Starry, Starry, Starry Nights : California cuisine is very good; but much as we hate to admit it, the three-star food of France is better

I have never been a three star sort of person. The very idea of making pilgrimages to the great temples of gastronomy has always struck me as sort of silly.

This may have something to do with having spent so much of my life in France. I've gone to French schools, worked at French jobs and eaten a lot of French food (mostly not in restaurants). At one time or another, I've dined in about half of the three star establishments and been, for the most part, singularly unimpressed.

And yet I had never been to the places that are considered the true elite. To Girardet. To Jamin. To L'Esperance. And I know almost nothing of all the hot new joints in Paris.

For a person in my position, this can get downright embarrassing. I decided it was time to change all that. And so, armed with reservations made months in advance, I descended on the city of light. This time I went only to eat.

Here is what I learned.

Lentils are big, souffles are back and polenta--on anything--is terribly trendy. Black pepper is now appearing at dessert. I learned that prices are sky high and wine prices even higher. I learned that foie gras, truffles and caviar are sprinkled about with wild abandon in the three-star palaces--and that every chef worth his salt bakes his own bread.

But above all, I learned that if you care deeply about the art of eating, you ought to go to Paris. For what is served in the great restaurants of France is better than I believed possible. This is partly a matter of economics: with prices at well over $100 per person, good restaurants can afford to serve far fewer people than any restaurant in America. Diners sit down to three and four-hour meals and no good restaurant tries to turn its tables. These economics also permit the great luxury of labor; many restaurants have almost as many people working as eating.

But the quality of these restaurants is more than a mere matter of money. And it goes far beyond technical expertise too. For as I ate in one wonderful restaurant after another, I began to realize that what sets these chefs apart is their ability to twist the food that they serve into a mirror. Three-star French food is, above all else, a cuisine of personality. When you eat in a truly great restaurant, you have the sense that each dish is a personal expression. By the time you come to the end of a meal, you feel you know the man who created it.

JAMIN

35 people work here; there are 45 seats. No wonder the food is fabulous.

It takes six months to get a reservation at Jamin. There are two reasons for this. The first is that with three stars from Michelin and four toques and 19.5 points from Gault-Millau (their highest rating), it holds an extremely exalted status. Everybody wants to eat Joel Robuchon's food. The second reason is that, with only 45 seats, everybody can't.

I finally managed to get a reservation. Then, on the big night, I couldn't get a cab. The Metro from the Ile St. Louis required so many changes that I finally ran ran most of the way along the Seine to the Place d'Iena, charging into the restaurant with coat flaps flying, 15 minutes late. I expected pomp, circumstance and disapproval. Instead the maitre d' made a comical little gesture, bowed, and pointed to the only empty seat in the room. "Relax," he murmured, bringing me a glass of champagne. I was instantly charmed.

Nothing that took place that evening caused my mood to change. Somewhere during the course of the meal, after the soupe chaude a la gelee de poule and before the petite salade champetre, I remember thinking, "This food was made by magic." Indeed, Robuchon's food is so extraordinary it does sometimes seem that it could not have been created by human hands.

The first course was a soup that had been turned into a custard--a sort of French version of the Japanese chawan mushi. It was, without doubt, the most intensely pleasurable soup I've ever eaten. "Stick your spoon straight down," said the waiter, showing me that more riches--a sort of liquid essence of the livers -- was lurking at the bottom.

Next came another sort of soup-- etuvee de noix de St. Jacques au fumet de champignons. This seemed like a remarkably simple dish; when you looked down at the flat bowl what you saw was a frothy white liquid containing a few large rounds of scallops. But when you tasted it, there was such extraordinary intensity of flavor that I can only think that the chef cooked the dish in two steps: first the mushroom fumet , then the braised scallops. But all of the dishes I was to eat were the same; seemingly simple, they turned out to be remarkably complex.

At the next table a beautiful Japanese woman was eating alone, her pinky lifted, periodically smoothing back her long black hair. She ate with fierceness and with great concentration. When the dessert cart came, she looked at the tarts, the gateaux , the sorbets and when the waiter asked what she would like said wistfully, "All of them."

Easy to understand, I thought, as the waiter set the next course before me. Paupiette of sole-- my least favorite fish--had real flavor. It was followed by another sleight-of-hand dish. The waiter appeared with a plate holding a perfectly white little ring made out of carefully constructed spaghetti. When you cut into the ring, you discovered that it was filled with shrimp poached to such softness that they slid down your throat. Truffles danced across the dish. How many people did it take to construct this little edifice, I wondered?

The main course-- beatilles de canard aux lentilles-- was a sort of stew of duck innards served on top of lentils, a dish for pampered peasants. With it came Robuchon's famous potato puree--potatoes elevated to high art. There was cheese, dessert, little tidbits to eat with the coffee. But most of all there was the sense of being in the hands of a master.

Joel Robuchon is not a man who goes parading about the dining room. And his dining room itself may be the most pleasantly low-key of any great restaurant in the world. It's the food that does the talking here--and not a single word is wasted.

Jamin

32 Rue de Longchamp, Paris. 47.27.12.27 Closed Saturday, Sunday and July. Prix fixe menu about $150 per person.

L' E S P E R A N C E

In Marc Meneau's hands foie gras turns to liquid and seawater jells. It's magic.

You change trains twice to get to Vezelay--about 150 miles southeast of Paris in Burgundy--and then you have to take a cab to get to the cathedral of St. Madeleine. But the town itself--

surrounded by medieval walls--is lovely and the cathedral is the prettiest I've seen in France. It is a triumph of light and air--the place where you come to understand the physical dematerialization that the Romanesque strove so hard to attain.

When you walk out of Vezelay in the direction of St. Pere-sous-Vezelay, the road winds down in such a gentle curve that you never lose sight of the cathedral above you. On a spring morning, with the birds singing and the forsythia and apple blossoms in bloom, it's easy to think that you have come to paradise.

L'Esperance does nothing to dispel the illusion; you walk into a greenhouse, are seated with an aperitif, given a menu and left to consider your lunch. Before long the cromesquis appear. This is the restaurant's famous trick dish; the chef wraps foie gras up in a crust and then fries it. The result, when you bite into the tidbit, is an amazing burst of liquid: the foie gras has melted. It's a wonderful introduction to the cooking of Marc Meneau, whose hallmark is a sort of earthy elegance.

Then Francoise Meneau comes bustling out to see what you'd like to eat. She considers your taste, helps you select a menu. The sommelier arrives to consult about the wine. You sink back into your seat, sip your drink and watch other diners hungrily reading about the food.

Before long you are called into the dining room. Here, too, the walls are made of glass, and the table so laden with spring flowers that the garden seems to have come right through them.

If Robuchon is controlled, modest, a technical wizard, Meneau is something else indeed. He is large-spirited, generous, elemental. And he makes his own sort of magic. Somehow he has figured out how to make seawater jell, so that when he serves oysters he sets them, in their shells, on a cream of shallot in a solidified briny bath. It is hard to believe your senses.

What he likes best, it seems, is to play ingredients off against each other. He makes a warm consomme of lobster and then serves it with a cold cream of caviar so that you put dollops of the cream into the soup and watch them melt. His scallops are paired with truffles on a tart, each round white slice topped with an equally round black one. He cooks a whole foie gras in a pot of lentils--along with lard, onions and carrots. It comes to the table--the entire foie gras!-- in its own pot. Then it is sliced and served with gros sel and pepper. The combination is extraordinary. "What I would really like," says the chef, "is to throw out the foie gras at the end and just eat the lentils."

He brings lobster down to earth in much the same way by wrapping the tail in clear sheets of lard and roasting it. Who else would think of such a notion? "Eat the lard," says the waiter as it's served. As you do the flavors mingle, the soft succulent fat embracing the lean shellfish with its warmth.

Are we still eating? Unbelievably, we are. A whole leg of lamb--a small leg of true spring lamb--is arriving at the table. Madame Meneau, the consummate hostess, hovers as it is sliced. "Leave that," she says to the waiter, "and slice some more. They wanted it really rare."

Desserts here have their own intensity. A caramelized pear tart is served with licorice ice cream. Banana slices come topped with passion fruit--and pepper ice cream. The hot chocolate tart may be the best in the world. And then there are caramels, macaroons, cookies. Meneau's generosity seems boundless; he is reluctant to let you leave the table. And as you do, he slips some caramels into your purse.

L'Espeerance

St. Pere-sous-Vezelay. 86.33.20.45. Closed Tuesday, Wednesday lunch and January. Prix fixe menu, about $100 per person.

GIRARDET

Even the French agree: the world's greatest restaurant might be in Switzerland.

Switzerland may seem like a long way to go for dinner, but the fast train from Paris gets you there in less than four hours. If you leave on the noon train you have just enough time to eat a leisurely picnic lunch on board, take a walk around Lausanne, climb up to the cathedral and get ready for dinner at the place most food professionals consider the best restaurant in the world. Girardet is in Crissier, six miles (and a shockingly expensive cab ride) from Lausanne.

"Don't shut the doors," says the man who greets you. "They close automatically." That should tell you something; this is a restaurant where almost everything seems to glide smoothly along on well-greased wheels. It is impossible to imagine a raised voice, a lost reservation, an overcooked dish. The dining room is almost nondescript in its correctness and the chef himself appears only once--and briefly. Still, his presence is felt. You sense intellectual curiosity and the iron will of the true perfectionist.

The first dish was crepinettes de ris de veau-- a sort of fantasy egg roll tied up with chives and filled with sweetbreads. It was two crunchy, breathtaking bites. It was followed by langoustines aux pommes et senteurs orientales , a pretty plateful of food containing prawns topped with a puree of apples sitting next to a sort of curried mayonnaise containing lots of acid. There was also a salad of cous cous and another of little bits of frisee with sesame oil. In the hands of a lesser chef this might seem like frivolous food; Girardet makes all the flavors taste as if they had traveled around the world only to come to Switzerland and settle down.

Next came pates fraiches bourres de truffes. This looked like a large version of a child's penny candy roll of licorice; linguine, on a small pool of cream sauce, was rolled up in a tight spiral on the plate. Waiting inside like a hidden treasure was a thick layer of truffles.

The next course was scallops that had been somehow covered with a thin coat of pastry, accented by ginger, fennel, the coral of the scallop. What kept the pastry on the scallop? I'd have to say the sheer will of the chef. It was followed by rouget-barbet (a sort of mullet), in a remarkably charming orange sauce containing all the warmth of southern France.

But after the pyrotechnics of the first courses--the dazzling flavors of the East, the luxury of truffles, the play of textures--the centerpiece of this meal was a dish of superb simplicity. Rognon Bolo-- a dish that was reportedly a favorite of Girardet's father--was nothing more than kidney cooked in its own fat and served in simple slices on the plate. The sheer complication of everything that had come earlier made this dish command attention. It was a masterful touch.

Girardet's cheese's have a similar simplicity. Most carts pride themselves on the richness of their offerings, but this one stuck to local basics. The Gruyere was fabulous (of the three kinds, the saltiest was best). There was also a fine St. Marcelin, and a tete de Moine that was served by shaving slivers off the top of the cheese. Girardet followed this with a kiwi sorbet and then little pots of light and perfect lemon souffles.

In the end this was not a meal that amazed you with its technical complexities. Nothing danced around clamoring for your attention. But when you finished eating you looked back and realized that from the service to the orchestration of the meal, every single thing was sheer perfection.

Girardet

1 Route d'Yverdon, Crissier. 634.05.05. Closed Sunday, Monday, 3 weeks in August and Dec. 23 to Jan. 9. Prix fixe menu, about $110 per person.

ARPEGE

The delights and disappointments of the most talked about restaurants in Paris.

Not all the great meals I ate were at three-star restaurants. And not all the meals I ate were great. There was a disappointing meal at Maison Blanche in Paris that featured, I thought, pretty silly food. Example: lamb on a confit of apricots so sweet it might as well have been lamb with jam. There was an even more disappointing meal at Paris' legendary L'Ami Louis; now that the aged proprietor has passed away, the restaurant has passed from charm into tourist trapdom. And there was a truly disappointing meal (and, it might be mentioned, a shockingly expensive one), at L'Auberge de L'Eridan in Annecy in the French Alps, near Geneva. It's the latest restaurant to be anointed with the 19.5 of Gault-Millau. The restaurant serves a prix fixe meal at almost $300 per person, and with the exception of a spectacular dish of jellied pork consomme topped with caviar, nothing was particularly memorable.

Amphycles, a much-touted, very hot restaurant in Paris was another bust: all the food was distressingly heavy. But I had an amazing meal at Guy Savoy, a chef who manages to turn out consistently wonderful food, year after year in the chic Paris neighborhood near the Etoile. And a memorable lunch at Pile ou Face, a small restaurant near the Paris Bourse that grows most of its own products at a farm in Normandy.

My most memorable meal in a two-star restaurant was at Arpege, where once again the personality of the chef came shining through the food.

Alain Passard's restaurant occupies the site of the former L'Archestrate near the Invalides; it's a small, slightly stuffy restaurant with too many mirrors and far too much red lacquer. And yet the food itself is fresh, light, almost Californian in the purity of its strong, clear flavors.

The best dishes we had were slices of raw scallop topped with Beluga caviar, with nothing to mediate between the flavors. And then a fish--St. Pierre (John Dory)--stuffed under the skin with lots and lots of bay leaves. There were so many bay leaves that the fish was virtually wallpapered with leaves and the flesh became infused with the flavor of the herb. It was a joy to eat.

It was followed by the most wonderful sweetbread I have ever eaten. The plump organ had been skewered with a whole sprig of rosemary, then cooked to silken softness. Eating it, you got just a mysterious hint of rosemary, which was brought out by the sweet-sour lemon sauce that was served in two hollowed out half lemons.

A salad of herbs was another wonderful touch. It was a tiny plate of strong flavored little leaves, a simple mouthful to clear the palate for dessert.

Desserts were a mille-feuille au chocolat, a currently trendy Paris treat. There was a chocolate souffle that the waiter served by scooping a ball of coffee ice cream into the middle so that it disappeared into the depths of the souffle in one sexy motion. And a sweet stuffed tomato a la vanille-- a fine reminder that the love apple is, after all, a fruit.

What I particularly liked about Arpege is that, unlike the food I ate in any other restaurant in France, the cuisine was not rich, not buttery, not dependant on a complexity of flavors. (I was also pleased to note that the restaurant's excellent sommelier has put a number of affordable wines on his list.) Alain Passard is still young, and it is just possible that his sort of cooking is an early clue to a new direction in France.

Arpege

84 Rue de Varenne, Paris. 45.51.47.33. Closed Saturday, Sunday lunch and from July 30-August 18. Prix fixe menu, about $75 per person ($27 at lunch).

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