Despite Other Culinary Suitors, America Remains Loyal to its First Love: French Food
CHEVY CHASE, MD. — FORGET the rumors that cooks and eaters in the United States have pledged their troth to Pacific Rim fusion cuisine, Southwestern chile pepper scorchers, and homestyle meatloaf with mashed potatoes. Those are all fine things to eat now and again. But America's long romance with French food blazes still. And blaze it should. The food is unsurpassed.
Andre Soltner's delightful cookbook-cum-memoir, The Lutece Cookbook (Alfred A. Knopf, 573 pp., $35) is apt to deepen our passion for the cuisine of his native land. Perhaps the most beloved New York City restaurateur of the past 30 years, Mr. Soltner recently sold Lutece, which many discerning diners believed to be the best French restaurant in Manhattan. Alas, he sold it to a chain (Ark Restaurants), which is unlikely to preserve his personal touch, luxury sans pretension, and superb food with an Alsatian twist.
Happily, those features are well-displayed in his book, which can be viewed both as an aide-memoire for those fortunate enough to dine at Lutece during the Soltner era and as an introduction to its grand fare for those of us who didn't get there in time. This volume practically beams with the author's affection for people as well as his enthusiasm for good food. It also serves as a charming recapitulation of changing US tastes - at the upper end of the spectrum, to be sure - during the last several decades.
Along with elaborate, luxurious meals, at Soltner's Lutece one could eat food that, by Escoffier's standards, was relatively un-fancy, even humble. Of a lovely, classic Alsatian cheese tart (tarte flambee in French, flammekueche in Alsatian) for example, the author remarks that it is something he would serve ''to those of my customers who do not mind having food that is not so fancy once in a while - as long as it tastes good.''
But any simplicity in these recipes is from the diner's perspective, not the cook's. Many call for ingredients that themselves must be prepared from other recipes, including the whole French repertoire of stocks, sauces, and pastries. Many also call for items and procedures more within the reach of a restaurant chef - preferably one with access to New York's specialized victualers - than the home cook. A delicious-sounding Provencal Fish Soup, for example, begins by asking for ''2 cod fish heads, or 6 whiting heads,'' which the cook splits in half.
Nor does Soltner make many concessions to today's interest in light cooking. Recipe after recipe calls for heavy cream, creme fraiche, butter, eggs, bacon, even duck fat. That's not to say the careful searcher cannot find an occasional lean recipe - such as red snapper steamed with seaweed, saddle of rabbit with garlic, vegetable terrine - only that they are outnumbered by the rich, luscious kind, such as cream-assisted medallions of veal with mushrooms. But even the most abstemious of cooks is apt to want the occasional splurge of delectable food for company and special events. It's hard to imagine a more knowledgeable or charming guide to such cuisine.
Antoine Bouterin and Joan Schwartz's book, Cooking Provence (Macmillan, 1994) doesn't have quite as much charm but is a bit kinder to the pocketbook, partly because the Provencale cuisine of his boyhood is very different than Soltner's beloved Alsatian fare.
Bouterin, too, is a classically trained French chef who has cooked for many years in one of midtown Manhattan's famed temples of grand dining, Le Perigord. But his book focuses on the food he grew up with in the south of France. (It's also a mite easier than Soltner's for the French-challenged reader to navigate, as recipes are indexed by their English names.) It offers a grand array of dishes, both the sort that American cooks are apt to read and then pass by - lamb-neck stew, for example - and many that the serious cook will be tempted to try, such as roasted monkfish in a preparation that includes cloves, Provencal couscous salad, polenta pancakes, and an unusual (and easy) apple cake flavored with rosemary.
James Villas's book The French Country Kitchen (Bantam Books, 1992) is now several years old, but those who love French country-style cooking will find much in it to like. He takes the reader with him as he wanders regional byways from Normandy to Languedoc, emphasizing no one style of cooking but simply food he likes to eat, from the sausages with onions and apples of the north, to the salt-cod spread of the south. Many recipes are not overly complicated, and the author does the amateur cook the favor of suggesting suitable accompaniments.
Jane Sigal is a young and slightly awkward writer, but she has done a commendable job of tracking down many of the classic foods of Normandy, Brittany, Burgundy, and Provence and - along with their recipes - telling us about her quest for authenticity. Some of the dishes she offers in Backroad Bistros, Farmhouse Fare (Doubleday, 1994) are unusual (goat-cheese tart with leeks, honey-glazed shallots, poached skate with mustard sauce) and her enthusiasm is evident.
For vegetarians who love French food, and for cooks seeking a somewhat lighter approach to it, The Vegetarian Table: France (Chronicle Books, 143 pp., $19.95) furnishes some appealing options. Its table of contents is frustrating - just four big headings - but the index makes it possible to track down such tempting dishes as dried-tomato aioli and crispy pear gratin. This is by no means a comprehensive cookbook so much as a modest selection of recipes, some accompanied by seductive photographs.