We are lucky enough to live just three miles from the Cote St. Jacques, rated one of the top 20 restaurants in France. Not only is the cuisine superb, but here on the doorstep is an instant guide to where French cooking is headed in the next year or two. And I am offered a tantalizing preview when, twice a year, chef Jean-Michel Lorain sends me his upcoming menu for translation into English.
Oysters in green jackets, light pumpkin cream, sorbet of farm-fresh milk. This winter I detect a change. Menus are moving away from the bistro fare of pasta and potatoes, roots and legumes that have monopolized trendy tables for so long. Lightness is in the air, but not simply the elimination of fat and carbohydrates. You'll find much that is fresh and green (even in autumn), with a touch of the countryside and the soil.
Vegetables are back with a bang in such dishes as asparagus tart with foie gras, or farm-raised pigeon flanked by baby artichokes. Jean-Michel's menu no longer lists plats du jour , but rather produits du marche (market produce) to emphasize the seasons. His salmon and rabbit are wild, and his mushrooms come from "our woodland."
First-course salads are back at last, having been banished for the last decade as a leftover from nouvelle cuisine. For too long we've been fobbed off with sodden ravioli, chewy homemade sausages and bland marinated raw fish. At even modest establishments you'll now find some version of the French "crudites"--grated carrot vinaigrette, cucumber in sour cream, sliced tomato (in season only), and celery root remoulade with mustard mayonnaise.
At another top establishment, l'Esperance at Vezelay, an hour to the south of Joigny, the chef offers a salad of warm mussels on a fresh tomato coulis to rival Jean-Michel's Breton lobster on baby greens with crisp green beans.
Innards and extremities still have not lost their appeal. I notice beef cheeks, pigs' tails, sows' ears, sheep's feet. At a homey level you'll find chicken wings broiled a l'americaine listed beside the perennial blood sausage and andouillette (sausages of pigs' intestines). Testicles, which taste like slightly chewy sweetbreads, are all the rage, coyly referred to as amourettes . I've even heard a stomach-turning rumor of cow's udder simmered in milk.
A historical touch is definitely de rigueur , particularly if the waiter has to explain what it means. Thumbing through some menus I've collected recently, I find dishes a la royale (in a rich wine- and blood-thickened sauce), and a l'ancienne (with mushrooms and creme fraiche). Ingredients include chervil, sorrel and purslane (a salad green with crisp, fleshy leaves), with quince and medlar among the fruits. I can't say its craggy, pear-like fruits are a great discovery, but they make an agreeable, perfumed puree.
A few words to watch for: farmer or open-air ; sweet-sour ; tartare (salmon and tuna as well as beef); briquets (packages wrapped in Moroccan bric or filo dough); cromesquis (little fritters); jus (the lighter, unthickened edition of a sauce). Macho adjectives are in: Turbot is slashed in a "crosscut," then "nailed" with truffles. Nuts are scorched instead of toasted, and chocolate terrine comes in an ingot, like gold.
Turning to dessert, the nursery themes we've enjoyed for so long--bread and butter pudding, chocolate mousse--are becoming ever more childlike. We can be soothed as never before with custard in a Napoleon with three creamy fillings, or lulled by chocolate tart with vanilla ice cream. Such flavors of childhood as vanilla, banana, caramel, even licorice are making a clean sweep.
Does a lot of this sound familiar? It can be hard to tell if new trends originate in France, New York or California. Chefs whiz around the world so fast that a dish launched one week pops up 10,000 miles away the next. And we're the beneficiaries. This nice little banana and chocolate souffle could have come from Miami or Manila. As it happens, it originated in my kitchen right here in Burgundy.
Here the flavors of childhood are bolstered by a generous splash of rum.
BANANA AND CHOCOLATE SOUFFLE
4 medium bananas
3 tablespoons rum
3 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder
4 egg whites
1/4 cup granulated sugar
Puree bananas with rum in food processor. Add cocoa and process again until smooth. Transfer mixture to small saucepan. Heat, stirring constantly with wooden spoon, about 1 minute, just until hot to touch. Set mixture aside.
Whisk egg whites until stiff. Add granulated sugar and continue whisking 30 seconds to 1 minute until egg whites are glossy and form light meringue. Add about quarter of meringue to warm banana mixture and stir together lightly but thoroughly. Add mixture to remaining meringue and fold together as lightly as possible with spatula.
Transfer mixture to generously buttered 5-cup souffle dish. Smooth top with spatula. Run thumb around edge of dish so souffle rises evenly. Bake at 375 degrees 15 to 18 minutes until puffed.
Souffle should still be soft in center to form light sauce for crisper outside. Sprinkle to taste with powdered sugar. Set dish on plate on napkin so it does not slip. Serve at once. Makes 4 servings.