Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Comfy old hat

Frederick’s Asian-accented chapeau has plenty of wear left in it

Posted on Tue, Dec 26, 2006 at 4:00 AM

Release Date: 2006-12-26
Used to be that Frederick’s was favored by the blue-haired, big-Caddy set, an audience Frederick Costa took with him when he departed L’Etoile for digs in the shadow of Chateau Dijon. However, a look around at a recent dinner suggested that, despite the somewhat dowdy décor, a younger audience has also keyed into the restaurant’s considerable charm. Chef Francis Perrin’s Franco-Asian cuisine is a large part of that appeal, but so too is the sense of welcome, the feeling of being well-cared for — aspects of dining many restaurants fail to recognize. Or simply can’t achieve.

The attempt to play perfect host is not without its pitfalls, however; you might have to sit through hyperbolic descriptions of nightly specials and endure faux pas in French that would make even Inspector Clouseau blush. But it’s all in good spirits, and any amusement over pretentiousness turns to astonishment over taste when the first appetizers arrive. Yes, I know foie gras has been banned in Chicago, and I’m aware that, locally, Bruce Auden has removed it from the menu at Biga, but Frederick still fancies it, and so do we — especially when it’s simply seared and served with a sauce incorporating Cognac and, I’d guess, no small amount of butter. Tiny, cored, and Cognac-flamed apples accompanied the rich slabs of duck liver, and a tartly dressed salad provided welcome contrast. Grasping at straws — not that I’m always on the lookout for that imperfect knot in the otherwise pristine Persian carpet — the only aspect of the dish that wasn’t utterly in tune was the underlying bread: it was tough in contrast to the fork-tender foie. Some disassembly was required.

But if you bound and tortured me, I couldn’t come up with a single quibble over the Escargots de Bourgogne au Cassoulet & Chorizo Espagnol. This may not have been the kind of cassoulet cooked together for hours, but the white beans, the snails, the assertive sausage, and the tomato seem to have hit it off famously from the get-go, with no single element dominating, and I would have been content with just this dish, an entire loaf of crusty bread, and a bottle of good red. Alas, there was more to come. Somebody’s got to do it.

Speaking of wine, we had also splurged on a couple glasses of Sauternes with the foie gras. It’s a classic match, unctuous wine with equally opulent liver, and if there’s a bottle already open or you’d care to spring for a split, I say go for it. That bottle of red that worked with the escargots was an unassuming but very satisfactory Louis Jadot 2004 Bourgogne, and it reinforced the old adage that you should pair dishes and bottles from the same region. Burgundy and sea bass couldn’t seem farther apart, but in this case it was the dish’s truffle and shiitake components that made the often mushroomy pinot noir a compatible companion. Chef Perrin presents his truffle-baked bass in a deep bowl, and it’s not just a trendy trick; the bowl concentrates the flavors of truffle, Asian-inflected shiitakes, and artichokes into a heady broth that any full-flavored fish would be proud to have expired in.

I’m less sure that our duck would have felt the same way at his (or her) finest hour. Though the breast had been beautifully cooked to a perfect medium rare, its Cognac-and-green-peppercorn sauce was a tad too tinged with Asian spices. Not only did the spicing seem like a case of forced fusion, but the resulting flavor tended to outdo the duck. Less sauce also would have helped. But the Asian aspects of the sautéed vegetable medley, namely its bean sprouts, lifted that accompaniment out of the ordinary and made a rapprochement between East and West seem not only possible but desirable.

I often plead peut pas at dessert time, but we were on a tear here and had not just one, but two. Of course, a floating island is all fluff and air, right? (Some might have called these oeufs à la neige, by the way.) Not when you add crème anglaise, caramel, and toasted almonds. Apart from a possible over-poaching of these stiffly beaten egg whites, this was a spectacular and all-too-seldom-seen dessert — all the more so for its presentation in an extremely whimsical nun’s-hat of a dish.

The mis-monikered almond cake (it’s not on the current dessert menu) gets no such porcelain underpinnings and doesn’t need them. Essentially a death-by-chocolate-type cake that incidentally has some crushed almonds sprinkled on top, this devastating dessert would have loved a little Port for post-prandial companionship, but even the reviewer on a roll has to stop somewhere. Besides, I had to get home to add some blue to my hair — the things you have to do when you go grey. Prematurely, of course.

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