Turning a menu on its head

Turning a menu on its head
Sometimes a meal is so revelatory that it suddenly brings into focus a whole new way of seeing the world.  It’s not a “paradigm shift,” a concept so beloved by academic intellectuals or a Third Revolution, equally beloved by food chroniclers, but it is a new way of seeing the universe, or at least the universe of food.  And I had just such a blinding “Saul on the road to Damascus” flash recently as I ate at Le Stade, a restaurant written up by Francois Simon a few weeks ago and by no one else, to my knowledge, even though it’s been open for three years – although to be fair, Pudlo has listed it, rather inconspicuously.   OK.  Here’s the revelation.  The really clever chefs have turned the menu upside down.  What do I mean?  A bit of history for those born in the last ten minutes.  In olden times, the menu read like this: snails in butter sauce duck with orange sauce vanilla ice cream with violets.    And that’s what you got.  Oh sure, there may have been some greens aside the snails, some potatoes on the side of the duck and some cookies with the ice cream, but what you saw on the menu was pretty much what you got.  Then along came, bless them, the innovators of the GaultMillau generation.  And suddenly there were strange blendings of flavors, cooking styles, combinations and ingredients.  But you still ordered chicken with kiwi fruit and even though the chicken was almost raw and the kiwi fruit unripened, what you got was what you had ordered.  The change was in how things were cooked and what they were served with, and the latter began to achieve an equilibrium with the primary ingredient – thus the semi-sweetness of the kiwi fruit was balancing the slightly sour taste of the chicken glaze, for instance.   OK, so far, so good.  But then some genius decided that it was not enough to serve one thing, there had to be a zillion things along with it – think Gagnaire at his most excessive.  Oh, sure, you got the chicken, but you got lots else you hadn’t ordered or in some cases, counted on. Next, came the phase when things that used to be main courses (say brains) or desserts (say fruits or “cappucinos of something”) appeared among the entrees, the mains were diminutive and the desserts were a return to an almost amuse bouche-type dish. Then, we went through the Choukroun/Chauvel (Les Magnolias) phase, where dishes would be described as catsup on Granny Smiths with a boullion of chicken and you were damned if you knew what would appear.  OK, I’m exaggerating at bit, but not much.  There was assuredly the chicken that started out at the center but by now was peripheral to all the other stuff.  And who could tell what you would get?  Not that it mattered with these guys; for the most part, you ate it and it was terrific. But now there’s been a tiny subtle shift again that is brilliant, so suitable to the new generation of eaters and so frankly good, that it’s worth noting.  It’s the dominance of the what comes with over the central ingredient.  Clever eh?  So as with my meal at Le Stade, I did order small snails, a rack of lamb and a moelleux of chocolate – but what was impressive was not those “central ingredients” at all, it was the incredibly delicious vol au vent into which fit and overflowed lots of teeny, tiny sliced mushrooms with the first course of small snails; lots of teeny, tiny veggies with the main course of lamb; and lots of orange slices and sauce with the chocolate.  The menu had been turned upside down or if not upside down, at least backwards-forwards.  And to good effect. So, unless I’m mistaken, here we have yet another effort to move French cooking forward but this time by putting emphasis on the side-dishes, accompaniments and less classically central ingredients.  I think it’s worth watching where it goes. (By the way, unless you’re staying near the Porte de Saint Cloud or attending one the innumerable Paris St Germain soccer, rugby matches or rock concerts, you probably wouldn’t consider eating at Le Stade; but if any of those conditions hold, it’s just dandy.) My favorites from the above are: Le Stade 20 ave de la Porte de Saint Cloud, 16th, (Metro : Porte de Saint Cloud) T : Open for lunch Monday-Saturday; dinner Thursday-Saturday Menu 21 €, a la carte 30-50 € Les Magnolias 48 Av de Bry, 94 (RER: Nogent Les Perreux) Le Perreux sur Marne T: Closed Saturday lunch, Sunday, Monday, August Menu: 50€ ©2006 John A. Talbott  
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