PARIS - When I moved to Paris 20 years ago, southwestern French was all the rage. You could hardly eat out three nights in a row without facing cassoulet or confit de canard on at least two of those outings. Over the years, Provencal and Mediterranean cuisine took over, leaving all that duck, goose and foie gras in the dust.
Helene Darroze, last seen at her restaurant in Villeneuve-de-Marsan in the Landes in southwestern France, is about to change all that. In her elegant new quarters in the heart of the Left Bank, she is wooing us with a modern, updated version of those regional classics. Like most fine female cooks, she offers more than just a sheer technical rendering of ingredients. She has a point of view, her food has depth, a definite warmth.
Two recent visits to her restaurant - still under construction yet open nonetheless since Oct. 15 - proved that she has talent and, hopefully, staying power in this fickle dining world. I can't say I would have chosen the decor - a lot of heavy reds and purples - but I agree with her choice of china, the quirky white intentionally misshapen cups and plates from Tse & Tse Associees - actually two Parisian designers, Catherine Levy and Sigolene Prebois, who have taken the city by storm with their modern designs.
Darroze, 32, has transported many of the dishes that won her a single Michelin star in the now defunct restaurant in Villeneuve-de-Marsan, including farm-raised pork prepared in three different ways and numerous foie gras preparations. Probably the most delicious dish on the menu is her heart-warming l'escaoutoun landaise, a polenta-like creation prepared with the local corn meal, laced with rich portions of Basque sheep's milk cheese, layered with both sauteed cepe and finely sliced raw cepes, all enriched with an extraordinary reduced chicken stock. I could easily sample this every night of the week, accompanied by one of her wine cellar's well-chosen and well-priced treasures, such as Alain Brumont's powerful Madiran Domaine de Bouscasse. The 1995 is priced at 150 francs. Equally delicious was one evening's appetizer, a creamy flan of foie gras topped with freshly grilled cepes.
A first-course cold white bean soup - prepared with haricots mais from the Bearn - had great depth of flavor. It was teamed up with crushed brandade and the just slightly spicy Basque red peppers, pimientos del piquillo. tasting the foie gras The results of a sampling of duck and goose foie gras - presented so one can compare the two - leaned heavily toward the duck version, much better seasoned and smoother in texture.
With the foie gras, the sommelier wisely suggested Claude Loustalot's Jurancon Sec, Domaine de Bru Bache, Cuvee des Casterrasses, the 1997 well-priced at 145 francs. Darroze continues to woo with a lovely farm-fresh roasted chicken with cepes stuffed beneath the skin, as well as a fine portion of roasted Pauillac lamb, served with its array of organ meats, including brains, sweetbreads and liver.
The pork comes in three services and includes an extraordinary layered portion of blood pudding, chestnuts and apples; a calf's foot stuffed with black truffles, and crusty grilled spare ribs seasoned with the incomparable, just ever so spicy Basque pepper, piment d'Espelette. - IWAS less excited about the desserts: Why use Granny Smith apples this time of year, when the reine de reinettes and boskoop have so much more character? Also, despite the fact that the Paris markets are full of beautiful purple figs from the famed Sollies, I find them just too bland and past their prime. Service, to date, has been exceptional, although on both visits the restaurant was sparsely populated.
Come November, Darroze will offer a main floor table d'hote - dinner served at a stated hour and at a fixed price - offering, you guessed it, cassoulet and confit. Restaurant
4 rue d'Assas
Closed Saturday lunch and all day Sunday.
Open noon-2:30 P.M. and 7:30 P.M.-10:30 P.M. Lunch menu 240 francs, dinner menu 580 francs. A la carte about 350 francs. Credit cards: Visa, American Express.