Paris -- Passion in life can take you a long way. As the talented chef Alain Dutournier proves year after year, meal after meal. He's one of the most well rounded chefs I know, not only embracing his love of food and all the products that go into creating a magnificent style of cuisine he has the right to call his one. Beyond food, he fires his passions for bullfights and rugby, for cigars and wine. If this was America we'd call him an "all-American" guy. Why does "all French" guy just not sound the same?
At the age of 51, this native of France's fertile southwest still has the enthusiasm of someone decades younger, and he is a man full of pride. For his country, for his native Landes region, for his own accomplishments.
A recent dinner at his warm and welcoming Carre des Feuillants suggests he does not miss a beat, offering up a truly harmonious cuisine full of maturity and complexity. Fare that has the ability to surprise yet is actually quite simple in its underpinnings.
While over the years his menu has stayed true to his native foundation - there will always be foie gras and corn bread, game and wild mushrooms, Pyrénées lamb and the famed beef from Chalosse. But he lets himself stretch beyond, dipping into Italy for exquisite white truffles from Alba, to Brittany for sweet and plump scallops and regal turbot, to the coast of Bordeaux for oysters tinged green from the rich beds of algae, to England for his own rich versions of fruit crumble, and to China for Sichuan pepper- flavored sauces.
It is rare for a diner to work up the same enthusiasm for every course, from first to middle to end, but Dutournier has that rare talent - and evenness - to get us just as excited about the gingerbread crumble (our last bite) as we were about the plump Gillardeau green-tinged Marennes oysters bathed in a sea water jelly and teamed up with tiny open-face sandwiches layered with a fine slice of foie gras (our first welcome bite).
A meal at Carre des Feuillants has the ability to move along like a fine piece of music, carrying us along on a fine rhythmical ride. Following the tease of the oysters, we submerge ourselves into a wild mushroom wonderland, a trio of cèpe preparations that include gently marinated mushrooms, another version that carefully pan-fried, all teamed up with Dutournier's trademark "petit pâté chaude," a warming cool weather pâté that is a complex and finely texture mélange of fresh cèpes , dried cèpes , shallots, parsley, eggs, butter, cream and walnut oil, all punctuated with a touch of nutmeg, and gently baked in a soothing bain marie.
Soup comes in the form of triple alliance of a rich pheasant stock enriched with sweet chestnuts. As a finish the chef floats bits of smooth poached pheasant breast, chunks of chestnuts and then gilding the lily in the finest of manners, a final layer of Italian white truffles.
But I guess I hold the softest spot for his true white truffle extravaganza, a beautifully composed, deftly seasoned "galette" a rather complex mixture of sliced raw scallops, arugula, artichokes, mushrooms and Parmesan all layered and bound with a hazelnut vinaigrette, then topped with a thick layer of fragrant white truffles. Finally for a brilliant juxtaposition, Dutournier tops the galette with a crispy sweet/salty cumin wafer. Bravo!
As if it could not get better, it does, in the name of whole roasted poularde, a plump, moist fatted hen from the Chalosse region, paired with a simple and sublime mix of varied wild mushrooms.
Dutournier knows his wines and shows how he can play the food-wine marriages with bravura: The oysters were delighted to be paired with a 1997 Riesling from the house of Kientzler, while the poularde was well escorted by the 1995 Chapelle de la Mission Haut Brion. And the gingerbread crumble could not have been in finer company that that of a 1991 vin de paille, the rare sweet wine from the Jura, this one from the house of P. Botin.
Carré des Feuillants
14 rue de Castiglione
Tel: 01 42 86 82 82
Fax: 01 42 86 07 71.
Credit cards: American Express, Diners Club, Visa. Closed Saturday lunch, Sunday and August. 320 franc lunch menu,750-franc tasting menu. A la carte, 550 to 700 francs including service but not wine.