William Stadiem

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No Resistance

Source: Los Angeles, August 1999 | Letter from Paris

[View in PDF: NoResistanceLosAngeles1999 ]

When France’s greatest living chefs visit L..A.. they make profound dining choices – and one is a burger at Ed Debevic’s

I AM SITTING IN THE VERY LUXURIOUS dining room of the landmark art nouveau building that houses Alain Ducasse’s eponymous temple of gastronomy in Paris’s very snobby 16th arrondissement. On my plate is a thick, line-caught English Channel sole with an ethereal herb sauce dotted wich tiny shellfish from the Bay of Biscay. Ducasse, who is dining with me, seems pleased at how l savor his creation yet at the same time expects nothing less. His confidence is earned: He is the most decorated chef in all of France and the only one with six Michelin stars, the top rating of all top ratings, for his two famous restaurants, this one and another, Louis XV, in Monte Carlo. But today Ducasse is not talking about his food, or even French food; he’s rhapsodizing about Los Angeles cuisine-specifically, the cooking at the Cheesecake Factory in Beverly Hills.

“They give me real American portions, huge portions, not the miniature things they make for the Beverly Hills hypochondriacs,” says Ducasse, whose thick glasses and scholarly air give a learned cadence to his words. “I always start with two Bloody Marys, well seasoned, then go on to the chicken Caesar. Afterward, l go to Starbucks for coffee. To me, the richness of Los Angeles is thc diversity of its propositions.”

Among the other LA. propositions that Ducasse likes to consider are Crustacean (“The secret crab is divine. I’m still trying to figure it out”), the new Spago (“The entire concept, the breadth of the menu-simply audacious”) and Matsuhisa (“He is brilliant in putting Peru and Japan together to create something uniquely LA. “). Ducasse adds that he also can’t resist popping into the Broadway Deli for a hot pastrami on rye.

I have come to Paris to learn where the great chefs like to eat when they come to Los Angeles. While such a line of inquiry might seem, at first swallow, to invite indignation of J’accuse! caliber, in reality, French chefs are in Southern California all the time – and loving it. Flying in a Michelin-starred gourmet chef to prepare your birthday dinner, as Elton john once did with Marc Meneau of the Burgundy region’s L’Espérance restaurant, is as good a status symbol as any foodje can claim. LA., in fact., is a revolving door of French chefs, who come here for Relais & Châteaux conclaves, or to do a week of tasting dinners at L’Orangerie, or simply to visit friends and former colleagues who have become stars in the Los Angeles restaurant world.

Those stars make for quite a roster: Ludovic Lefebvre of L’Orangerie, Alain Giraud of Lavande, Jean-Pierre Bosc of Mimosa, Claude Segal of Pagani and Jean François Meteigner of La Cacherre-not to mennen supernovas Wolfgang Puck, Michel Richard and Joachim Splichal. Despite our multitude of Italian restaurants, France still remains our culinary template, our phare dans la tempête. So why not seek the counsel of the best chefs in Paris on where to get the best meals back home?

IT IS APRIL IN PARIS, which for a gastronome means white asparagus, baby peas, woodland mushrooms and wild strawberries, all of which are featured on the seasonaì menu at Michel Rostang, my second port of call, a two-star shrine not far from the Arc de Triomphe. The dark, wood-paneled restaurant is overflowing with art, antiques and the sort of patrons who can afford them. I dine with the tall, imperial Rostang and his chic, twentyish daughter Caroline.

Rostang even knows something about running a restaurant in L.A. – and satisfying the sometimes sheepish Angeleno palate. In the late ’80s, he and three other Michelin-starred chefs from Paris and Lyons, along with the late Mauro Vmcenti of Rex, embarked on the most noble international restaurant experiment in the annals of American food service. The result was Fennel in Santa Monica. The concept was that each of the four French chefs would fly over and run the place one week every month, bringing his new creations and seasonal inspirations.

“Ruth Reichl [then food critic of the LA. Times] said we made the greatest chicken in the world,” recalls Rostang. “After that, all people would order was the roast chicken. They wouldn’t try the real French dishes.” Fennel’s run ended after three ycars, when the building was sold t0 a Japanese real estate consortium.

Despite the clientele’s lack of nerve, Rostang, who hails from a Grenoble restaurant dynasty that also owned the Riviera’s three-star La Bonne Auberge, looks back on Fennel – and L.A. – with great fondness. While the tuxedoed waiters bring out dishes like fresh langoustines grilled on rosemary-sprig skewers in a pungent pimiento glaze, Rostang père er fille rave about the Chinese chicken salad at Chin Chin in Brentwood. “No one in Paris does it,” complains Caroline, who admits to long distance cravings for Manhattan Bagel and Mrs. Fields Cookies, the latter being “more fun to eat” than delicate French patisserie. Both Rostangs recommend Vincenti, opened two years ago by the widow of Rostang’s former partner. “It’s better, and much more authentic, than the Italian restaurants in Paris, which are basically French restaurants that also serve pasta,” says Rostang.

While the young sauciers and garde-mangers in their tall white toques toil like ER surgeons in the glassed-in kitchen, we are joined by another distinguished Parisian chef, Yann Jacquot, who was for a time one of Rostang’s partners in Fennel. Jacquot recently sold his successful one-star restaurant to found the Paris-based École des Chefs, a cooking school featuring stars like Rostang as teachers. Jacquot remembers the difficulties of bringing the taste of France to LA. “The produce looked so nice, but it had no taste. So we got Malibu Farms [a fruit and vegetable wholesaler] to plant our French seeds for mesclun and watercress and other greens.” Like Ducasse, he’s seduced by huge portions, like the enormous chocolate cake at Gladstone’s. “Size does matter,” he jokes.

That night, I stop in at Chez Pauline, the classic bistro owned by André Genin, another of Rostang’s former partners in Fennel. Tonight, amount a full house of chic Parisians and nearly as chic American foodies, the editor in chief of Figaro is dining with the new owner of the Gault-Millau gives, which heap encomiums on the modest Genin for his urbane country fare. “It was my dream to come to L.A.,” the soft-spoken Genin recalls wistfully. “Malibu, tennis, convertibles, the women…”

And the food? Well, there’s the size thing again. “I was amazed by R.J.’s. I’ve never seen anything so gargantuan. And I love the peanut shells on the floor. That would never happen in France.”

As we talk, he feeds me a California salad of shrimp, arugula and melon that tastes better than it would in Los Angeles – it seems at once fresher, sweeter and tarter. “Our produce is still superior,” Genin explains, echoing Jacquot. “But you have such great meat,” he continues, describing, with relish, the burger he had at Ed Debevic’s. “In France, all we know is McDonald’s. This was ground fresh, bloody, strong; I could see why Americans love beef.” He also has many accolades for Mimosa’s Bosc, who was once Fennel’s resident chef. “Very authentic,” Genin declares, high praise from one bistro man to another.

Would Genin ever try to do another L.A. restaurant? “Just phone me,” he says with a smile as wide as Broad Beach. “I’ll be back.”

ALTHOUGH THE MENU AT the venerable Musso & Frank Grill has boasted about “our chef from Paris, France” since the place opened in 1919, Los Angeles didn’t really learn about true French food – and attitude – until Ma Maison, the chicest garden shed in the entire restaurant world, opened on Melrose in 1973. Owned by Patrick Terrail, Ma Maison took wrench snobisme to Hollywood heights, with its caste system in the valet lot (Bentleys first, then Rollses), its elaborate hierarchy of tables and its unlisted phone number. The ceiling was being raised in the kitchen too, where a round, Austrian-born, Provence-trained chef named Wolfgang Puck was whipping up two-course duckling and other novelties for a newly Francophilic clientele.

Three years later, Pyrenees native Jean Bertranou opened L’Ermitage on La Cienega, and  L.A. got acquainted with by-the-Escoffier-cookbook haute cuisine. L’Orangerie soon took up station across the street, and it still looks – and cooks – straight out of Versailles, always featuring a pedigreed French chef at the helm of its vast kitchen. Authentic French food, of the highest echelon, had taken root in L.A. Then Puck left Ma Maison in 1981 to open Spago, and the rest is food history.

Ma Maison owned its cachet and credibility to Patrick Terrail’s key family tie. His uncle, as everybody knew, was Claude Terrail, the legendary proprietor of Paris’s La Tour d’Argent. In groveling to get into Ma Maison, many people felt they were going to La Tour West.

Hardly. Ma Maison “was entirely Patrick’s adventure in Hollywood,” says Claude Terrail, as I lunch with him in la Tour’s grand dining room, with its floor-to-ceiling view of Notre Dame, the most romantic view anywhere on earth. “I won’t endure the masochism of the idea of good and bad tables. There are no bad tables at La Tour.”

Not that Terrail, 80, who has all his hair and still plays polo, hasn’t played the celebrity field, too. The walls of the restaurant are dotted with photos of JFK, LBJ, Liz and Dick, Grace and the Prince, Bogey and John Wayne, not to mention various Nobel Prize winners;  Terrail can boast romances with Marilyn Monroe, Jayne Mansfield and Ava Gardner. He was once married to the daughter of Jack Warner, and his best friend was Orson Welles. Terrail knows Hollywood, and that means he knows something about dining in L.A.

The consummate host, Terrail insists I try La Tour’s famous pressed duck, resting in a sauce of cognac and its own blood and served with pommel soufflés, the best friend potatoes in the world. “I live with my memories,” he says, evoking the glory days of flaming crepes suzette at Romanoff’s and hobo steak at the old Chasen’s, which once honored Terrail with an ice sculpture of La Tour. “But the best food was at Darryl Zanuck’s barbecues,” he says. Darryl served the best feed, and he had every brand of beer from every country.” Today, Terrail eschews the new and hip and goes to Trader Vic’s whenever he’s in L.A. “I don’t go for the food. I go for the nostalgia.”

The next day, I have a seven-course, seven-wine bouffe at the two-star Le Carré des Feuillants, elegantly housed in an ancient stable near the Place Vendôme. This is the lair of the dynamic Alain Dutournicr, whose self-avowed passions are food, wine, bullfìghting and rugby. The bearded Dutournier hails from Prance’s southwest, near the Spanish border. Considered the most audacious of Parisian chefs, he cooks a mean cuisine of regionally inspired dishes-such as corn-fed steak with a sauce of chopped oysters, which takes the Cantonese classic of beef with oyster sauce into a different hemisphere.

Although he has visited LA. only on occasion, Dutournier says he couldn’t forget the tempura at the music-biz hangout Teru Sushi, but adds that his best Southland meal was cooked by Michael ]ackson’s private chef. “She raised this rare cabbage in her garden, just like my mother used to make, and cooked it the exact same way. Who says you can’t have wonderfull vcgetablcs in LA?” he asks, filibustering against Jacquot and Genin. He then gets up to welcome an arriving deuce: the presidents of Air France and Crédit Lyonnais.

“I want to come back to L.A.,” he says to me a moment later. “I like to see the future, and it is there.”

Then I’m off on a one-hour TGV ride to visit the Burgundian shrine, L’Esperance, a great white auberge in the shadow ofthe stunning Romanesque basilica of Vézelay. The chef-owner, Marc Meneau, a big, imposing man who traces his roots back five centuries in the area, has been to LA. more than 20 times to cook for parties or to attend tasting weeks at L’Emtitage and L’Orangerie. His food – for instance, hot potato croquettes spurting out beluga caviar – is rich, creamy and decadent, fit for Louis XIV.

He’s a purist, frankly, and is confused by Chinois and Matsuhisa – what he calls the “theme restaurants” of LA. “Food without roots,” he despairs, though he is fond of the bourgeois classics at Le Dôme, extols Patina’s “conjugation of so many different flavors” and thinks that Wolfgang Puck “puts on an extraordinary culinary show.” He recently had a “remarkably good” turbot with anchovy sauce at Alain Giraud;s Lavande in Santa Monica. And he’s very proud of his disciple, L’Orangerie’s 28-year-old head chef Ludovic Lefebvre. “He’s very serious,” Meneau says. It’s quite possibly the ultimate accolade this extremely serious chef can accord.

For all his oligarchy, Meneau says he would like to open a place in Los Angeles. After all, things could be better for him at home. L’Espérance recently lost its long-held third Michelin star, and in nearby Saulieu, chef Bernard Loiseau’s Côte d’Or maintains its decades-old reputation – and its three stars. The bitterness is palpable in Meneau’s voice. “[In L.A.], when people are happy or unhappy, they tell you. In France, they tell everyone else.”

I return to Paris, where I visit the two-star Apicius, and for just a minute I think I’m back in California, scoping out the Sunset Strip hot spot of the moment. In the starkly moderne dining room, towering American models hop tables to kiss French media bigwigs. The fulcrum of this seesawing schmoozefest is chef-owner Jean-Pierre Vigato, who looks like a larger, more athletic version of Tom Cruise and has a similar effect on his female Customers: They all kiss him. So do the moguls, for that matter.

Taking a break from his erncee routine, Vigato joins me at my table. He says he misses Bikini and John Sedlar’s nouveau Southwest fare. “It was beautiful art on a plate,” he reminisces. “In LA., I think I was most satisfied stuffing myself at the bottomless champagne brunch at the Westwood Marquis Hotel. We have nothing like it here.” Then he serves me a multicultural whirlwind: a Japanese tempura of langoustines, a Chinese sweet-and-sour rouget and, finally, a Mexican-inspired foie gras in a spicy chocolate mole. By the way, I ask, what does he think of Puck? “Very amusing,” he says.

That evening, I push my bloated frame past the Hôtel des Invalides to the three-star Arpege, where Alain Passard is considered by French food writers to be the most artistic of the superchefs. His restaurant, with only 12 tables, is both Paris’s most difficult for reservations, with a three-month wait list, and most expensive – dinner starts at $150 a head and can easily top $500, depending on the wine.

Before I even have a chance to chat with Passard, however, I End myself face to face with public relations dynamo Yanou Collart, who often looks after American stars when they visit the city. The A-listers, of course–the ones whose patronage can write the ticket of any given food house back in L.A. – have their own digs in Paris: Demi Moore’s place is in the 16th; Jodie Foster’s, on the Ile St. Louis. Michael Jackson has a huge apartment on the Avenue Foch that he never leaves. For the celebs who do venture out, what are the favorite restaurants? Collart’s answer surprises me.

They rarely go to temples like Arpège. They don’t like to dress up. The men don‘t wear ties. Nicholson, Ford, Eastwood, Stallone – they all request the same two places. One is L’Ami Louis, an ancient restaurant where everyone has the same meal of giant slabs of foie gras, a roast chicken and a huge potato cake cooked in goose fat. The other is  Stresa, an all-celebrity Italian trattoria where Princess Di felt comfortable enough to dine alone. Everyone cats the same vegetable antipasto, followed by pasta dishes named after habitués like Alain Delon and Jean-Paul Belmondo. How ironic that America’s most powerful superstars flock to these decidely unglamorous Parisian restaurants – and how telling, I realize, that such lowbrow, beluga-be-damned dining habits perfectly mirror those of French chefs visiting Los Angeles.

The $20-million-a-movie club should sacrifice and wear a tie for Arpège.

The curly-haired, thirtysomething Passard makes us an “honorary L.A. meal” of fish and vegetables, highlighted by a decadent puree of black truffles and reggiano parmigiana. Passard first journeyed to L.A. just a few months ago, and he also uses the word amusing to describe Spago, which is making a cutting, if cryptic, refrain. He also checked our L’Orangerie’s Lefebvre, who had worked with him after the stint with Meneau. “His oeuf en truffe vinaigrette [truffled eggshell filled with caviar] tasted exactly like mine,” he gloats.

My last stop on the temple tour is Guy Savoy’s namesake boîte in the shadow of the Arc de Triomphe. This, too, is clearly a Hollywood hangout, with its African art, spot lighting and absence of neckties. Christopher Lambert is dining at a table full of French agents, producers and neo-Deneuvean starlets. Savoy, a compact, beaming man with a passion for rugby, cooks Hollywood-style as well, ravishing me with a creamy artichoke-and-black-truffle soup made without cream, a mushroom brioche that may be the best pastry I’ve ever tasted and a Bresse chicken with black mushrooms and baby cabbage.

Savoy’s visits to LA. have seen him cloistered in the kitchens of L’Orangeńe and other restaurants, but his tall, suave maître d’hôrel, Michel Darman, spent three years teaching at the Lycée Francais in West LA. and tooling around in a 1968 T-Bird. More than any other restaurant man in Paris, Darman knows LA. “I always went to Hu’s Szechwan [in Palms] for spicy Chinese,” he says. “In Paris, the Chinese restaurants keep it much too mild. l liked the Sushi House on Pico because the countermen would drink with the customers. That would never happen here.”

He loves the buttery steaks at Ruth’s Chris and the Euro-style fusion cuisine at Chaya Brasserie and Röckenwagner. And he adores the burgers at Johnie’s on the Miracle Mile. “We’ll never figure out coffee shops,” he says, whisking over to Lamberts table to oversee the service of espresso and petits fours.

And the French will never figure out how to tailor a menu to a clientele, nor do they want to — or so says Jean-André Charial, whom I reach by telephone before leaving France. Charial, the master chef of the two-star de Baumanière in Provence, is the man who trained the young Wolfgang Puck in the basics of ciassical French cuisine from 1969 to 1971 before Puck came to Ma Maison. Since mirthful reference to Puck was practically the leitmotif of my talks with French gourmands, I am eager to hear Charial’s intimate take on the Spagoŕication of Los Angeles.

He had misgivings when his disciple moved to California. “Twenty-ñve years ago, I thought the food situation would be hopeless,” he says. “But now you have the La Brea Bakery, [you have] cheese, excellent lamb, goose liver. You even have edible chicken. Wolf makes wonderful food.”

Then Chanal, whose family has taught Queen Elizabeth, Princess Grace and the Shah of Iran to appreciate true Provençal cuisine, pauses. “But it’s not really French food. If Wolf cooked like we do at Baumanière, he would go out of business. He`s very clever and very smart, because he knows you have to give the customers what they want.”

And you never know when one of those customers will be a visiting three-star chef from Paris.

I DECIDE TO HAVE ONE MORE meal before boarding the plane, and it turns out to be perhaps the most telling of all.

This time, I choose Paris`s hottest new restaurant, which isn’t a three-star temple of gastronomy or a no-necktic bistro but a high»rech, angular place off thc Champs Elysées called Spoon. lts menu, in French and English, features a mix-and-march routine: The main dishes arc in the left column, the sauces in the middle, the condiments on the right. Pick potstickers, tuna tataki or hummus with Thai spices, ranch dressing or olive oil if you feel like it–the waiter won’t even sneer. And, like the food, the crowd in the packed house, where one wall is solid purple, seems more La Cienega than La Bastille: models, rockers, agents. Some have cell phones; most have dogs.

I order a chicken Caesar that turns out to be eerily similar to the Cheesecake Factory doozy that Michelin six-star general Alain Ducasse adores. No surprise there: Ducasse owns Spoon, and with it, he has re-crcatcd LA. dining in its own image.