Culture-defining cuisine: Refined, understated French gastronomy sets the standard worldwide

Wednesday, July 6, 2011
Taillevent's watercress soup with caviar is refined, elegant and luxurious, just like the restaurant itself. (Tom Harte)

Recognizing that cultural heritage is not restricted to material things, UNESCO has been assembling The List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. Among the practices added this year are the Peruvian scissors dance, Azerbaijani carpet weaving and French gastronomy. I don't know about dancing or weaving, but French gastronomy surely belongs on this list.

That conviction was strengthened for me recently while dining at Taillevent. Despite recent controversy about the number of Michelin stars it truly deserves and the death of its longtime owner Claude Vrinat (dubbed the "world's greatest gentleman" by food critic Patricia Wells), Taillevent is considered by some to be the best restaurant in Paris, possibly even all of France, maybe even the whole world. Certainly it is the "Frenchiest" restaurant on the planet.

Located in Paris' elegant 8th arrondissement in the former townhouse of the Duc de Morny, Napoleon III's half-brother, the place is every bit as much a monument, to gourmands at least, as the Arc de Triomphe not far away. The restaurant is named after the 14th-century chef to a succession of French kings and the author of the first cookbook in the French language. It does its namesake proud.

The minute you walk into Taillevent you suspect you have found the culinary Holy Grail, not because it is flamboyantly posh, but just the opposite. Unlike, say, Maxim's, the place is refined and understated, sophisticated but not showy. Moreover, the discretely elegant feel of the room is mirrored in how you are treated.

Waiters don't hover, but are always there when you need them, cordial without being aloof. Unlike other high-end French restaurants that can be downright intimidating, Taillevent's staff manages to pull off a wonderful illusion: They make you feel like you belong there.

Then there is, of course, the food. Taillevent does not strive to be the most innovative of restaurants, yet consider my first course: velvety pureed lentils served with a dollop of icy, unsweetened cream and a bit of Serrano ham. Quite a take on classic split pea soup! The rest of the meal, which took two and a half hours to consume, was just as creative and delightful.

A meal at Taillevent does not come cheap. Suffice it say, it cost more than the sum my bank permits me to withdraw from the ATM in a single transaction. However, to confirm in my mind UNESCO's wisdom in giving French gastronomy world heritage status, the experience was worth every centime.

Taillevent's Cream of Watercress Soup with Caviar

This classic Taillevent recipe, adapted from Patricia Wells' "The Paris Cookbook," is typical of the restaurant: refined, luxurious and elegant.

3 tablespoons butter

1 pound leeks

1 onion

1 quart chicken stock

3 cups heavy cream, divided

3 tablespoons sea salt

4 bunches watercress

Juice of 1 lemon

White pepper

2 tablespoons caviar

Rinse the leeks, cut them in half and slice thinly. Finely chop the onion. Combine leeks and onions with the butter and a pinch of sea salt and cook, covered, over low heat until soft but not browned. Add chicken stock and 2 cups of the cream. Simmer gently, uncovered, for 30 minutes. Process mixture in a blender until smooth, then return to saucepan and bring to a gentle boil. Skim off any impurities that may rise to the surface. Keep warm. Remove stems from watercress and rinse the leaves. Salt 4 quarts of water with the 3 tablespoons sea salt and bring to a boil. Add watercress and blanch for 2 to 3 minutes until wilted. Drain and plunge into ice water to stop the cooking. Drain and puree in a food processor. Using a sieve, press out remaining liquid. Whip remaining 1 cup cream until stiff. Add lemon juice and season to taste with sea salt and white pepper. Add watercress puree to soup base, blending thoroughly. Place soup in shallow bowl, place a scoop of whipped cream in the center, and top with a small spoonful of caviar. Makes 6 servings.

Tom Harte's book, "Stirring Words," is available at local bookstores. "A Harte Appetite" airs Fridays 8:49 a.m. on KRCU, 90.9 FM. Contact Tom at news@semissourian.com or at the Southeast Missourian, P.O. Box 699, Cape Girardeau, Mo., 63702-0699.

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