Sunday, October 23, 2011

La grande gastronomie

I think I may have fallen back in love with French food.

When I came to Toulouse the first time, I threw myself into la grande gastronomie francaise. I devoured foie gras, pate and all sorts of patisserie. I learned how to make coq au vin, pot au feu, daube, cassoulet, blanquette de veau, French onion soup (yes, it is actually French), crepes and mousse au chocolat. But after a while, I started to get a little bored. It was all the same—butter-heavy and rich. Five of the dishes I just mentioned boil down to x protein plus y vegetable cooked in a Z liquid, with a sauce made from the remaining liquid at the end. It was getting old, to the point that Christina and I debated whether French or Italian food was better.

(This happened in a restaurant in Venice. I conceded that Italians may have beaten the French when I came to main dishes, but added, perhaps too loudly, “but not dessert. No one beats the French at dessert. Besides, what does Italy have for dessert, besides like tiramisu and gelato?” A free slice of rum cake magically appeared on our table. Guess our waiter spoke English.)

But this place has proven once again, when it comes to food, no one, beats the French. L’Assiette, buried in the 14th arrondisement, far from any tourist spot, only came to my attention because my train back to Toulouse after taking the GRE Literature test left from the nearby Gare de Montparnasse. I wanted to reward myself (and kill some time before my train) with a long lunch at a good restaurant. L’Assiette fit the bill exactly. It had a small dining room that probably couldn’t hold more than twenty-five people maximum, a painted tile mural on the ceiling as well as a large hunk of cheese and an entire cured pork leg sitting on an old wood and ceramic buffet.

In fact, when you take your seat (old wooden tables, starched linen napkins, silver tableware) the first thing the waiter does is slice off some of that cured ham onto a plate and bring it to you with a basket of bread and some butter. Even the butter is marvelous. Thick, creamy and deliciously salty, it was well, the butteriest butter I have had in a long time. You know how butter-flavored popcorn has that artificial yellow butter taste? Well, this is what the manufacturers are trying to imitate—and it’s sublime. The bread was everything I expected of French bread- crunchy exterior, soft interior and slightly tart, though I was surpised to see that L’Assiette serves at least partially whole-wheat bread instead of white. The ham was also excellent—moist and flavorful. I think maybe it had been cured with thyme or maybe rosemary.

I ordered their lunch menu at 23 euros, which gave a choice of a first course (cream of cauliflower soup or “Blue Crystal” shrimp tartare) and a main course (quenelles de Sandre au sauce nautua or poitrine de cochon fermier), plus an expresso to end your meal. Fair warning—ordering off the menu will be significantly more expensive. I ordered the shrimp tartare and the quenelles as well as a glass of Sancerre (a Sauvignon Blanc from the Loire Valley). Obviously, L’Assiette doesn’t make the wine, but they did choose to put this on the menu. This may be because I have never tried a Loire Valley wine (to my knowledge), but this Sancerre was a hell of a white wine. It had a strong and distinct bouquet of grapefruit as well as a “damp” minerality and maybe some apricot. It was a light-bodied and well-balanced wine with a clean, almost mineral finish that lasted for over a minute. It was entirely unlike the Sauvignon Blancs I have had—(Bordeaux and New Zealand)—lacking the creamy mouthfeel and significantly drier. I would have guessed that it was a Pinot Gris, maybe, or another varietal rather that a Sauvignon Blanc. The minerality was also quite intriguing, since there was an earthiness to it that was almost herbal.

Now finally, onto the food.

The shrimp tartare was a blend of chopped raw shrimp, shallots and a type of seed that I couldn’t identify (I think it might be flax), moistened with some oil and lemon juice. There was a little bit of chives and lettuce on top and drizzled on the sides of the plate was a brown sauce, sweet and tart at the same time. I think there was a little bit of soy sauce in it. It was simply sublime. The shrimp was plump and juicy and the other ingredients (shallots, lemon juice, seeds) provided the perfect accent without distracting from the shrimp. The sauce was also delicious—sweet and tart but for the life of me I cannot identify what was in it. Balsamic vinegar? Soy sauce? It definitely struck me as a Franco-Asian fusion.

The quenelles are going to take significantly longer to explain. Firstly, they look a little bit like this.

A quenelle is a white fish (usually pike) that has been forced through a sieve, then mixed with a cream sauce called panade. This makes a slightly sticky blend which you then form into an oblong and poach. The ultimate result is an incredibly light and tender fish “croquette.” I’d like to try and make these, but they take a lot of work, at least according to my waiter at L’Assiette. (More proof of how excellent this restaurant is—the waiter very patiently answered all the questions that my foodie, non-native speaker self could come up with.) The sauce was a red sauce that (at least to me) tasted like it had cream and shrimp it—at the very least, there were little bits of shrimp floating in the sauce. I also thought I tasted a strong cheese—Roquefort or another blue.

Research suggests that sauce nantua does not usually involve cheese, but this chef obviously could have done something different. A traditional sauce nantua is a béchamel (or classic white) sauce that has been flavored with beurre d’ecrevisse—butter that has been melted and simmered with crayfish meat and shells, then rehardened. This also looks incredibly difficult to do, but most department stores apparently sell crayfish butter in the fish aisle, so I can cheat--- at least until I go back to the United States!

Finally, they served the quenelles with mashed potatoes on the sides. Can I mention how much I love mashed potatoes? They were made in a ricer rather than with a potato masher, which produces an incredibly smooth, creamy mashed potato. Then, of course, they are very thoroughly doused with cream and butter. These were the Platonian ideal of mashed potatoes. I felt drunk (simply from food) by the end of the meal.

And of course, a perfectly made espresso, with raw cane sugar and a mini-cannele to go with. How could I have ever doubted that France is the queen of the kitchen?

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