French Cuisine Triptych: Terrible, Traditional and Avant-Garde

The other day, my aunt asked me, “So you keep raving about how delicious everything is, but are there any bad meals?” Yes, of course there are. Though I generally travel with boatloads of research and a good sense of intuition, I do get stuck with bland, uninspired meals like everyone else. While in France, the quality of the food was (unsurprisingly) very good, but no country is fail-proof. Here is a glimpse into how our class of well-traveled and knowledgeable students critiques meals:

Meal #1: Paul Bocuse – Brasserie Le Nord, Lyon

“Paul Bocuse? The Paul Bocuse‽” When we heard that we would be dining at one of Paul Bocuse’s brasseries while on stage, the excitement exploded. After all, Paul Bocuse is one of the godfathers of French nouvelle cuisine, and is the namesake for the prestigious Bocuse d’Or prize, a cooking competition commonly referred to as the Olympics of the culinary world. Expectations were running quite high, as we wanted to see what the man hailed for changing the direction of French gastronomy could do in his restaurants.

Alas, Brasserie Le Nord left us feeling more than underwhelmed. Whether it was an off night, or Bocuse simply doesn’t spend enough time managing his less-prestigious properties, it was clear that little thought had gone into the composition and presentation of the dinner. We began with a classic French onion soup, thickly laden with cheese, sweet onions and bread. The rich soup was then followed by quenelle de brochet, a whipped fish, bread and egg mixture, poached in an oval shape and served with cream sauce. Other than a few spongy mushrooms, there was nary a sign of vegetables and nothing to balance the heavy cream. For dessert, there was (you guessed it) more cream, a slice of whipped cream and egg whites (?), studded with nuts and candied fruit. “It was all brown!” exclaimed one student. “This meal was made without love,” another person declared. Throughout the evening, our servers were mostly absent, did not interact with us and provided no explanations about what we were having that evening. We were left to guess and rely on our French-raised comrades to provide information. All in all, this meal exemplified the worst of French cuisine stereotypes; it was rich, heavy and the servers didn’t give us the time of day.

Meal #2: La Feuillette, Chablis

One afternoon in Chablis, we had the chance to go wherever we wanted for lunch. After walking through all 0.4 square miles of Chablis, we stumbled upon La Feuillette. Outside, the restaurant advertised a 3-course meal for €13 at lunch from Mon-Thurs, and a 2-course meal for just €7,50 on Fridays. “But wait,” I asked, “What’s the plat du jour?” “I don’t know, but I have a good feeling about this place, and I think we can get a good meal here. Let’s go in!” said Danielle.

As it turned out, Danielle was right, and I had one of the greatest meals I’ve ever had in France, and by far the best value for the money. We were seated in the restaurant’s lower level, a charming stonewalled cellar with low arches and flickering candles. Michel, our affable waiter, explained in his best English that the plat du jour was a roast pork dish with potatoes dauphinoise and carrots, and if you wanted to opt for an additional first course, the options were jambon persillé or poached eggs in red wine sauce. Curious to try another version, I ordered the housemade jambon persillé and found the texture to be even better than that from Ferme des Levées. It is clear that La Feuillette has rapid turnover for this dish.

We put Michel through his paces, ordering extra dishes, quizzing him about who produced the house Chablis Grand Cru and asking for separate checks, but he never broke a sweat and was always beaming. When we asked how often he received English-speaking guests, Michel replied that he did not get them often, but enjoyed English-speakers more than French customers, who tend not to smile as openly. But how could you not? It didn’t hurt that the food was phenomenal, simple hearty fare that was well-executed, fresh and flavorful. I wasn’t the only person who sopped up every last drop of sauce from their plate with a hunk of bread.

Dessert was an elegant whole poached fig, accompanied by several prunes and a scoop of rum-raisin ice cream. When we told Michel that he was doing a terrific job, he asked us to put in a good word for him with the chef, because apparently he’d gotten into trouble recently for getting a piercing. Chef, if you are reading this, Michel is even more buzz-worthy than the rum-laden ice cream.

Meal #3: DZ’Envies, Dijon

Marbré de foie gras de canard et pâte de mangue, savagnin, curry, amandes grillées et salsa

Siphone de fèves, dés de haddock et tomates séchées

Bouillon de légumes aux bourgeons de cassis, œuf parfait

Porc fermier, dés de seiche et chorizo des Aldudes, aubergine grillée

Fraises confite, glace au Sichuan et lait de fruit, gros macaron

Dijon is a mid-sized city of about 200.000 people, most famous for its namesake mustard, but the town boasts an impressive range of boutiques and restaurants, from traditional French to Indian cuisine. The Dijon market held at the Place des Halles is a foodie paradise, where you can pick up fresh figs, duck fat, cilantro, Emmental baguettes and sushi, all in one place. I hate to say this, but this market even tops the Torino market, which is considered Europe’s largest open-air market.

Back to the restaurant scene. DZ’Envies is a contemporary bistro that arrived on the scene fairly recently but has already attracted quite a bit of press. The restaurant is a chic, brightly lit space with chalkboard walls and throw pillows against the banquettes. The shelves are decorated with sleek sculptures and statues of Bhuddha. It was like being transported to a post-ironic hipster-magnet in Wicker Park; I almost forgot I was in the heart of France. As for the food, using classical French techniques, chef David Zuddas has concocted a cuisine molded by Japanese and North African influences. Of course, the danger with fusion menus is that they result in confusion, so how does DZ’Envies fare?

Admirably well. Though the macaron sandwich fell flat (literally) and the fava bean puree/soup in a glass left us scratching our heads a bit, the overall execution was right on the money, with perfectly cooked pork, delicately poached eggs and melt in your mouth foie gras. The roasted red pepper and squid ink sauce accompanying the pork was particularly memorable. Zuddas’ Asian motifs come in subtle forms, with the use of bok choy and shiitake mushrooms in the vegetable medley, and Sichuan peppercorns flavoring the ice cream. I found the meal to be thought-provoking and tasty, something along the lines of Schwa (in Chicago) but without the aggressively experimental whimsy and heavy-metal adrenalin. As a further note, you can ask to split the €35 tasting menu with a friend, and they’ll separate the food in the kitchen onto two plates without a plate-sharing charge. For €17.50, this was a perfect amount of food and an incredibly good deal.

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