France is known for its gastronomy and one cannot live here without indulging from time to time in ‘un bon gueuleton’ – a familiar French expression for a feast or a bit of a blowout.
While I love to eat, I am not a foodie. I don’t follow the latest culinary trends or keep a bucket list of famous chefs whose cuisine I simply must sample before I die. Still, over the years we have celebrated various occasions with something a little special. Having tried a few Michelin star restaurants of the ‘haute gastronomie’ variety, I must confess that most of these establishments fall short of their promise.
Back in the day when ‘nouvelle cuisine’ was still relatively new, I remember my Belle-mère making a comment along the lines of: “Ça coute la peau des fesses* et tu n’as rien dans l’assiette!” (It costs a fortune and there’s hardly anything in your plate!)
It is certainly true that when it comes to la haute gastronomie, the size of the portion tends to diminish in reverse proportion to the prices on the menu.
That said, I am fine with small portions of very good food, as the mere number of courses and accompanying wines means that you cannot leave the table without feeling full. If not entirely satisfied.
Our latest venture into one of these temples of grande cuisine was last week on holiday in Porto, where there are a number of Michelin-starred chefs. Why Portugal produces so many culinary stars is often explained by the quality of fresh produce, especially from the sea, the variety and richness of their wines and a longstanding tradition of fine food.
It begins with a bit of a show. The room with its perfectly toned-down décor, the greeting and introduction by the maitre d’hôtel, the prolific wait staff wearing black gloves. There is no menu, just a choice of 8 or 12 courses. You balk at this prodigy and go for the modest menu, then realize that the thimble-sized servings are really not going to go a long way towards filling you up.
I chose the menu with wine pairings and regretted it. Each course came with a different vino, and by the time I’d imbibed various glasses of sparkling, port, white and red wines, my palate if not my head was spinning. And while the food was very good, I would have preferred a bit more of one or two things, but overall fewer courses of many tastes and tidbits.
What it comes down to for me is a preference for real food cooked with flair and a dash of originality, not so much the molecular gastronomy with its emulsions and foams of intense flavours. Just simple, hearty food of excellent quality cooked with loving care.
Presentation matters to me and the French do it very well. You eat with your eyes as well as your senses of taste and smell. But when the show upstages the food, when the presence of servers overly intrudes upon the experience, and when the final bill is several times what you would have paid for just a very good restaurant meal…perhaps I’ve had my fill.
How about you? Do you enjoy ‘haute’ gastronomy?
*Why ‘la peau des fesses’ or the skin of one’s rear end should represent a large amount of money is a mystery that perhaps our friend Phildange can explain?
Back in my working heyday, I ate at quite a few Michelin-starred restaurants in France and Belgium. They can span a range, in terms of portions and preciousness. A two-star in Lyon was traditional and plenty filling. On the other hand, our local “star” chef produced the same reaction as your MIL: too expensive and portions too small. Personally, I thought it was delicious and quite filling (and expensive for here, but reasonable compared with run-of-the-mill restos in bigger cities). But my husband is happy only with at least a pound of barely cooked flesh on his plate.
Our favorite local restaurant has no stars, yet the food is fantastic. it just isn’t fancy enough, I guess. Which is why we can afford to eat there.
In Lisbon, I delighted in Bico do Sapato, whose owners include John Malkovich and Catherine Deneuve. No stars, and it seems to have expanded since my visit. An amazing meal. I still remember the strawberry soup I had for dessert.
Some years ago I interviewed Ferran Adria of El Bulli–the founder of molecular cuisine. He said he wanted to disassociate what one saw on the plate from the flavors, so that they would be more surprising and intense than if your brain was preparing your reaction before you even have taken a bite. Interesting concept. I never ate at El Bulli, but friends have and they all loved it and said nobody was at all hungry afterward despite each of the many courses being just a taste.
We have visitors from Belgium staying with us, and they keep swooning over the food. The tomatoes here, grown in the garden and ripened in the sun, are nothing like the greenhouse versions they buy at the grocery store. Simple, high-quality food can be more satisfying than fancy culinary tricks.
I could not agree more with your Belgian guests! The molecular cuisine concept is certainly a fascinating taste experiment (and what a fascinating interview that must have been!) but nothing beats simple home cooking with good ingredients for satisfaction.
Not so keen on those ever-lasting degustation menus (as they’re called here), eshspeshly with paired wines (you can never remember anything you ate, said, wore, etc…). A memory of a blow-out dinner in the appropriately-named village of Corps (in Isere) where course after course came out, essentially variations on pastry … On holidays now we treat ourselves to Michelin restaurants for lunch – much cheaper, usually a couple of courses and a glass or two of vino. Still need a sleep afterwards but you can still handle dinner later. 🙂
Lunch is a great alternative, not just for the affordability factor but also because it’s better health-wise to indulge midday. I certainly sleep a lot better!
My favourite cooking has always been “family cooking”, with skill and love . And real products of course, not vegetables made in Chinese factories . It was simple for me given where I grew up, the south-west of France, land of foie gras and garbure . My grands had a farm and they never bought any food but salt, peper and oil (not even wine, trust my grandpa for that). By this time any woman around offered everyday meals that would have costed a fortune in your restaurants . My grandmother, my grand-aunt and all their neighbours did this, and still now I prefer “simple” meals with the little extra touch many French, men or women, know because they learnt cooking from their own grandmother …About wines I quickly discovered that drinking several wines in the same meal was never a good thing for my head, my palate and my stomach . One wine is perfect, two if the menu imposes it like fish after charcuterie, maybe a last one with certain desserts, but even this is nearly too much . One or two different wines per meal is the best for me, and for many people I’d say .
I couldn’t agree more, Phil with every word … but what about la peau des fesses? I need to know – the challenge is yours to explain it!
You know, French popular spirit has always been a factory for figurative expressions whose origins are lost somewhere in Asterix’ village . There are literally hundreds of them, you could say nearly everything with them . For some reason people started expressing the idea of very expensive with phrases like “ça coûte …” the following being a part of the body . “Ça coûte un bras”, “ça coute les yeux de la tête” are classics and; French being what they are, you can’t avoid more intimate parts of the body . “Ça coûte la peau des couilles”, “ça coûte la peau du cul” are common and of course a lady would rather say “la peau des fesses” .
Thank you … I rather like it!
Wise advice about the wines. I will follow that guideline in future!
I’ve been fortunate and unfortunate to eat out a lot. In the end two meals have stayed with me throughout (notwithstanding lots of wonderful family meals at home) … the first was almost 30 years ago driving back from Arles to England and taking the West-hand route. We stopped into a routier. Nothing unusual there. It had one big table and they produced an ancient wooden high chair for the toddler that is now my married daughter. She was served instantly. That understanding that when a small person has a hunger it must be assuaged. We ate the broth of a boiled fowl augmented with veg, followed by the foul and some melting potatoes that I have tried to recreate a thousand times and have failed. The hen had a little creamy sauce and mushrooms to garnish. Salade with garlicky lip-puckering dressing, cheese and a tarte tatin. Apple. I couldn’t tell you exactly where it was – somewhere above Toulouse and below Poitiers. But every taste, the steaming plates, the men tucking in, the light red table wine, the docile tot smiling and being smiled at. I will never forget it. The other was at le Manoir aux Quat Saisons which was my local for a long time. The same tot, now aged 22 and I took my mother but didn’t tell her where we were going. We said there was a new gastro-pub opening on my side of the county and they were doing a deal for first time diners. I took the most circuitous of routes. Mother spotted a sign for le Manoir and said ‘one day I really will eat there’ remembering all the times she had taken the cheese delivery into the kitchens and how charming Chef and his staff always were to her. And then she realized … we had a choice between a 5 or a 10 course tasting menu and chose the cheapest wine (daughter and I were paying 😉). It was heavenly but of course the most heavenly thing of all was the beautiful way my mother was treated and the sheer joy of the evening for her. The crowning moment was in the drawing room over coffee and petits fours … she popped a tiny lemony something or other into her mouth and threw herself back on the cushions declaring ‘nothing will EVER beat this!’ Sorry. I could go on and on but you provoked two such strong memories with your lovely piece and in the end I have nothing to add except on balance, I think if I never eat haut gastronomie again my life will not suffer but if I never eat a good honest beautifully prepared French meal again, I will be a little sad.
Wow, a reply worthy of its own post! I am so pleased that my post was evocative of so many wonderful memories. I can just see your mother leaning back in her chair! Your description of that truck-stop style restaurant brings back a lot of memories of the ‘cuisine de grand-mère’ prepared by husband’s Mémé in Normandy. There is no reproducing those melting potatoes!
I like to be relaxed when I eat and I am prone to throw my head back and laugh at any time in good company, so that’s probably part of why we rarely go to restaurants of the hushed showy sort 🙂
Ha, ha….I hate feeling like you have to be on your best behaviour in such places. Last week in Porto my husband observed that I was laughing and talking rather loudly. Which only spurred me on to up the volume!
Poor person commenting here – ahha so this just isn’t really a reality for us at the moment but one day it will be again! We as childless humans were quite adventurous in splurging the odd occasion for a celebration of each others accomplishments or birthdays. Food can really leave a lasting impression and the experience can stay with you for a long time. One meal I had at such a place has stayed with me – well two – and it was the food not the whole show that I really remember. Otherwise there are many on the memory that I can’t really remember what the food tasted like and I guess that shows how little it must have made an impact. Some places are worth it… and its sometimes the cheap places that knock it out of the park time and time again without having anything to prove. Also Mike and I eat so quickly that we often have to be aware of eating slower and not hoovering up our meal. Actually it’s just me that hoovers haha.. Mike takes his time but is generally shocked at my pace. The first photo you posted here looks really lovely though – the colours are enticing!
Thanks for sharing those memories! Yes, that first photo is actually more of the type I of fresh, real cuisine I prefer. Still very artfully presented but much simpler than the fancy-shmancy stuff. We all deserve a splurge now and then but I agree that sometimes it’s the simpler places that stand out in our souvenirs. Often it’s a combination of time and place, mood and service along with memorable food. Hope you and Mike get to enjoy a special meal out again soon!
Oh – as a sort of consolation – we often make our favourite foods at home or attempt to haha – sometimes we nail it sometimes… not at all. Soon enough we’ll treat ourselves again. For the time being i’ll just longingly look at other peoples photos ahah.
I’m going to embarrass myself here, but most times, I prefer what I cook at home to even the ‘best’ restaurants in the area. Haute gastronomie? Um, no thanks. I use no processed food, only fresh veggies, light on the meat, lots of seafood, wild rice with a side of green salad with yummy things inside it like carrots and tomato and perhaps a splash of feta cheese. Oh, so gourmet. No, not gourmet. Simple and easy to digest. Not too much, but not too little either. And the price is right! (Oh, and the ‘wine pairing’ is whatever wine I happen to have open, which generally is a nicely priced bottle of cabernet. 🙂
Not at all embarrassing! I envy your enthusiasm for your home-cooking, which I agree is often more satisfying than what you get in so-called ‘gourmet’ restaurants. Especially desserts – to me there is nothing better than home-made sweets. However, there are times when I just want to kick back and be served, even a little surprised, by what someone else can do. Perhaps you should hire yourself as a home chef!
Haha. My guy is our home chef. Doesn’t know his way around a kitchen, but is great with the grill. 🙂
I love going to Michelin-starred restaurants — but only sometimes. I would tire of the theatre of their presentation if I went every night.
Agree it needs to be a special occasion, otherwise the charm pales very quickly. But now that you are living in France, you will be able to enjoy the full range of dining options more often!
Whilst I do love eating out at the ‘fancier’ restaurants, with kids we don’t do it much these days. I enjoy the chefs skill, different flavours and combinations, ambience and theatre. However, eating out at more low key local restaurants with our lads is a real joy and no one goes home hungry. The few times I have had degustation dinners, I also ended up a dash too sozzled and probably could have done with more food and one less glass of wine! Your last photo made me very hungry!
I can relate, Lisa. When our kids were young, the local pizza place got a lot of business from us. They were very kind with the kids, always had some extra treat for them and had very good pizzas and draft beer for us. What more can a parent ask? Just looked at the photo you liked and agree. It’s almost dinner time now and I’m starving! 😉
Having done the whole chefing thing, from the stars to the plain, I could not agree with you more. I truly appreciate good food (I am a foodie, but prefer do be a down to earth one), but give me quality, prepared well, and I am in heaven. I like good presentation, but not at the expense of the food. The food is the centre piece, else I am not really interested.
Great post, well said.
Thank you so much! 😀 I suppose if you’ve seen the backstage side of things as a chef, your appreciation of any restaurant meal is different. I do agree that good food should take priority over presentation. A bit of both is ideal. Bon app!
French food is always plated beautifully and there is the Michelin dining guide! Awesome😃