If my parents hadn’t taken me to eat at Chez Michel restaurant in Bethesda, Md., when I was five years old, I think my life would have turned out differently. Instead of becoming a food obsessive I might have developed another passion — swing dancing, say, or collecting porcelain figurines.
Chez Michel was country cozy in decor, with copper pots and dried flower arrangements on the walls, and doilies upon doilies — serious doilies under every vase on every sideboard.
The waiters were almost comically courteous, and the classic menu was written with flowery prose and peppered with enticing words like délice and “sauce.”
Sauce? “It’s like the juice in stew,” my mother explained.
I ordered escargots and licked the shell indentations clean. My parents gave each other the “have we spawned a demon child” look.
I thought often of this restaurant during a trip this past weekend to Québec, Canada. My wife had a semi-whacked-out idea about where she wanted to spend her birthday. We had plenty of time to explore the town and eat in sweet restaurants that were ringers for Chez Michel, particularly in the heavily touristed old city. The local cuisine may be New World, but its basis is unassailably French.
It was there we stumbled upon Bistro Sous le Fort, an appealingly cramped spot that specialized in the kind of French fare that strikes such a welcome balance of refinement and rusticity — coq au vin, duck confit, French onion soup. Like any good bistro, there were touches of creativity and use of local ingredients in dishes, such as endive and apple salad with maple vinaigrette, or Caribou sausage with whole grain mustard.
It was love at first sight. It’s always love at first sight for me with French restaurants. No other tradition gets the whole package of pleasure so well. The arch courtesy of service; the special plates and bowls for each dish; the infinite reference points to classic dishes and, because of that, the memory link to past dining pleasures and revelations; the perfectly unassailable insistence on three courses; the promise of house specialties within context. No other cuisine is built on such a rich dining discourse.
The food was fine. I ordered a tourte aux 3 gibiers (pictured) — a version of Québec’s famous tourtière meat pie made with caribou, bison and wild boar. The soggy crust tasted to me like commercial puff pastry, but some pickled beets and chutney enlivened it. My wife had a fine, salt pork-edged rendition of coq au vin served in a cocotte. This meal was a little better than the one we had two days before at Le Lapin Sauté, a place that poured on the country charm in its decor and followed through with somewhat indifferently braised rabbit in two sauces of cider and mustard, both anodyne.
The faults here reminded me of so many other French meals I’ve eaten. Entrees live (or, more often, die) by their sauces. Many French dishes are braised, yet braised food in restaurants usually tastes reheated and dull from the refrigerator. Chefs get bored with making the same classics over and over, and their efforts become slapdash. So many French restaurants are small — cozy but woefully understaffed.
And so people complain that French food is too rich, too heavy. In fact, the French have a much better sense of portion, and I’d bet dollars to beignets that a typical French bistro meal would be much lower in fat and calories that an American bistro meal.
But I also think the cuisine has stopped evolving. I have a friend who’s a great restaurant travel writer, always in search of new trends and breakthroughs around the world. She gets so excited talking about Barcelona, Tokyo or London but claims to get stumped by Paris. When I went two years ago, she recommended I get in touch with folks involved in the semi-underground “fooding” scene or look for one of the “génération C” chefs who’ve made a mark on updating the image of French food. But I ended up going to small, cozy restaurants where I could eat all the classics. There’s the rub.
By the way, we had a fantastic meal in Québec at Le Saint Amour, a local standard bearer for haute cuisine. And yet it seemed to speak the international language of upscale cuisine. A rectangle of marinated salmon served with a quinoa cracker and snow crab salad could have been a special at Joël.
And, on another day, we walked over the shop-lined Avenue Cartier far from the tourist district and, while my wife did some damage in a clothing boutique, I wandered around and explored some amazing bakeries and gourmet shops. Inside the Halles du Petit Quartier, an indoor food market, I found a charcutier selling three dozen different terrines. I ordered a slice of pheasant and morel mushroom pate, then picked up a perfect hard roll at a bakery and wandered over to the food court where people were eating heaps of poutine.
Not me. One bite of that pate sandwich, and I was hearing the familiar melody of French cuisine. It was like having Edith Piaf sing “Milord,” and I couldn’t help but sing along, thinking about how much I love French food.