PARIS - As country winters seem to grow longer, a number of chefs from the provinces have come to test the waters of the Seine. Since the autumn, two Michelin-starred chefs have decided to maintain their restaurants away from Paris while bringing their casseroles to the capital: Jean-Yves Bath from the Auvergne and Didier Oudill from Biarritz.
I have followed the careers of both since the early 1980s, when Bath was chef at the charming auberge La Bergerie in Sarpoil in the Auvergne and Oudill was chef to Michel Guerard at Eugenie-les-Bains in the southwest.
Bath later moved to Clermont-Ferrand, to the restaurant that bears his name, proving that traditional country fare need not lose its personality or authenticity as it is modernized and lightened. He has always managed to make a plate of lentils taste like pure perfection and has dedicated himself to making everything from the chocolate to the bread from scratch.
In October, he moved to the center of Paris with his son, Stephane, to begin a new adventure, which seemed to take off from the moment he opened the doors. Transforming an old Chinese restaurant into a pleasant, rather formal country restaurant, Bath continues to work his magic in the kitchen, while his wife, Daniele, continues to run their brasserie, Le Clos Saint-Pierre, in Clermont-Ferrand.
Bath's menu is rich with the specialties of central France, with salads of snails and duck gizzards, duck sausage, cabbage, foie gras, and, of course, the delicate Limousin veal and rich, incomparable beef from Salers. He does not ignore fish and shellfish, giving lobster, scallops, monkfish and the river fish pike perch good billing.
Begin, if you like, with a simple salad of lobster, poached to a moist tenderness and flanked by simple greens anointed with olive oil. Likewise, the rich and fragrant rissole de Cantal, little pastry-wrapped packages of Cantal cheese, are paired with a wintry salad of lamb's lettuce dressed with fresh walnut oil.
Throughout the meal, the boyish, outgoing Bath strolls from table to table chatting with and warming the somewhat stiff Parisian crowd.
As to be expected, meats are the star of the show here, and one could do worse than a thick veal chop, paired with Bath's famous tagliatelle dressed with the exceptional cow's-milk blue cheese, Fourme d'Ambert. The meat was cooked to perfection, and improved on the plate, gaining in flavor and tenderness as it had time to rest. Between bites, the best wine to sample with the pedigreed meat is the Ladoix Vieilles Vignes from Burgundy - the 1996 priced at 220 francs (about $35). Years ago, a sommeliere suggested that the ''wet horse'' aroma of this rarely seen red wine was a perfect match for rare meat and she was so right.
Order the moist, tender Salers beef and you will also be treated to Bath's incomparable lentil sauce. I dare you to find better lentils, those flinty, deep-green grains that taste of the volcanic earth. His are cooked to a perfect tenderness, so they are still crunchy, not soggy but lively and virile.
Classic and creative Like Bath, Oudill has paid his dues in the countryside, working with Guerard, moving on to his own Pain, Adour et Fantaisie nearby, then to Biarritz and the Cafe de Paris, which remains open as Oudill makes his mark in Paris at Le Dauphin. During those years, he gained a reputation as a classically trained chef who also understands how to be creative and feed right into our hands.
His talent is still there, but it is overshadowed by a barren, dreary Palais Royal restaurant that is totally devoid of character and has a staff that might be better off at a fast-food counter.
It's a shame, for Oudill and his partner, Edgar Duhr, have great ideas and the ability to move modern French food a giant step forward. The menu has much of what we look for today - a touch of internationalism, plenty of vegetables and a new take on everything from a simple green salad (here teamed up with a toasted baguette covered with a slice of ham and a touch of cheese) to a wonderful cassoulet (flavorful white beans in broth, with giant shrimp, delicious sausage and chunks of bacon).
But service is so contrary to the food that it is hard to believe that the kitchen and the dining room communicate at all. Wines are opened, then plopped in the center of the table without a proper tasting. A quartet of sauces come out of nowhere and are set at the edge of table without a description of what they might consist of and which dish they are meant for. The bare wooden table is not set, rather knives and forks are strewn about helter-skelter.
Let's hope that as the weather warms, the staff warms up too, so we can continue to enjoy Oudill's talents, along with the delicious Jurancon white and fruity Saint-Chinian red; the selection of can't-stop-eating-them bread and rolls; the plump oysters served with well-spiced grilled chorizo sausages; the immense platter of perfectly grilled tomatoes, zucchini, fennel, onions and potatoes, served with a Spanish-style open-face sandwich of scrubbed tomato and ham, and the memorable, moist casserole of joues de cochon, tender pig's cheeks.
9 Rue de La Tremoille
Closed Saturday and Sunday. All major credit cards. A la carte, about 300 francs.
- Le Dauphin
167 Rue Saint-Honore
Open every day. All major credit cards. 140-franc lunch menu; a la carte, 100 to 200 francs.