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Brittany Spears: Plump white asparagus is one of France's culinary treats.

French Twist

A quick trip to France makes for Michelin memories and the stunning realization that California cuisine now rules

By Christina Waters

IT IS THE land of Liverot, the region of Romanée-Conti, the country of Camembert. It is, in short, France, and to me that means just two things--wine and cheese. OK, three--wine, cheese and cathedrals. When a friend and I decided to treat ourselves to a week in May divided between Paris and the Burgundian countryside, we knew we were after a few well-placed Puligny-Montrachets, a few Michelin-starred lunches and an afternoon at the Louvre. We got what we wanted, along with the finest May weather on record and some gastronomic disappointments.

With the dollar on our side and a rental car waiting in Beaune, we stayed a few days in the Latin Quarter, where it's only a downhill stroll to the eternal eye candy that is Notre Dame. We dined at Brasserie Balzar, where the white asparagus is still plump, the roast chicken still crispy and the french fries definitive. A word about the Louvre. It is so spectacular even from the outside--the juxtaposition of the crystalline Pei pyramid with the stately royal façades designed for Catherine de Medici--that you absolutely cannot miss it. Even if you've been there many times, it still provides architectural excitement on a meta-historic scale. But if you intend to actually go inside and feast on the art treasures, do not fail to purchase tickets in advance on the Internet (http://www.louvre.fr). Doing so before we left saved us three hours of waiting in the huge line that seems perpetually attached to the Louvre's main entrance.

A great discovery this time was Willi's Wine Bar, a perenially popular cozy spot located behind the Palais Royale courtyard. Smart, well-priced lunches outstripped even the wines-by-the-glass listing for sheer style and contemporary execution. Though the waiters all speak excellent English, we were the only non-Parisiens in the place and worked our way through several $22 prix fixe lunches that remained among our favorites of the trip. On our first visit, I consumed a gossamer salad of marinated salmon, new potatoes and flowering chervil followed by a salt-encrusted striped bass--both were sublime. On our second visit I matched wits with the finest piece of beef I've ever met. It was as though every other piece of tenderloin had been counterfeit--and finally, my fork had found the original. Asparagus, fresh peas and artichokes found their way on almost every menu that first week in May. And we were thrilled with the seasonings of the moment, all of which involved citrus and members of the fennel family.

Two pilgrimages called me back to Burgundy. The mighty Romanesque cathedral of Vézelay, where the relics of Mary Magdalene had once inspired the Crusaders, and two mighty culinary shrines--Bernard Loiseau's Côte d'Or in Saulieu (three Michelin stars) and Marc Meneau's illustrious l'Espérence (two Michelin stars). I figured if they were good enough for the Queen Mother and Catherine Deneuve, they were good enough for me.

Based in the medieval town of Beaune, we were surrounded with the fabled vineyards of Meursault, Corton-Charlemagne, Puligny-Montrachet, Fleurie. You can bet that these vineyards are hand-tended, lined with limestone walls and dotted with impossibly picturesque hamlets.

The mustard fields were in full, neon bloom as we headed for Saulieu, past the ancient Roman town of Autun, where I drove right through one of Augustus' triumphal arches. Every view was a page from les Très Riches Heures of those hedonistic Dukes du Berry.

Two days of lunching at multi-starred shrines to the finest in French cookery not only alters one's corporeal being--i.e., I gained two pounds each day--but it positively shredded the celebrity chef hype into little designer bits. It became rapidly apparent that Michelin gives stars for nice gardens and large staffs. The food was rarely remarkable in these two much-anticipated lunches. The wines were nice--a 1996 Vosne-Romanée ($80) from Joseph Drouhin offered a black cherry bounty--but each restaurant was mostly about decor.

The Côte d'Or's main dining room was a study in tastefulness. Huge worn stones paved the floor. Windows overlooked a garden littered with antique bricolage and surrounded by tiny orchards. The staff consisted of a ridiculously handsome maitre d' (Kevin Costner on a good day) and a fleet of very young servers all dressed in gray suits. One woman to place the bread. Another to fill water glasses. Two boys to handle the chore of placing new forks just so. Another twentysomething to inquire if everything was good so far. And on and on. Culinarily, a puree of fava bean soup was luscious, an entree of braised beef served from its own tiny cauldron was greasy, and dessert of cantilevered chocolate mousse puffs and cookies resembled something Frank Gehry might have doodled. The cheese course--involving Burgundian regional specialties of pungent Epoisses and creamy, marc-soaked L'ami du Chambertin--was astonishing. But the chef had nothing to do with les fromages.

Lunch at l'Espérence was a similar affair. We started with glasses of flinty Chablis and a chef's treat of salmon tartare infused with Rochefort, flash-fried basil on the side. So far so good. The gracious estate, crowned by its new greenhouse dining room, also showcased an opulent, multi-level garden. The prix fixe menu, selected from several that might have crippled our Visa accounts, was a modest $55 affair filled with fussy things en croute. No wonder one of Meneau's Michelin stars had been taken away. Diverging from the prix fixe--and for a "mere" $65 extra fee--I had a distinguished appetizer of two langoustine tails and two asparagus spears forming a cross over a pool of creamed cauliflower. It was fine with a complex Meursault 1997 from Bouchard Pere et Fils. In general, the wines of Burgundy were simple, rather than subtle. Until you got into the $100-a-bottle range, nowhere near as exciting as your basic Napa sauvignon blanc, or old-vine zinfandel.

Another appetizer lived up to expectations. Delicate slices of beet layered with rich eggplant puree and topped with coriander seeds were beautiful and delicious. An entree of poached salmon in butter sauce was ordinary. We finished with a selection of cheeses--smartly served with a basket of local raisins and toasted hazelnuts--including a runny Epoisses, a ripe St. Nectaire and a notable Delices de Pommard. Tiny cookies and cakes accompanied our outstanding espresso, but any Bay Area bakery could do as well.

Four pounds heavier and several hundred dollars lighter, I entered the cool interior of the lovely cathedral and lit a candle to Mary Magdalene, a woman who knew a little something about misspent afternoons.

French cooking, especially the kind offered in Michelin-starred monuments, struck me as overwrought, oversalted and underwhelming. Even the regional cookery of Beaune, which dazzled me 10 years ago, seemed influenced for the worse by tourist consciousness and such woeful short cuts as the ubiquitous cappuccino machine.

The two most exciting meals of the trip--at the striking Le Jardin des Remparts in Beaune, and Michel Rostang's brand-new Parisian bistro in the 8th, Rue Balzac--were filled with light, clear-flavored ideas that could have been created in Palo Alto.

Maybe I've been spoiled by eating in the Bay Area. More likely the Bay Area's California-Mediterranean food ideas have made an impact on the French. From where I sat a few weeks ago, California cuisine has changed the face of Gallic gastronomy. For the better.

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From the June 7-14, 2000 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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