Who is Influencing the Great Chefs of France?

PARIS – Who is influencing the great chefs of France? Asia, Asia and Asia. It’s impossible to dine in restaurants large or small, expensive or bargain-based, without coming upon fare that is wrapped Asian-style, seasoned with herbs and spices with an Asian accent, or filled with such non-traditional French ingredients as papaya, mango, fresh ginger or Japanese seaweed.

In some small way this is not all that new, for French chefs have been using flavors such as vadouvan and green papaya, cumin and mango, and sushi-ized bites for a long time. What is new is that the trend has become almost ubiquitous and chefs such as William Ledeuil at the trendy Le Kitchen Galerie on the Left Bank are no longer just flirting with Asian thoughts, but taking a stand and taking action.

Ledeuil has been moving slowly in the Asian direction, but a recent trip to Thailand only reinforced his own feelings that what diners want more of today is lemon confit and black radish, Thai-curry and ginger-marinated guinea hen, even peanut ice cream with a pistachio sauce. And in the hands of a classically trained French chef, the fusion works, especially when someone like Ledeuil begins with a classic base, and applies the Asian accent to achieve more clear and specific flavors, as well as to lighten up contemporary fare.

In fact, he is so into his new Asian larder of food that he is now offering demonstration cooking classes in his open kitchen one afternoon each week. (For specifics call the restaurant.)

Two recent meals there suggest that Ledeuil is on the right track, but needs just a bit more fusion of flavors in some dishes. I applaud his careful and studied use of everything from fresh lemon grass to fresh lime leaves, and lively Thai curries. His most successful dish to date is a lightened and well-examined version of the famed Thai curry soup, here a beautifully seasoned and totally cohesive dish generous with chunks of young chicken, redolent of fresh citronnelle, just a touch (not an overdose) of rich coconut milk, and full of vegetables such as baby asparagus, fresh spring peas, highlights of tarragon and offset by fresh Thai coriander leaves. His creative touch – he thickens the soup with an Italian artichoke purée and marinates the chicken in, among other ingredients, Japanese rice vinegar – is everywhere and I am eager to see just where all this experimentation will take him, and us.

Unfortunately, some of the dishes – such as the fine marinated fresh tuna with a citron and mango condiment and the grilled pigeon with a condiment of asparagus, basil and polenta were very good on their own, but there was no true liaison, no true link, no handshake between the finely crafted French style and the new Asian touch.

The chef now eschews cream and butter, preferring that sauces be bound with juices and emulsions, vegetable purees, bouillons or marinades. A trend worth applauding as long as we don’t get caught short on flavor and satisfaction.

When brothers Philippe and Marc Delacourcelle opened their Clos Morillons in the 15th arrondissement of Paris in 1984, they foresaw the fusion trend. Even back then, their menu was filled with Asian spices and a favorite guinea hen bathed in a sauce with a faint touch of vanilla. Philippe ran French restaurants all over Asia for years and returned with a changed palate.

The brothers were absent from the Paris scene for a bit, and are now back with a new and lively wine bar in the 5th, a jam-packed month-old spot filled with fare that is sometimes on the spot, sometimes tentative. Bistro-style, the Pré Verre menu appears on chalkboard and ranges from a stunning potato and foie gras terrine from their Clos Morillons days; a welcome lacquered mackerel set on a flavorful almond purée; and an excellent and unusual dish of seared baby squid with a terrine of lentils and sesame seeds. I loved, as well, the braised suckling pig with its deliciously creamy cabbage, and the meaty beef cheeks. Less interesting was the veal served over a strange potato and root vegetable purée. And in the dessert category, I confess that the strawberries in curly parsley sauce did not deliver me to a joyful state of bliss.

The wine list offers some pleasant discoveries, including a fruity and dense vin de pays de d’Herault, from the Domaine de L’Escalette. The 2001 is made from Carignan vines more than 80 years old, giving character and personality to a wine that is still in its infancy.

Ze Kitchen Galerie
4 rue des Grands Augustins
Paris 6
Telephone: 01 44 32 00 32
Fax: 01 44 32 00 33

Closed Sunday. All major credit cards. A la carte, 40 to 45 €, including service but not wine.

Le Pré Verre
8, rue Thénard
Paris 5
Telephone: 01 43 54 59 47
Credit card : Visa

12 € lunch menu, including a glass of wine.
Dinner, a la carte, about 24 € including service but not wine.