Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Haute Cuisine

Dinner and a Movie

Haute Cuisine From France to Greece

By Steve Herte

Not to sound like Andy Rooney, but have you ever wondered why the day before you embark on a week of vacation is always the hardest day of your life? Friday, my laptop gave me the blue screen of death and was out of action all morning, forcing me to input the time sheets on another employee’s desktop computer, all the while running back and forth to answer my phone. Adding a little complication, my occasional dinner companion (whom I am now tutoring in French - it should be interesting to get her out of her Spanish accent) sent her time sheet from a Windows 7 enabled laptop to my Windows XP laptop and I couldn’t open the file. Luckily I was able to call her. We were dining that night anyway.

Then, also luckily, I ran into the computer services division expert and she got my laptop working again, but not until after a half-hour listening session (did I mention I’m the father-confessor to several employees?). While I, of course, agreed with her, I also had other fish to fry, and managed to finish all my work and all preparations made for a week out of the office just in time to leave; only to discover there was a problem on the subway line I needed to get to the movie theater.

As you can see below, I did make it and it was a wonderful evening from then on. This week promises to be interesting with work in the garden and around the house and pub-crawling and karaoke four nights in a row - my kind of vacation. Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday are Irish Pubs and Thursday is a Thai restaurant and Japanese karaoke (is there any other kind?). This morning I learned that my next film (spoiler alert!) opens this week, Cloudy With A Chance Of Meatballs 2. I’m loving it! Enjoy! 

Haute Cuisine (The Weinstein Company, 2013) – Director: Christian Vincent. Writers: Etienne Comar & Christian Vincent (s/p), Daniele Mazet-Delpeuch (story). Cast: Catherine Frot, Arthur Dupont, Jean d’Ormesson, Hippolyte Giradot, Arly Jover, Jean-Marc Roulot, Brice Fournier, & Philippe Uchan. Color, 95 minutes.

In an age where you need huge explosions, super heroes, gross vulgarity or nearly naked people slobbering over each other in bed it’s refreshing to see a well-acted movie requiring none of the above to tell its story. Mazet-Delpeuch served as chef in the private kitchen of the Elysèe Palace for President François Mitterrand from 1988 to 1990, and this film is a fictionalization of her career and how she ended up as Mitterand’s personal chef.

The movie opens over stormy Southern seas and settles on the barren, scrub-covered Crozet Islands halfway between Madagascar and Antarctica. Here, at a research station, the only populated part, we find Hortense Laborie (Frot) busily preparing dinner for dozens of hungry men while Mary (Jover), a reporter from Australia, is desperately trying to interview her about her previous career. Hortense successfully dodges Mary time and again and the scene shifts to the Perigord region (the place for black truffles) of France, where Hortense was born and lives on her farm raising geese. One day, a couple of government men come to whisk her away, telling her only that a “major public official” requires her services as chef. She is also told that noted chef, Joël Robuchon recommended her for the position. When she learns that she will be heading the private kitchen for Le President (d’Ormesson) she hesitates humbly but is convinced to accept the post.

Nicolas Bauvois (Dupont) is assigned to be her sous-chef after her whirlwind tour of the male dominated Main Kitchen where she is greeted by glowers and leers, especially from Head Chef Pascal Lepiq (Fournier). After learning that she will never know how many people will be having dinner until a couple of days before; that the menu must be prepared ahead and approved; and that she will receive nothing but resistance from Lepiq, she manages to take stock of the kitchen stores and prepares a fabulous meal for the president and his guests, including an amazing Chou Farci (stuffed cabbage) stuffed with salmon. But what she wants most is to know what the president prefers her to serve. In one of the most beautiful scenes she sits down with him while his entourage nervously await him for a flight to some important state visitation. She learns that he wants the sort of good, simple food his grandmother used to make. When he hears that she also loves to read cookbooks just as he does, the 10-minute audience goes well over a half-hour – much to the chagrin of his various nervous ministers.

This spurs her on to another major success at a “family” dinner for the president where he regales her in the company of his guests. However Lepiq lobbies to have her “dessert” removed from the menu, replacing it with his own. No matter how much she protests that her “dessert” is a cheese course (and a home-made one at that, that Nicolas slaved to perfect) she is overruled. After this, things begin to go downhill. The treasurer insists that her expenses are too high – such as train fare to Cherbourg for special mushrooms called “Ceps” (Porcino in Italian). Then to add insult to injury the ministry places the president on a diet, forbidding fatty meats and sauces. There is another beautiful scene later that evening when the president comes down to the kitchen and she prepares him a snack consisting of a thick slice of bread coated liberally with black truffle sauce and covered with generous slices of black truffles. (I was wishing I could jump into that scene).

Sadly, the constraints and pressures levied on her force to resign and head back to the Crozet Islands, where she is not only more appreciated but almost worshipped. Meanwhile, the boorish lechers in the Main Kitchen rejoice at their success in ousting her.

Haute Cuisine (original title Les Saveurs du Palais – “Tastes of the Palace”) is never boring, even though the amazing recipes supplied by Mazet-Delpeuch herself constitute much of the scenery.

The focus of the plot, however, is the trials and tribulations of a woman dealing with a chauvinistically pig-headed crowd of men while performing her duties superbly and with dignity. My sincere applause goes to Frot and d’Ormesson for their fantastic characterizations and flawless acting. This movie was a delicious work of art and deserves to be playing in more than just two theaters in Manhattan. The subtitles are quite an accurate translation of the surprisingly clear French spoken on-screen. The music beautifully wraps the story in velvet folds. And . . . what Bruce Willis movie comes with a reference to her cookbook, Carnets de cuisine du Perigord a l’Elysee, at the end? Rating: 5 out of 5 Martini glasses.

29 East Second Street (2nd Avenue), New York

At the corner of 2nd and 2nd just north of Houston Street, it’s impossible to miss the big, bright white lit letters on a dark blue background of Boukiés Greek restaurant (μπουκιες in Greek and pronounced Boo-Kay-ess in English, which translates to “small bites”). This year-and-a-half-old eatery specializes in the small dishes (Meze) of Aegean cooking. The entrance is on the Second Street side and the décor is simple, featuring the blues and whites of the Greek flag. The dining area has comfortable beige banquettes and chairs and is separated from the kitchen in back by a wall-sized wine rack. The two sides facing the street are floor to ceiling windows and the avenue side can be opened to the sidewalk café.

The manager greeted me at the door and led me to a table by the window from where I could watch the people both outside and inside – perfect. My waiter, Arthur soon appeared and brought my water and both the food menu and wine/beer menu. I noticed they had my favorite beer (Weihenstefan, a delicious wheat beer from the oldest brewery in Germany) and I ordered it to give me time to choose my meal. Arthur was very helpful in explaining mezes, suggesting three plus a main course. Fine by me. I learned that the consulting chef, Diane Kochilas, author of The Glorious Foods of Greece, described these dishes as “not to sate but to tease.” After an appropriate time I chose two of his selections and two of my own. Meanwhile, the bread dish arrived, accompanied by a beautiful chickpea/garlic/olive oil spread.

I started with a lovely Taramasalata – made with smoked trout and topped with capers – a lovely, smooth combination of bread crumbs, caviar, onion, olive oil and lemon juice mixed with the pureed trout and formed into a disk on the plate. I spooned it onto pita bread and found it delightful. My second meze arrived shortly after the first, but it did present a problem, for the first dish was cold and the second hot. I simply switched to the hot one, Psito Ktapodaki, a Boukiés specialty of marinated, grilled octopus served with a lemon-caper dressing. Here my apologies go to those who find octopus repulsive; but being that it was on the menu in three different preparations and on the business card itself, I felt they knew what they were doing. They did indeed. It was tender, juicy and flavorful with a nice smoky crispness. I just find it fun to eat octopus.

It was time to order the wine and the list was quite impressive considering they were almost all Greek wines. I chose 2005 Mercouri Antares (Avgoustiatis/Mourvedre), a medium-bodied red varietal with a slight tart edge to the deep fruity flavor that even complimented the lemon flavors in the food. These small plates were starting to fill me up when the third one arrived. The Thrimatismeno Arni se Pita – lamb, slow braised with red wine until it collapses (“is pulled”), then stuffed into pita bread and served with a thick yoghurt-Dill sauce – was amazing. The sauce by itself was wonderful. The two together were earthy and erotic. I had to be careful. The main course was still to come. I paced myself.

All through this the wine was humming, the music playing and the traffic on Second Avenue made me supremely happy I don’t drive. Then came the Peskandritsa a la Polita – Monkfish tails sautéed with white wine, saffron and herbs served with braised fennel, peas, carrot logs, fingerling potato halves in a potato/Dill broth. The dish arrived stacked like a Jenga game and there was no way to eat it without deconstructing it. But when rearranged in the bowl it was only a matter of time before the soft, juicy fish (poor-man’s lobster, but better by far), the crispy but tender carrots and the peas were gone. Only the potatoes were left, and I wanted dessert.

Even though Arthur directed me to some chocolate confection, I saw my favorite Greek dessert, Galaktoboureko (literally “milk custard”) and order it. In 250 previous Greek restaurants I have never seen this dish prepared this way. It looked like an amalgam of a Cannoli and a Spring Roll and not the familiar delicate layers of philo dough and custard with a honey drizzling. I had to comment on it. It was good, but not Galaktoboureko. I asked Arthur if they served Greek coffee and tried not to go into horror when he said no. I settled for a double espresso (which was quite good) and a glass of Samos wine (on-the-house).

Boukiés is a wonderful addition to the East Village and deserves several return visits to try their whole fish specialties, the Saganaki (one of my favorites) and the many other mezes. The immediate area of Manhattan has several interesting restaurants but I chose this one for comfort food and comfortable sitting. The moderate to low prices also add a significant lure.

For the Dinner and a Movie archive, click here.

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