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The Failure of Haute Cuisine


Steve Plotnicki
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I kind of like my contemporary brasserie idea

Les Grandes Marches, 6, place Bastille, is just that. Christian Constant is the consulting chef and Pritzker Architecture Prize Laureate Christian de Portzamparc and his wife, Elizabeth, were the designers. Quite upscale, but casual with a mostly seafood menu, or at least that's what we all had. As I recall the food, was contemporary but not very fancy and the service was very French but very informal. We didn't pick it for the food. We needed an almost last minute table for a casual Sunday lunch with Parisians for whom style might be more important than the food, but we were pleasantly surprised by the food, a year and a half ago. Although I'd rather credit the Flo group with saving a slew of classic brasseries, most people focus on the fact that these brasseries are not what they were. Here we have a new style brasserie that is what it is without strict reference to tradition.

Robert Buxbaum

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Recent WorldTable posts include: comments about reporting on Michelin stars in The NY Times, the NJ proposal to ban foie gras, Michael Ruhlman's comments in blogs about the NJ proposal and Bill Buford's New Yorker article on the Food Network.

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Isn't the new Robuchon restaurant close to what's being looked for.  An upscale informal restaurant with very good, but simplified, 2d tier cooking.

The new Robuchon restaurant is supposed to be all counter seating, but I suspect it will be reasonably upscale.

Robert Buxbaum

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Recent WorldTable posts include: comments about reporting on Michelin stars in The NY Times, the NJ proposal to ban foie gras, Michael Ruhlman's comments in blogs about the NJ proposal and Bill Buford's New Yorker article on the Food Network.

My mailbox is full. You may contact me via worldtable.com.

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Steve, don't the better bistros fill that void? Places like Benoit and the Fontaine de Mars. God I'd take the Fontaine de Mars over Union Square Cafe any day. What about that great meal you had a Chez Georges? Was that too formal? Or is that waiter in a Ralph Lauren button down shirt saying " Hi my name is Bruce and I'll be your waiter this evening" absolutely essential?

I, for one, dread the day I dine out in France and there are only guys in shirts and no tuxedos. Actually, I hope and pray this type of restaurant you're looking for doesn't make its way to France. :sad:

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The French (and the Italians and Spanish and so on...) have similar complaints about restaurants in the USA. They deplore the trendy ultra casual but still expensive restaurants that seems to dominate the food scene here these days. I for one prefer the European model and sincerely love all those bistros and osterie with simple but delicious food and great prices instead of the overdone, dull and expensive food passed off hear as casual. It is easier to find better food at better prices almost everywhere in Europe than it is here - except in Venice.

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Lesley - The better bistros serve great food but I think I am describing a different category. And no Chez Georges wasn't too formal. But I'm looking for something between Chez Georges and Arpege. What is in between are lesser starred restaurants Apicius. But they are just slightly toned down versions of 3 star palaces.

Craig - Well you are projecting NY quality foodointo the type of restaurant I'm describing and I'm not. Can you imagine if a perfectly roasted Bresse Chicken was served at Union Square Cafe? That's what I have in mind. NYC ambiance but AOC quality food.

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Above a certain level the French expect and desire formality. Social interactions in France are governed by the rules of "politesse" They are the glue that holds French society together and all social classes buy into them.

The French would feel insecure if in a restaurant above a certain level they were NOT greeted formally by waiters in tuxedos. They feel at home with the rituals. They reinforce their increasingly fragile sense of their own Frenchness, constantly perceived as being under threat from pernicious Anglo influences from America and Britain. They invented this style of dining. They're good at it and they're damned well going to hold onto it.

I would hazard a guess that any restaurant above a certain level which tries to operate informally would be shunned and reviled by the French. It would not be playing by French rules and these days an increasing number of French people feel that from a socio-cultural point of view these rules are all they've got.

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So essentially the French Revolution (guillotining aristocrats) enabled France to establish an incredibly rigid social system (as described by Flaubert, Zola &c.). The expression of this system through food is the rigidly hierarchical Michelin system which extends down to Les Routiers where garagistes such as myself may humbly dine.

Less rigid societies (such as Italy or America - less rigid in different ways) express this in their dining - so if you want a fancy restaurant, without the (French) social codes governing the interaction, they are the model. Cunningly the English with a similarly highly developed class system never got rid of their aristocracy and so the highest expressions of their cuisine is unmitigatedly awful. If only we'd had a more thoroughgoing revolution we'd be eating better.

I think I'm saying if we guillotine LML (of at least the first L) we'll all start eating ballotine of foie gras.

Edited by Gavin Jones (log)

Wilma squawks no more

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As a result of ridding themselves of their aristocracy the French do not associate waiting in restaurants with servility and downtroddeness. Waiting is not a class issue in France. As a consequence waiting is regarded as an honourable and worthwhile profession where skills can and are encouraged and developed.

Beyond a certain level this involves a complicit "dance" between server and served with the aim of achieving mutual satisfaction. However it is a dance which involves certain set steps and if you change the steps you change the dance.

This is why there is no better or more highly evolved concept of service than there is in France BUT it involves a level of formalitee which neither server or served can change without it compromising the whole operation's essential Frenchness. And that just isn't going to happen as the French hang on to every shred of cultural hegemony that they feel they have left.

Edited by Tonyfinch (log)
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But the excellent points you both made sort of highlights why it is odd that the French have failed to create a restaurant experience between brasserie (aproned waiters with bowties) and haute cuisine (tuxedoes instead of aprons.) Considering that a brasserie is such an egalitarian type of place, how is it that in the 150 years of the brasserie tradition, part of it hasn't evolved into a more formal version of that dining experience reflected in both the food and the service? The only reason I can think of is that the class that made up the majority of diners at a brasserie didn't get split into two groups economically (the upper middle) so there was no business reason to create a dining experience for them. And that restaurants like Union Square Cafe represent that burgeoning class in the U.S.

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The only reason I can think of is that the class that made up the majority of diners at a brasserie didn't get split into two groups economically (the upper middle) so there was no business reason to create a dining experience for them.

Yes I think that's true. Or even if that class did get split the upper section were still perfectly at home in the Brasserie and did not feel the need to demand an extra tier between brasserie and formal restaurant.

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So why do you think the French haven't sorted out this style of dining?

It's Italian.

Now, THAT is funny. :biggrin:

Before looking at it, I was thinking exactly the same thing: It's Italian. And I think the rest of the thread so far has covered the details well.

Frankly, I'm not disturbed by the formality, but I like the more informal Italian restaurants a great deal. Informality in Italy only goes so far, however. Italians dress very nicely; even those who wear jeans carefully press them. And just look at the clothes people wear for the nightly passeggiata! I think we can chalk most of these differences up to cultural differences. Americans are generally more informal and want faster service; Italians in the regions I've been to (from Campagna to Tuscany, but mostly in Tuscany and Umbria) tend to be more demonstrative than either the French generally or the Americans, but love to linger over their meals, joking with their friends; French people are generally more restrained than either Italians or Americans (except when watching soccer games in bars, etc.) and have more formal etiquette than either Americans or Italians, but share with their Italian neighbors the custom of a relaxed pace for meals. Anyway, that's my oversimplified summary.

But not all Americans are so informal, either. I discussed this a little yesterday evening with Nina and Brooklyn Eats. They both think it's inappropriate not to really dress up to go to the opera (I guess this was covered in some earlier thread); I say that, as a musician, when I go to a concert, I'm off duty and don't feel like dressing as if I were performing. But I'm getting off topic here...

Michael aka "Pan"

 

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I'm jumping in here without having scrutinized all of the posts carefully, but it seems to me that another salient - and possibly more 'satisfying' - way of trying to sort this out is to examine what distinguishes a café from a bistro from a bar à vins from a brasserie from a restaurant, just as there are differences between caffes, ristorantes, trattorie, etc. in Italy - and bodegas, restaurantes, etc. in Spain. Clearly there used to be sharp delineations but I think these have blurred considerably over time, and that's where the confusion starts - that and the fact that we are looking at one 'genre' as a 'starter kit' for the next, as it were i.e. a Chef can 'graduate' from one level to the next according to various rating systems.

For example, Steve P., you may think that this has been sorted out in America, but what I would have considered a "coffee shop" (cafe) in, say, NYC - like the now defunct Shraffts - was surely considered a restaurant by my aunt who dressed up to go there, as well as by the bow-tied & aproned waiters. And a lot of the places discussed on these boards, where the food is pretty upmarket, sophisticated and expensive - have waiters that dress (and sometimes serve) as if they couldn't be bothered.

I'd put both USC and Gram Tavern squarely in the brasserie category by the way.

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I don't know Italy well enough to comment, but isn't the situation similar in Spain? As soon as you step above the bistro level, you're into pink velvet jackets, bow-ties and so on?

I am not talking about at the "seaside", of course. I am wondering if it is a European phenomenon - not pan-European, but at least very common in Europe.

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Craig - Well you are projecting NY quality foodointo the type of restaurant I'm describing and I'm not. Can you imagine if a perfectly roasted Bresse Chicken was served at Union Square Cafe? That's what I have in mind. NYC ambiance but AOC quality food.

If you find one in NYC or anywhere else in the USA I'm there. OK I go for the combination of NYC ambiance with European quality food.

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cab: Our "special arrangements" are our relationships with the various restaurants. We send them excellent clients looking for exceptional experiences, and willing to pay top dollar to taste the best food, and drink the best wines. We have a team of experienced concierges, who have worked in various places all over Paris, and in know most of the right people by name. Our clients are generally quite knowledgable, and know what they want, or have friends and aquaintances who make great suggestions. Most guests are fairly wealthy, and have le "gout de luxe", and know many of the best establishments all over the world. Then again, from time to time, we get the occasional guest who put enormous pressure on us to get, say, a restaurant like "L'Ambroisie", then eat a salad with a glass of Coca Cola!! That puts us in the doghouse for awhile...

Speaking with people for a period of months or years (ie restaurant managers, maitre d's,etc) creates a kind of relationship..we'll all in the same business.

Edited by fresh_a (log)

Anti-alcoholics are unfortunates in the grip of water, that terrible poison, so corrosive that out of all substances it has been chosen for washing and scouring, and a drop of water added to a clear liquid like Absinthe, muddles it." ALFRED JARRY

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First of all, Italian might have the right ambiance and the right ingredients, but the level of culinary technique exercized falls short for what I'm describing. For example, you might get as good a roast chicken at a place in Emiglia-Romana as you would get at L'Ami Louis, but they won't spoon a sauce over it that is the drippings from the chicken fat they smeared all over the chicken before roasting, and that was deglazed with a stick of butter and a glass of white wine while the chef was scraping the good schmutz from the bottom of the roasting pan. In Italy you get a little of the natural gravy. This difference in strategy is where I think Italian usually falls short when being compared.

Magnolia - You must have had a fancy aunt.

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I don't know Italy well enough to comment, but isn't the situation similar in Spain?  As soon as you step above the bistro level, you're into pink velvet jackets, bow-ties and so on?

I am not talking about at the "seaside", of course.  I am wondering if it is a European phenomenon - not pan-European, but at least very common in Europe.

I think it's a style that's referred to as continental and often seen as sleazy to Americans, or at least to some.

Robert Buxbaum

WorldTable

Recent WorldTable posts include: comments about reporting on Michelin stars in The NY Times, the NJ proposal to ban foie gras, Michael Ruhlman's comments in blogs about the NJ proposal and Bill Buford's New Yorker article on the Food Network.

My mailbox is full. You may contact me via worldtable.com.

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Somehow I think you are missing the boat when it comes to the Italian kitchen. First of all you plop all of Italian cooking into the same style, In the north it would not be unusual at a fine restaurant to get a chicken with a sauce similar to what you discribe and in the south and many other regions, the flavors of the chicken and the natural juices you write about are infused with wonderful fresh herb flavors. How can you say one is better or more sophisticated? The difference in style is what makes this all so interesting. Cuisine is defined by where we live and what is available.

The better the ingredients are that you use the fewer you need.

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Magnolia - You must have had a fancy aunt.

That sounds like something a rich uncle would keep on the side. I can hear the mutterings in the kitchen about someone's brother-in-law's "fancy aunt" as if the kids would not understand. I wonder how old one would have to be to understand that one didn't take a "fancy lady" to Schraffts. :laugh:

Robert Buxbaum

WorldTable

Recent WorldTable posts include: comments about reporting on Michelin stars in The NY Times, the NJ proposal to ban foie gras, Michael Ruhlman's comments in blogs about the NJ proposal and Bill Buford's New Yorker article on the Food Network.

My mailbox is full. You may contact me via worldtable.com.

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How can you say one is better or more sophisticated?

You're new to these parts. :laugh::laugh::laugh:

There are those among us, I'm not one of them, who believe in absolute hierarchies.

Robert Buxbaum

WorldTable

Recent WorldTable posts include: comments about reporting on Michelin stars in The NY Times, the NJ proposal to ban foie gras, Michael Ruhlman's comments in blogs about the NJ proposal and Bill Buford's New Yorker article on the Food Network.

My mailbox is full. You may contact me via worldtable.com.

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The only reason I can think of is that the class that made up the majority of diners at a brasserie didn't get split into two groups economically (the upper middle) so there was no business reason to create a dining experience for them.

Yes I think that's true. Or even if that class did get split the upper section were still perfectly at home in the Brasserie and did not feel the need to demand an extra tier between brasserie and formal restaurant.

Let me say that one of the things I enjoy when I get to France, is that I am in France. I'm not so fond of the idea that they learn from us even when we've got a good idea.

I think Tony touches on an important issue that may be telling about societies with a more organised class structure. The peasants know who they are and thus it is perfectly acceptable for the aristocracy to sit down next to them at some shabby bar or bistro. Here in the US as we rise a notch in income, we need a restaurant fancy enough to keep out those who can't afford our lifestyle. The food is less important and I feel that remains true even today in spite of all the interest we seen to have in cooking.

Robert Buxbaum

WorldTable

Recent WorldTable posts include: comments about reporting on Michelin stars in The NY Times, the NJ proposal to ban foie gras, Michael Ruhlman's comments in blogs about the NJ proposal and Bill Buford's New Yorker article on the Food Network.

My mailbox is full. You may contact me via worldtable.com.

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N.B. After discussion with Cabrales, we've pulled her questions to fresh_a off this thread. They will appear elsewhere on this board. I've been in contact with fresh_a who has generously agreed to answer questions as well as he can about his profession and about restaurants from his professional perspective. Cabby posted her question at about the same time as fresh_a and I were sending each other messages. I thought her long list of questions were off topic in this thread and result in the thread being hijacked, whereas they would be far more interesting and effective in a new thread devoted to questions to a concierge. Cabby and I agreed and now I need a day or so to work out the details. We don't want to chase fresh_ a off the site with our imposition, so let me see how he'd like it handled. I look forward to this thread.

Bux

Edited by Bux (log)
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Posted: Nov 3 2002, 11:45 PM

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Sng, thanks for the wonderful report. It's a coincidence of sorts what you say about median restaurants as just a few days ago I e-mailed Bux about what I call my "unwashed middle theory"; i.e. that for the most successful dining you patronize the small number of highly interesting chefs and those restaurants that prepare timeless food well while avoiding the great unwashed middle. I said to Bux that Paris was an ideal city to practice this.

Bux went to Le Lion d'Or. We went a few times in the 1980s. I'm glad it is still good. Thanks for the tip about Chateau Gilly. I never went there. Isn't it the place where you turn to go to Saulieu?

--------------------

Robert K. Brown

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