New French cooking at La Pyramide, where it all started
Vienne, France — Most impressive of all the great French restaurants for me is the late Fernand Point's Restaurant de la Pyramide now run by Madame Marie-Louise Point, his widow, known as ''la grande dame du restaurant francais.''
It is a lovely place and Madame Point greets the diners as if into her own home, which it is. She met us as we came through the handsome iron gate into the beautifully landscaped rose garden.
A flagstone path leads to the dining terrace, under a roof of old chestnut and plane trees next to the house; all is encircled by a high white wall.
The atmosphere is friendly and comfortable, and also somehow very special; the food excellent and the service elegant, but not obtrusive.
Inside at the entrance there is a small dining room with an personal collection of art and memorabilia - old Sevres and a gold clock next to a pair of skis, and a photograph of Fernand Point that seems to keep his presence in the room.
Madame Point is assisted by a small but faithful team headed by Guy Thivard, the chef de cuisine, trained by Paul Mercier who worked for many years with her husband.
Every day, after consultation with Chef Thivard, Madame Point writes out the menu in her firm, clear script, as she has done for many years.
The menu is fresh and interesting, even though most of the dishes are those created by Fernand Point, some of them more than 40 years ago.
Chef Thivaud has added some of his own dishes, which are very much in the style of Point.
Many of Point's dishes were traditional ones, which he reduced to their essentials in line with his principle that the dominant flavors should be those of perfect ingredients.
Point's legendary Marjolaine, for example, has been on the menu every day, as long as anyone can remember, without change.
Chefs have taken his idea for this famous chocolate layered cake and adapted it. Francois Bise, for example, has a richer version made with more bitter chocolate.
We asked Madame Point about the contribution Fernand Point made to the new style of French cuisine and about his influence on so many of today's chefs.
''It was his personal taste that influenced his ideas,'' she said. ''He liked natural sauces, plain foods, and smaller portions. He didn't like unnecessary things like some herbs and extra garnishes.''
Madame Point, often called Mado, was ideal for him -- charming, elegant, efficient. She acted as maitre d'hotel, purchasing agent, and most of all, taster, with him, of the new dishes.
''Women were very important to him,'' she said in answer to a question about women cooks. ''My opinion was important to him. He wanted me to taste new dishes , and he liked 'la bonne cuisiniere.'''
''Women choose dishes that don't need as much concentration as those that men cook. They cook food that can be left a few minutes at interruptions such as children or someone at the door.''she said.
There were no flowers on the table at La Pyramide, in keeping with Fernand Point's policy, but fresh flowers were on the serving trays. Foie gras was served from an oval silver tray with a single green fern in aspic as part of the tray decoration.
For many years La Pyramide has been given three stars by the Michelin Guide, although this year's Gault-Millau Guide shifts from three toques to two.
Fernand Point is gone now, but his ideas are very much alive in his pupils and admirers, who credit him with originating many of the basic tenets of today's nouvelle cuisine. Several of his students account for three-star restaurants today, including Paul Bocuse, Alain Chapel, Francois Bise, and the Troisgros brothers.
The restaurant remains a monument to his genius, beautifully run by Madame Point who has shown courage and ability in retaining the traditions of this great chef.
People often say there's really no more sense in trying to cook by one of Fernand Point's recipes than trying to learn to play the flute by watching a Jean-Pierre Rampal concert.
But for a special occasion, the Marjolaine is extraordinary. It is somewhat time-consuming, but possible, if taken in careful steps. Marjolaine Meringue 7 ounces blanched, peeled, almonds 5 ounces hazelnuts 10 ounces sugar 1 ounce flour 8 egg whites
Roast almonds and hazelnuts on two separate tins in the oven. When hazelnuts are roasted, rub off as much of the skins as comes off easily. Grind nuts, sugar , and flour together in food processor about 45 seconds.
Beat egg whites until stiff and fold gently into nut mixture. Spread mixture evenly in 10 1/2 by 15 1/2-inch jelly-roll pan that has been lined with buttered , floured waxed paper.
Bake in oven, preheated at 350 degrees F. 35 minutes or until crisp on top but still pliable. Let stand about 5 minutes, then turn out on rack, remove waxed paper, and cool about 1 hour. Cut and trim edges with a serrated knife into 4 pieces, 3 3/4 by l0 inches each. Chocolate Cream 1 cup creme fraiche 12 ounces bittersweet chocolate, melted
Combine and bring mixture to a boil, stirring constantly, then remove from heat and cool. Butter Cream 1 1/3 cups creme fraiche 1/3 cup heavy cream 1/4 cup sugar 3/4 teaspoon vanilla extract 3/4 cup praline powder
In mixing bowl, stir heavy cream into creme fraiche, and with electric hand mixer beat until mixture begins to hold shape. Gradually add sugar and beat until stiff but not buttery.
Divide equally in 2 bowls. Stir vanilla into one and praline powder into the other. Refrigerate until firm, about 2 to 3 hours. Praline Powder 1 cup whole blanched, peeled almonds 1 tablespoon butter 1 cup sugar 1 cup water
Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Spread almonds in baking pan and bake until brown, about 15 minutes. Grease baking sheet well with butter.
Combine sugar and water in heavy saucepan and cook over moderate heat, stirring only until sugar is dissolved. Bring mixture to a hard boil. Add almonds and cook until mixture turns a medium brown. Shake pan, but don't stir.
Quickly turn out onto prepared baking sheet and leave to cool and harden, about 1 hour.
Break praline into pieces and put in food processor with metal blade. Turn machine on and off 4 times; then process until praline is finely ground, about 30 to 40 seconds. Assembling Marjolaine 3 tablespoons powdered sugar Chocolate shavings
Place a meringue layer on serving dish and spread evenly with about 1/2 cup chocolate filling, top with a second layer, and spread with all the butter-cream filling.
Add third layer, spread with all praline butter cream, then add fourth layer of meringue.
Frost entire cake with remaining chocolate-cream mixture. Sprinkle shaved chocolate on the sides and refrigerate for 24 hours.
Dust top with confectioner's sugar before serving -- or place a paper doily on the cake, sprinkle powdered sugar over it, then carefully remove doily. Makes 8 to 10 servings. Creme Fraiche
Creme fraiche is desirable for cooking because it does not curdle at high temperatures. Here is one way to make it at home.
2 cups whipping cream
1 cup sour cream or 4 teaspoons buttermilk
Combine and stir over very low heat until just lukewarm. Pour into a clean jar and let stand at room temperature overnight until thick. Stir gently and refrigerate.