Superb French Fare Without Pretense

Paris bistro L'Assiette appeals to the haute-cuisine set for its imaginative dishes, rooted in rural traditions

`BRAVO!" cries Lucette Rousseau, voice piping enthusiastically. The small wiry chef and owner of one of Paris's exceptional bistros, "Lulu" is all outspoken energy. Her speech outstrips the speed of light.

Fortunately, an English-speaking friend translates for us. Apart from "Bravo!" my limited French catches only words like "mille francs!" (price of a turbot she displays to demonstrate the high cost of the products she uses) or "unique! unique! unique!" - to describe a plump pigeon from Landes in southwest France, a specialty of hers. She, too, is from the southwest, from a farm family in a village near Pau, an area once called Bearn. This part of France has long been known for good food. Her menus are ha ndwritten and reflect her roots: Gigot d'agneau de lait des Pyrenees, for instance, or Boudin des Landes en parmentier. From her homeland, too, comes the assortment of her berets, one of them always on her head.

Her "Bravo!" is prompted by my suggestion that L'Assiette (at which notably rich and beautiful people eat) has an ambience that is scarcely "snob." This pleases her to no end. "Ah," (our interpreter interprets) "she says that it takes someone from abroad to understand her!"

She seems to deliberately contrast what the food magazine Gault Milau recently called her "decor volontairement miserabiliste" with her superb cuisine. Uncomfortable chairs; taped-up crack across the window; unpretentious reception desk by open kitchen door: this might almost be a farmhouse.

From outside, L'Assiette (181 Rue du Chateau), looks like some cheap side-street lunch bar. But this appearance is at odds with both food and clientele. As a coiffured Swiss lady remarked as she and her affluent-looking friends left after their meal: "The food here is wonderful."

As we ate, the six patrons at the next table eagerly tasted each others' Oursins Bretons with hot scrambled egg or truffles fraiches with winter vegetables. Behind us a foursome was greeted by Lulu.

Meanwhile our table cooed softly as everyone forked into my starter: Rillettes de Maquereaux (see recipe, page 13). Consensus: It was out of this world. I popped in my mouth one of the dark cherries embellishing the mackerel and let out a tiny yelp. Later I learned that these cherries in vinegar are a Lulu invention dating back to 1973. Piquant, surprising, unique.

One thing's certain: This determined little sparrow of a chef - a woman in a profession dominated by males - has no doubt why her clientele keep coming back. It's for her food.

Her food amounts to an extraordinary paradox. It exists at some rarely achieved point of culinary imaginativeness where home-cooking and haute-cuisine meet and cross.

Its roots are in what she learned from her mother feeding a family of 10. "Now I just multiply that by five!" she says. What she understood at home was how to appreciate "good fresh things" and "how to cook rapidly."

A professional cook from age 14 (she's now 43), serving time in a number of great Parisian restaurants, her philosophy still stems from her background: First, "Know how to buy everything of very good quality;" then subject it to "the best cooking." Every other night she buys produce at the large Rungis market, south of the city. Cooking it, she advocates "simplicity" and "professionalism."

She does not cook with sauces. Plain, good ingredients have their own delicious and subtle flavors. If this sounds like the nouvelle cuisine of the 1980s, that is not the result for several reasons.

One is that Lulu has no apparent objection to the full plate: she doesn't place intricate decorativeness above good all-over food (though presentation is still scrupulous). Another is that she is quite capable of introducing dishes based in rural tradition - like her Boudin des Landes en parmentier. Even among her rich desserts can be found a vernacular oddity, which has proved popular: apple crumble. She "learned it from an English friend." Clearly this wholesome commonplace of English home cookery has a certain I-don't-know-what for L'Assiette's clientele.

To show how she exploits natural tastes rather than disguising them with sauces, she waves a bunch of tiny carrots at us: "mini-vegetables." When they were first marketed she was against them, thinking them faddish and expensive, she says. But when she tasted some, she was converted. They had flavors going back to her childhood. As a child she had often nibbled the carrot thinnings and little cauliflowers that were just considered wastage, feed for livestock. They had a sweet, fresh taste unlike mature v egetables - and just like the new "mini-vegetables." Today she enjoys the irony of these being now so fashionable, when "20 years ago they were what we threw to the pigs."

My main course was Magret de canard gras cuit entier. Completely unfussed, it was delectable in every mouthful. No extras - just succulent, crispy-skinned "steak" of duck, sliced. And potatoes. This magret is a specialty of the southwest. The potatoes, washed in salt and cooked for two hours in a copper pan in the oven with a little oil and a lot of garlic are the most toothsome potatoes imaginable. They are a special, regional, French kind: Ratte de Noirmoutier, grown by the seashore. They may sound ord inary, but at Chez Lulu they are unforgettable.

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