Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Bernard Loiseau (no, I didn’t eat there)

Somehow, instead of heading north towards Montbard, we turned south, toward Saulieu. I really don’t know why - I wanted to visit nearby Epoisses, site of a very famous - and very fragrant - cheese.

We drifted among verdant rolling hills, passed through woods, small villages and wheat fields. There was no way to know what direction we were going; the sky was a uniform gray with no indication of the sun’s position. 

We arrived in Saulieu, more a small town than a tiny village. We’d heard that one of France’s most prestigious restaurants, Bernard Loiseau, was here. We wondered how to find it, until we realized that it was just a bit farther down the street from where we parked. I’d imagined something more intimate... Instead, it was an imposing two story structure painted a warm pastel color, with its name writ large. To the left of the restaurant’s entrance, a boutique invited people to visit with windows displaying their goods for sale. 

We entered the boutique. There was a display of All-Clad cookware from the USA, with some pieces different than those typically sold in the United States. A pot with tapered (not rounded) sides, for example. A round table displayed cookbooks and biographies of Mr. Loiseau himself and of course the illustrious restaurant. To their credit, there weren’t any T-shirts, although they did offer towels like those in the hotel. 

We didn’t eat there. For one thing, it was only 10:30 in the morning. For the other, the place was intimidating, like it dared us to pass within, if we were worthy. 

Menus placed in stanchions outside featured a colorful dish of frog leg “drumsticks” placed radially around a plate, sitting in a bright green sauce or Charolais beef cooked with a clay crust. There were some elaborate foie gras preparations. I forgot the rest, but I ‘m sure it’s all online. 

The menu we looked at was somewhere around 195 euros per person. I don’t know if that included wine. So, about the same price as The French Laundry back home. 

The next day, I turned on the TV to see if the weather would improve or if we were doomed to gray skies. Good news, the gray skies will disappear and the sun will return. 

After the weather forecast, the regular programming started. This being France, there was a program featuring culinary arts students on a field trip. Apparently they have a better budget than we, since they went on a week (or weeks) long discovery of food producers. 

They showed a cave where they make Cantal cheese, large wheels stacked on wooden planks, row upon row disappearing into the misty depths of the caves. Everything isn’t so rustic, though: robots flip the wheels at regular intervals. Expert cheese makers tap the wheels with mallets to determine its condition, kind of like a human sonagram. After years of tapping wheels of cheese, it is possible to discern its exact state of ripeness just by tapping and listening. 

The students visited a charcutier, who works in a large conical wooden smokehouse packed with hanging sausages, slabs of bacon and dry-cured hams. The air inside was only slightly smoky, fed by a small stream of smoke issuing from a pit in the floor. 

Despite all the raw-appearing meat, there were no flies. He mentioned that flies don’t like properly cured meats; they only attack rotting things, meaning that if there are flies something went quite wrong. 
At the end of the field trip, the students did a two day stage at Bernard Loiseau in the front of the house (see, this section does belong here with the restaurant). They learned how to properly iron and place the round, white tablecloths. No wrinkles on the edges. Then they placed the plates, making sure the “BL” was correctly oriented. The spoons, one finger’s width, rounded side up, to the right of the plate. Every piece placed with mechanical precision. Perfection, perfection! They were understandably nervous, but it apparently all worked out. 

The restaurant does not serve meals; they serve dreams. They explained that, just like The French Laundry, some people save up for years just for the experience of dining there. The experience, the memory, is the thing here. I suppose that the food needs to be interesting, too - but presentation and ambience reign.

Strangely, the boutique could have been used to better effect. If the restaurant was a fantasy, the boutique was a down to earth means of moving merchandise. Nobody greeted people as they arrived nor thanked them when they left, unlike a chef’s boutique we visited in California. There was no sense of welcome whatsoever. If there was a wonderful, expensive cookbook showing the restaurant’s creations (à la French Laundry Cookbook), I didn’t see it. 

What if we’d be greeted and welcomed in the boutique? Would be now be $500 poorer, but graced with wondrous memories of a fantastic meal?

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