lundi 11 février 2008

Bernard Loiseau

La version française est ici

Being (or having been) a Bernard Loiseau afficionado does not make it easy to judge today’s Relais Bernard Loiseau in Saulieu. The place is incredibly luxurious, really unique. It is now what the great chef intended it to be: a country side palace. There’s a spa, an attention of tha staff to every detail, noble yet rural matters abund, the garden is somptuous. It is a country house for happy billionaires.

But what about the restaurant itself? As a “before” and “after” regular, I am often asked how the restaurant survived its master. Leaving aside the unprecedented level of luxury I just mentioned, I would say that the main difference between Bernard Loiseau and his successor Patrick Bertron, who was has been his sous-chef for twenty years, is simple: Patrick is a cook, Bernard never was.

Of course, he was a cook – he cooked. But he had no interest in the art of the cook, the techniques, the traditions. He was above all an exceptional palate and insatiable perfectionist (as Chelminski showed well in his book). He wanted food to explode in your mouth, to be dazzling.

(Those are pig trotters fried balls, very warm and runny inside, made on order, yum)

From that point of view, the chefs he was closest to were Pacaud and Passard. The endless complexity of the simplest ingredient, when carefully picked and prepared, was his focus. There is undoutedly something left of that spirit today in Saulieu.

See for instance this soup of Jerusalem artichoke. It is pure Loiseau style: only the vegetable, water and salt, and a lot of work. There is a drop of hazelnut oil, mostly for décor, and Jerusalemen artichokes chips, because no one can stand the excessively simple soup. Yet the soup is the culinary demonstration. The texture would make you believe there is foie gras inside. The soup captures the flavors, which are sophisticated and numerous. Hazelnut, chestnut, artichoke, foie gras… what’s not in the topinambour?

Senderens for instance has the same focus on the sublime brutality of the sheer ingredient. But sophistication and the art of the cook kick in under the form of unexpected and wonderful little “enhancing” or “highlighting” details, like those dices of celery and walnut with the yellow wine foie gras. Loiseau complexity comes from simplicity only. There are no secret spices, no taste enhancer of any sort.

(The hotel-restaurant across the street is very nice too)

Bernard Loiseau was not a cook because his specialties were not recipes: they were sunny side eggs, graded carrots, vegetable soups. “Fuck you” he said to those who mock his non-mastering of traditional techniques, “I can’t make a Béarnaise but I am the best”. Indeed. And those who mocked his skills included such incredible cooks as his former boss Jean Troisgros in Roanne, who once said that Bernard was as much as a grand chef as he, Jean, was an archbishop. I guess Jean was somewhat of an archbishop after all.

(Contemporary micro toast of Jambon persillé – typical burgundy charcuterie, with a hint of mustard)

I am pretty sure that Patrick can make a Béarnaise. He can probably make anything, just like Alléno or Troisgros. He’s a real cook. One who, for over twenty years, made sure that the food coming out of the kitchen in Saulieu was in that punchy, ignorant and genial style which the boss liked.

Patrick’s style is not that rude. It sure does rely on exceptional ingredients, like only few restaurants in the world actually use. And he also respects the basic principles of “Loiseauism” like the use of vegetable purées to thicken the sauces, the exclusion of butter, cream and flour, and some reduction of the number of ingredients.

See for instance this porcini toast, a Bertron creation: a very simple slice of pain de campagne is soaked in porcini juice, toasted. A porcini marmelade is spread on top of it, fried porcini and poeled porcini, and then a little salad. There’s some reduced porcini juice and pinenuts in the plate. Now this is very good, but it is also much refined and sophisticated than some actual Loiseau. The theme is only one ingredient, but there is at least five different textures. And there are actually four ingredients and distinct tastes: bread, pinenuts and salad are also instruments in this mushroom symphony.

(That’s the new interior style. To each its own. But it is ugly)

Another recipe that would have been too complex for Loiseau is that incredible Lièvre à la Royale. People sometimes argue as to which is the “real” lièvre à la royale: the one that is boned, stuffed with foie gras, and looks like a big sausage (often referred to as “Ali-Bab” because he codified the recipe”); or the hare stew sometimes called “du sénateur Couteaux”. Well you don’t have to chose here. Betron offers both, and they are just amazing.

The stew is the more intense one, it is somewhat sweet and almost scary. But the “paté” is no rabbit either -- . It is gamey, by which I mean it tastes like death. In a good way. Both sauces are thickened with blood, which reinforces that aspect. On the side are trompettes mushrooms (my favorites, but don’t tell anyone) wrapped in a crispy beet cylinder – it brings both the traditional sweet on the side of a game dish and the crisp which this recipe lacks.

And there are mashed potatoes. You don’t realize if you eat it with the hare, for which it is just some sort of funeral pillow. But if you eat it by itself, it is an unexpected return of the Loiseau style: it is intense and actually quite moving, tasty without the whole lot of butter used by others. It expresses the potato, its natural, non reinforced, onctuousness, the fruit of the earth. The texture is not as light as the famous Robuchon thing, but it is also easier to digest, and mostly it is a real “purée”, not a potato-based sauce. And it is just the best I ever had.

This synthesis of modernity and tradition is in my opinion the best of the Bertron style, building on both the Loiseau basics and the tradition in order to create his own style, sometimes wonderful (like with the hare or the toast), sometimes merely admirable (like with this quince-based dessert, sweet red pepper, Garam Massala spices and a laurel icecream).

Unlike Loiseau in his last years, Bertron is still on the move, still inventing his own style. He is obviously in the process of inventing his signature dishes. Meanwhile, he offers a mix of masterful dishes and “palace-y” recipes which do not enrich our lives.

(A pre-dessert: figs, frozen hibiscus, mint emulsion)

I’d like to talk about another Loiseau signature dish which is still on the menu in Saulieu: the Saint-Honoré cake. It is a very classic French cake, made of profiteroles filled with cream. How could you reconcile that and the Loiseau style, which strives for dazzling and explosion? You can’t of course. Saint Honoré is, in and of itself, bland.

Well, Loiseau’s Saint Honoré is no exception. There’s nevertheless a crème anglaise which seems to be made with low fat milk and tons of vanilla bean, much tastier than it usually is. But Loiseau compensated the lack of taste of the cake by a play on texture, and the textures here express absolute freshness. The cake is cooked on order, and it has the unique onctuousity of pastry that has just been cooked (and is yet somehow cold). Same with the biscuit bottom of the cake, and the whipped cream in the middle. You don’t feel the butter in this Saint Honoré. It is replaced by freshness.

Patrick Bertron, Eric Rousseau: show must go on

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