Monday, December 7, 2009

Bon Appetit

Around the world, the two cuisines that are generally recognized as the world's best, are Chinese and French foods.  French culinary techniques are supposed to be the best in the Western world, while the Chinese is supposed to be the root of all good cooking in the East.  French cuisine is the basis of my favorite Pixar film, Ratatouille.  The very words "restaurant", "menu", and "entree" are all taken from the French language.  Even Anthony Bourdain's entire career as a chef was based on his classic French training and execution as the head chef of Brasserie Les Halles in New York.  Watching his exploits around the world you get to see him dine at famous French restaurants like Chez Denise in Paris, Thu Vien Biblioteque Cafe in Vietnam, Le Veau D'or in New York, and Au Pied De Cochon in Quebec.   When visiting other kitchens, the framework for his culinary analysis is always based in his expertise in French techniques.   The only problem, is that I really have no idea what French food is.

It isn't as if there are no French restaurants at all in Hawaii, which I have visited before.  When I was a little kid, I did sit and watch Julia Child with my Po Po.  I have even travelled to Paris on tour with my sister.   But I still cannot seem to comprehend, or distinguish, the flavors, techniques, spices, or classic dishes that really comprise the French cuisine.  Whereas in Japanese cuisine, I'm a conniseur of sushi, tempura, teriyaki, and ramen, I have no clue what a cassoulet or a confit is.  I am not sure if it is because so many of their techniques have been adopted by the other Western cultures, that they are no longer so distinct, or if I simply haven't had the exposure to recognize what is uniquely French.  

Steak and Pomme Frites at Brasserie Du Vin
If you walk into a bistro, the star entree is a steak and pomme frites (french fries), both of which you can easily get at any American restaurant.  So what makes it a French dish?  You can talk about the really famous things like baguettes or escargot, both of which I really do love.  Fresh baguettes have such a wonderful aroma after tearing through the crunchy, flaky crust.  Escargot, traditionally served in a garlic butter sauce, are so decadently rich, and the perfect thing to lay on pieces of that French bread.   In fact, the garlic butter is so strong, it usually drowns out any flavor of the escargot themselves.   But you can get baguettes at any Vietnamese restaurant, and escargot at an Italian restaurant.  So again, what makes them uniquely French?

I was really excited in junior high, when I was taking an introductory French / Spanish course, and our teacher decided to treat us to lunch at a French restaurant here.   It would be my first exposure to true French flavors, by a guide whose purpose was to teach us about their language and culture.  So she took us to a tiny little shop at the beginning of Kalakaua Ave., around the corner from Holiday Mart, called Le Guignol.   The thing I distinctly remember the most about that luncheon was a fantastic appetizer plate of tiny strong pickles (gherkins?), and a beautiful slice of pate.   But I have always loved pate.  Even when I was younger, I would love pate on my Vietnamese sandwiches.  Even if we were just making Oscar Mayer sandwiches at home, I would want a schmear of Oscar Mayer braunschweiger to kick it up a notch.   My favorite meal in Paris, in fact was when we just bought some fruits, cheeses, assorted pates and some baguettes and sat in a park overlooking the Eiffel Tower for a picnic.   So it is no surprise that I really enjoyed that pate at Le Guignol.   But I never really thought of it as exclusively French (braunschweiger is German after all).   I also took my wife (then girlfriend) on a date there once.  I remember her giving me an incredulous look after having been served french fries at a French restaurant.  Aren't french fries really an American thing, you get at McDonalds?  Do they really eat french fries in France?  It again cast a doubt of authenticity over our meal, but was it simply because we just really didn't understand what French food was?  Did French immigrants really bring the techique to julienne cut and deep fry the potatoes?   Le Guignol has since moved from Kalakaua to King Street, right across the street from the Neil Blaisdell Concert Hall, making it a very popular pre and post concert venue.  But my wife and I have never really gone back there, feeling like we just didn't have the familiarity or understanding of French cuisine to fully appreciate it.

Recently though, for my aunty's birthday, we decided to try another little place, on Bethel St., across from Hawaii Theater, called Brasserie Du Vin.   The very decor of the place looks like a French tavern, something out of a 3 Musketeers movie.  Again, I was seeking some kind of affirmation on what was uniquely and authentically French.   

Chef's Cheese Plate at Brasserie Du Vin
To begin with, as a French restaurant, you must have a cheese right?   Cheese and baguettes.   As an ardent lover of cheeses, I was enraptured by their cheese platter.   It was easily my favorite thing on their whole menu.   A beautiful presentation from hard to soft cheeses and all the variations in between, from salty and sharp, to soft, mellow and creamy, to really soft and pungent.  It also had some nice salami, a tart salad, and some dried fruits and nuts to accompany the cheese.  I felt just like Remy in that brilliant scene in Ratatouille where they animate the favor combinations of cheese and fruit bursting in his mind.  But again, many of these cheeses were Spanish or Italian.   So what was uniquely French about this platter?

Moi and Shrimp at Brasserie Du Vin
My aunty, opted for fish and shrimp on her birthday.   It was a terrific tasting moi.   The skin was fried to just a nice crispness, and the white flesh beneath was flaky and tender.   But there are a lot of cultures who cook fish and shrimp, and there was nothing to me that made them distinctly French.   Moreover, moi is a Hawaiian fish, once reserved exclusively for the Hawaiian ali'i (or royalty).   So this couldn't be a classic French dish, and if the prepartion wasn't so distinct, what made it French?

Pork Tenderloin at Brasserie Du Vin
My wife had a wonderful pork tenderloin.   In fact, her dish was perhaps the best entree of the meal.   It was remarkably succulent and tender. But again, I wasn't sure what made it distinctly French.

Quail at Brasserie Du Vin
For myself, I opted for the quail.   Now quail in itself is not a very common food item.  Simply because they are so tiny, that there isn't much meat, and a chicken is far more economical to farm.   The quail was exquisitely tender, as befitting a bird of it's size.   I loved the greens below, and the orange slices with the tangy sweetness to brighten your palate and contrast the buttery sauce.   Julia Child was well known for her prodigious use of butter.   Was that what made this dish French?   Was it the use of the smaller game bird (although the Chinese have quail dishes as well)?    It was delicious.   But was it French?

Chocolate Pyramid from JJ's French Pastry
For Aunty's birthday cake, we opted to go to another popular French locale here, JJ's French Pastry, located next to Harry's Music on Waialae Ave.   Rather than a traditional cake, we picked up one of their signature chocolate pyramids.   Everyone loved the deep, rich, dark chocolate mouse and light cake.   Just the thing to top off a nice night of French cuisine.

Maybe French cooking technique has just become so assimilated by the other Western cultures that it all just tastes the same now.   Maybe I just haven't yet experienced the epiphany or "voila" moment that lets me understand and appreciate the uniqueness of French cooking.   Maybe pate, and escargot, and baguettes really are the touchstones of French cuisine, the way that peking duck and chow mein really are classic Chinese dishes.   Maybe for my Uncle's birthday, we'll try Le Bistro in Niu Valley, and I'll continue on my quest for understanding.

1 comment:

  1. That means that Vietnamese food is the best food in the world, because it combines French and Chinese cuisine. Which, I think is true.