectacle as the food. To that end, David Gilbert of Marais in Grosse Pointe, Mich., offers a number of tableside preparations wheeled out on draped gueridons, from caviar service to Caesar salad to bananas Foster. “There is an entertainment aspect to French cuisine that especially new generations say, ‘Oh, there is something to that.’ Previous generations have been part of it, but as they move on we have to reintroduce this type of dining to every generation,” he says.

“People are wanting to come back to all that attention to detail,” says Carrie Nahabedian, who opened her second restaurant, Brindille, at a time when other restaurateurs were downscaling. “When we were getting ready to open, so many people were like, ‘Are you kidding me? Everyone is going casual and you are going one-up.’” Her squab à la Rouennaise is a variation on Escoffier’s classic canard à la Rouennaise, a whole boned game bird served with the talons intact and a glistening sauce made with the blood of the bird’s liver ($48, recipe). She serves it with antique serviceware from her own collection.

When she first learned the recipe as a young cook from legendary Chicago chef Jean Banchet, blood was easier to come by in quantity, and the sauce was finished in large batches. Now it’s prepared à la minute, which offers the opportunity to improve it by straining and mounting it with butter. “We took a dish and modernized and refined it. We took it to another level and made it very singular.

“This is how I learned how to cook,” she adds. “When I started cooking, this was the only thing I knew. I just took it as an extension of all my training and expertise over the years.”

The Art of the Cart

David Gilbert of Marais in Grosse Pointe, Mich., offers his guests a number of tableside services to pump up the pomp. Here are a few of his meals on wheels.

Champagne: At the start of the meal, servers roll out a cart with five iced bubblies and walk the guests through each bottle. “The Champagne cart is hugely important to us because Champagne is your introduction to the meal,” says Gilbert. “It wakes up your palate.”

Caviar service: Tsar Imperial Ossetra Caviar. “We open the tins and show them what it is. Our maître d’ will make one for them on a toast point or blini with the appropriate accoutrements so their first bite is already set for them.”

Steak tartare: Prime beef tenderloin, Worcestershire sauce, hot sauce, fresh garlic, capers, Dijon, red onion, parsley, fresh egg yolk, and extra-virgin olive oil. “The server’s whisking that egg yolk with the double-fork method until it emulsifies, talking through each component that they’re adding, discussing likes and dislikes and achieving that interaction with the guest.”

Caesar salad: Local chopped romaine lettuce, olive oil, white Spanish anchovies, egg yolk, lemon juice, Parmigiano-Reggiano, hot sauce, red wine vinegar and housemade sourdough croutons mixed in a Michigan redwood bowl. “The bowl is just as important as the ingredients, because it continues to add flavor. We start with the garlic, shave it very fine. We’ll macerate the anchovies and talk about how the bowl is going to take on the flavor.”

Bananas Foster: Brown sugar, butter, cinnamon, bananas, banana liqueur, dark rum and vanilla ice cream. “The server has his pan warmed, and he’ll add his brown sugar and butter, and the whole dining room smells amazing. The bananas cook for three to five minutes. Flambé it with liqueur and rum, and the whole thing will shoot up a couple feet in the air. He’ll take the cinnamon and kind of rain it through and it sparkles.”

Mike Sula’s favorite French dish is cassoulet.

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