Sunday, June 18, 2017

FOOD BIZ | Le Canard Enchaîné (Shrine to Edith Piaf)

A Vegetarian Napoleon—Eggplant sandwiching red peppers, in
sweet sauces. Photos by JT Marlin.
KINGSTON, N.Y., June 18, 2017—We had a fine dinner at Le Canard Enchaîné here in the Hudson Valley, in the early capital of what became New York State.

We were sent to the Canard by the manager of the Hurley Stone House, a B&B a few miles south of Kingston.

Originally known as Esopus, after the tribe of Indians that lived in the area, Kingston was a significant early settlement of the Dutch in New Amsterdam. It was there in September 1777 that John Jay and other rebels declared the independence of the New York colony from the British Crown. When, the following month, Kingston was burned to the ground, the colony's capital was moved for a while to Hurley.

A 600-page history available online, dating back to 1888, records the distinguished role of Kingston back to 1609 when Henry Hudson sailed up, on behalf of the Dutch, the river now called after him the Hudson River, in his ship the Haef Maen (Half Moon). In 1620 the Dutch formally claimed the area within the 40th and 45th parallels, between what was then the Commonwealth of Virginia and New France.

But... back to the dinner at Le Canard Enchaîné. Karen had as a starter the Vegetarian Napoleon, which was red pepper sandwiched between layers of eggplant, with an endive leaf on top to give the dish some panache, and sweet sauce all round.

Warren had the pea soup, guaranteed no cream in it. Alice had the duck and I had the shrimp Indochine.

The Canard (Long Island Duck).
We were all impressed with the quality of our food and—doubtless encouraged by our enthusiasm—the chef-propriétaire came out to recommend the desserts. He told us that under the restaurant is hidden a 4,000-square-foot wholesale bakery, in which pastries are made daily for the huge New York City market, going to fancy places like the Carlyle Hotel.

It reminded me of my 1963 and 1969 visits to French West Africa, where Air France delivered fresh croissants every morning to Abidjan in the Côte d'Ivoire and Dakar in Senegal. It's hard to get croissants right and sometimes you just have to go a long way to find the pastry chef that really knows from flakiness.

We tried four pastries — the tarte tatin, crème brûlée, a chocolate mousse cake, and a tarte au citron. Five-out-of-five stars all round.

My FOOD BIZ posts focus on the inexorable economics of the culinary industry. If they were chapters of a book, its title could be Your Food is a Harsh Mistress.

I had a conversation about restaurant economics with the restaurant's chef-propriétaire, Jean-Jacques.

He calls his restaurant a bistro to give himself a little freedom from nonfood distractions. He does not want to be trapped by the fussy elegance that makes the restaurant business so exhausting for its workers. Jean-Jacques says:
"The people who decide on the stars for Michelin can keep you from getting a star for many reasons that have nothing at all to do with the food. Par exemple, the flowers on the table may not be fresh enough. A detail of service may not be comme il faut. Many young chefs now want to keep their attention on the food. Other things are distractions that push up the cost of the meal, that keep restaurant staff from having enough time with their families. Today, chefs want to take off two days a week, like everyone else."
Indo-Chinese Shrimp. Shrimp served on barbecue sticks with a noodle
planted on top like a flag, with a generous portion of ginger below.
I know what he is talking about. I think back especially to Jacques Dejoux's introducing us to the Maison Pic in Valence. That's a restaurant where the chef-propriétaire Anne-Sophie Pic is the third generation of outstanding chefs. She maintains all the traditions of service, and Michelin shows its respect with continuing the family's three-out-of-three stars. Service in her restaurant is conducted like a Cathedral High Mass. Hard to do.

By contrast, the closest thing to an altar in Le Canard Enchaîné is a corner where Jean-Jacques showed us several deeply venerated Edith Piaf posters and a sketch of the great chanteuse.

What Piaf sang so well and defiantly about the vicissitudes of her life could sum up what the four of us thought about our food here, more than 100 miles up the Hudson River from New York City, a place we knew had a great history but place that we did not, in our blithe ignorance, fully appreciate was a site of haute cuisine:
"Non, je ne regrette rien." (With lyrics here.)

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