(Dispatch from San Francisco)
I simply can’t recall the last time in Paris that I was ate French fries that were actually made with real, freshly-cut potatoes. And served crisp, cooked like someone cared about how they tasted. Nor can I think of anytime in the recent past when I’ve been served fresh, seasonal tomatoes in a salad.
Last week I ate at Nopa, a shockingly-good restaurant located in an off-center location in San Francisco with wonderful cooking by a youthful, vibrant staff. From the opening plate of very crispy French Fries served with Maldon salt, to a thick, crusty, moist pork chop cut from locally-raised pork served with pan-fried peas whose brilliant-green flesh and taste assured me they were shucked no later than that afternoon. The food revolution that’s taken place in the past few decades in America has meant a number of excellent restaurants have opened everywhere, not just in San Francisco, and it’s pretty amazing the quality of products that are available in America nowadays.
So it gave me pause to wonder why this kind of food is rarely, if ever, found in restaurants and most markets in Paris anymore. (Save for pricey, starred establishments.)
In lieu of promoting freshness and cuisine du terrior, the current trend in Paris is le verrine: a little glass layered with a dice and/or puree of various foods. While the concept is fun, like ‘foams’, we’ve seen it and done it. And while it’s a cool idea, that’s the only innovation I’ve seen in the past few years in Paris. Still, I’d prefer to have food that simply tastes good; vegetables sourced from a local farm and sautéed briefly with a knob of good Breton butter or a really good, tangy lemon tart, made with freshly-squeezed lemon juice, perhaps from Corsican lemons, in a homemade buttery crust. Made with Breton butter, bien sûr.
Perhaps I’m thinking along these lines since I just finished reading The United States of Arugula by David Kamp. In spite of the silly title, this excellent book unwittingly tells the story of how America beat the French at their own game; namely cooking. While the French were resting on their well-earned laurels, garnered from mastering cooking techniques and developing various repertoires during the last few centuries, the Americans embraced the concept of cuisine du marché and took it to the next level by giving the ingredients more prominence than the techniques used to prepare them. Both ideas have their merits, I suppose, but I don’t need to tell you which I prefer.
While this is not a sweeping indictment of all restaurants in either country (there’s always the good, the bad, and I’ve certainly been served the ugly), it seems like the French now have some catching up to do.