Creativity in food -- combining the familiar in fresh ways
Questembert, France — Le Bretagne is the kind of small, French country inn most people dream of discovering. In a quaint little village in southern Brittany, it is covered with ivy and flowers.
It houses a talented chef with imagination, Georges Paineau; his wife, Michele, who decorates the rooms with charming antiques; and two daughters who are often behind the desk by the stairway as you come in.
The Guide Michelin gives it two stars, which makes it the perfect example of what many knowledgeable diners have long maintained, that two-star restaurants are often better than three-star ones, just not as well known.
The dining room is elegant, with a dozen or more pretty tables and dark paneling brightened here and there with Mrs. Paineau's antique silver. Each table is set with different antique plates.
When you enter from the garden you come through a small shop where Mrs. Paineau sells antiques. There's a sunny room overlooking the garden, which the Paineaus added to the building, built originally as an inn.
I met a friend from home there. Ann Robert, who is co-owner with her husband of the Maison Robert restaurant in Boston, had been at the inn for a week enjoying the village and the countryside and, of course, the food. She was also interested in the general operation of Le Bretagne and had made a few observations.
''I think I noticed especially the very high standards of a two-star restaurant and how much attention goes into every detail,'' she said.
''The Paineaus work in great harmony as a team, and it is wonderful to see how much they complement each other.
''They met at the professional cooking school where they both got their early training. Now Mrs. Paineau, Michele, runs the dining room, while Georges Paineau manages the kitchen.
''There's a great deal of mutual respect and understanding between them, and it adds a lot to the reasons for this being such a fine restaurant,'' she said.
It helps of course that Mr. Paineau is an original and gifted chef. Gault and Millau, French restaurant critics, have said they were tempted to say he is a genius. Nothing he ever cooks is ordinary or dull, and although the restaurant is expensive, the food is full of originality and color.
Chef Paineau's cooking is not only creative, it is very refined, and you notice immediately that the freshness of vegetables, the lightness of sauces, and the presentation of dishes are exquisite in every detail.
I talked with him about the changes in French cooking, and he said that quality is one of the most important things.
''The new cooking is more intellectual, more creative,'' he said. ''But it is necessary that we don't forget traditional recipes. It requires a good background in basic techniques and classic cooking.
''Everything must be in perfect harmony, the textures, seasonings, presentation. It is very difficult. It is hard work.
''It is also difficult to teach to young student chefs, because it is an artistic way of cooking. After the basic training a student must learn from other restaurants, watching the master chefs; then they will develop their own style.
''I think it will be necessary to establish a code of some kind for the new cooking, in the next five years or so,'' he said.
Dinner at Le Bretagne started with smoked duck, then Paineau's famous oysters in spinach packets with butter sauce. There was a delicious, delicate fish with a very thin julienne garnish and a combination of artichoke, tiny carrots, turnips, and green beans in a delectable pate feuilleteem (puff pastry).
Following was Sliced Breast and Stuffed Leg of Duckling (Aiguettes et jambonette de canard), certainly the finest way to cook duck, with the sliced meat rare and tender and the leg cooked separately. It was perfect.
The salad of greens, with a light dressing, included a sprig of pourprier,m an herb we know as purslane.
Wen it comes to desserts at Le Bretagne there is no point in choosing, for they bring you just about everything, it seems. If you order pastry, you'll be served a large plate with fresh pastries including chocolate cake, meringues, and fresh raspberry, chocolate, and coffee mousse.
For something lighter, such as sherbet, they'll give you a plate with half a dozen kinds of lovely fresh fruit sherbets, plus homemade ice cream and some cookies.
There will also be, automatically, a small tray of seven or eight miniature desserts such as tiny lemon, almond, or fresh berry tarts. And you won't need to ask for those wonderful chocolate truffles, the rich chocolate balls dusted with bitter cocoa powder.
But the most special dessert of all is a fresh fruit dish served warm, a combination of fruits that has been steamed lightly in a special kind of dry vapor machine. The fruits are soft and velvety, but not overcooked.
Warming the fruit, especially raspberries, seems to release the natural essence of their perfume. It was superb.
Paineau also steams most of the vegetables, and in the kitchen, with sparkling white tiles and gleaming copper pans, we saw the vapor steamer, a piece of Hobart equipment which Chef Paineau seems to handle most expertly and successfully.
Food of such quality is clearly a labor of love and hard work, for there is no great brigade in the kitchen. The staff includes a Japanese chef, four interns, and the waiters.
Chef Paineau made the following dish in Boston last year when he was guest chef at Maison Robert, and it is on the menu there. It requires fresh oysters and it is worth the attention it takes to make it carefully. Oysters in Packets (Les Huitres en Paquets) 8 large tender spinach leaves 24 oysters 1/4 cup lemon juice 2 tablespoons water Salt, white pepper 12 tablespoons butter (1 1/2 sticks, chilled and cut into bits)
Remove fresh oysters from their shells and strain and reserve their juice. Wash spinach and trim stems. If curly and too crisp to fold, blanch in boiling, salted water 2 or 3 seconds, then rinse quickly in cold water.
Place 2 or 3 oysters, according to their size, on each leaf and roll up and fold ends under neatly. Use two leaves if necessary. Place in ovenproof dish and add strained oyster liquor.
Cover and poach in moderate oven preheated to 350 degrees F. 3 minutes or on top of the stove 5 minutes.
In small saucepan combine lemon juice, water, salt, and pepper and reduce to half the amount over high heat. Reduce heat to very low and beat in butter with a whisk, adding each new piece as the previous one is incorporated into the sauce.
(This will take about 20 minutes and it will be a light butter sauce, not a thick one.)
To serve, cover warmed serving plates with sauce, then with slotted spoon place two oyster packets on the sauce on each plate. Mousse of White Turnips with Herbs (Mousse de navets aux fines herbes) 2 pounds small white turnips, peeled and halved Salt 4 egg whites 1 cup plus 6 tablespoons heavy cream Freshly ground pepper Cayenne pepper Butter1/2 cup chives, chopped fine
Cook turnips in boiling salted water, covered, until tender, about 15 minutes. Drain, then puree in processor or blender, then drain again, letting it drain about 15 minutes.
Set puree in a bowl in ice and gradually beat in egg whites, then 6 tablespoons of cream. Season to taste.
Butter 8 small round molds or a 1-quart souffle dish and fill with batter. Set molds in pan with water halfway up. Cook in moderate oven preheated to 350 degrees F. 20 minutes for small molds and 50 minutes for souffle dish.
In a small pan reduce l cup cream to 1/2 cup and stir in chives at the last minute. Unmold small pots onto plates, two to a serving, and surround with a ribbon of the chive cream, or serve mousse directly from souffle dish, and spoon a little cream at the side of each serving. Serves 4.