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A French Kick

I have been thinking, eating, going to, and cooking Italian for quite some time. Pasta in tomato sauce or cream sauce is a staple food in my kitchen as it is in my evening’s dining out menu. Lately however I’ve been on a French kick. I find my mind wandering to foie gras and steak tartare. I bought a giant Picture A Day calendar of France. It beautifully transports me to all the regions, markets, seas, and vineyards of France every time I gaze upon it. I started reading Peter Mayle’s Toujour Provence again. I read its prequel, A Year in Provence, and was wistfully sad when it ended. It felt like saying good bye to old friends. So in following of my French mindset, I am making lunch reservations at Le Crocodile, one of Vancouver, BC's oldest and best known fine restaurants. My friend George is accompanying me, as he is one of the only ones I know who can take the rest of the afternoon off for an indulgent long lunch. If you can break away from your duties or if you have nothing pressing you must attend to, please join us. Here, I’ll give you the location: corner of Burrard and Smithe St. across the Sutton Hotel.

Le Crocodile used to live on Thurlow St. when it was small. Then it grew up and moved to Smithe and Burrard in 1992. You can always judge the sophistication and success of a restaurant by the age of the waiters. Le Crocodile boasts staff that have been here so long that they are irreversible ambassadors of the place. We come to Le Crocodile, we expect to see Jean Pierre and Pierre, both working here since the beginning in 1982. (And if we tune into our psychic frequencies, we may see the future when one of them will graduate into owning their own French restaurant. God knows, it happens all the time.) Today on this stunningly beautiful mild winter afternoon I walk in to be greeted by the radiant face of Helene, the wife of the owner and chef, Michel Jacob. She compliments me, takes my coat, and then gives me my choice of any table in the house. I’ve got a good array to choose from, as it is a workday and most people have rushed off. There are still some laggards, including a group of businessmen doing what they do at a round center table. Fine wine and food beats coffee and donuts in a fluorescent boardroom any time. Jean Pierre comes to say Bonjour and asks in French if I’m ready to order wine. I tell him that I’ve been speaking more culinary Italian lately than anything. He says he’ll stop, at which I insist he carry on. I could use a brushing up on light French. Just take it easy on me. Regarding wine, George is late and the last time I ordered wine on faith he left a message saying that he couldn’t make it and I got stuck with an open bottle all to myself. Not such a bad predicament, you say? Well normally I’d agree with you, except that at the time it was inappropriate. I’ll wait a bit, thank you.

Another 15 minutes and finally a voice mail: I’m sorry. I got snagged by the others. I’m just looking for parking and will be there any minute. Okay, now I’ll order. I’ll have what those gentlemen are having: the Mercury Rouge - Château de Chamirey 1997. This fruity wine is nice and springy, good for such a sunny afternoon. While he’s pouring, I notice a pewter pin on his tie. It looks like a dog, but is actually a crocodile, the restaurant’s mascot, and all the wait staff are wearing them. I also notice that Jean Pierre is wearing three wedding rings. I ask how many wives he has. He tells me that his wife passed away and the ring on his pinky is hers. What of the one of your index finger? Future, he laughingly replies. Well, why not? Here’s to love and hope.

Let’s take a sneak peek at the lunch menu. The menu cover these days is a cartoon drawing of a cathedral-style kitchen somewhere in France. It is full of animals and the only ones alive are two cats who are salivating at the rest. Animal parts hang from the rafters, rabbits are shown off by their ears, fish float in buckets, ducks hang by their feet from pillars, foul and swine turn over the fireplace. This may be vegetarian hell, but no one could ever accuse the French of not liking their meat. They also have built quite a name for themselves throughout cuisine history for making exquisite dishes out of rich sauces and unusual body parts. I once knew a chef who explained the reasoning behind the plethora of organs and glands, butter and cream sauces to be found on the traditional French menu: ‘It was from times of famine. Let’s say you were the average French citizen of long ago. You were poor, had one cow and a few chickens at best. Various animals ran wild: hares, sangliers, frogs, snails, quite a few types of fowl. You ate what you caught, had to make it taste good and couldn’t afford to waste. The meat was just the beginning. There are organs and glands that, when combined with oils, spices, and various flavourings, could be made delicious. There’s blood for thickening of gravies and sauces. You weren’t going to kill your own chickens, for they were all you had, so you ate their eggs and made all sorts of new uses for eggs - soufflés, sauces, quiches. You certainly weren’t going to whack your only cow, so you took the milk and cream it gave you and made all sorts of uses for those - butter, cheeses, cream sauces, crème fraiche, desserts rich in dairy and eggs. All these, combined with the grains, vegetables, and fruits that could be grown, made for good eating. And the starving don’t have to worry about what’s fattening. See, it all started as a matter of practicality.’ Sounds reasonable to me.

Of the world’s cuisines, two stand out as being permanently linked to love: French and Italian. And it’s no accident that they have dominated the world’s fine dining and wine industry. Food and wine have long been weapons of seduction. The same pleasure hormones that are released during sex also come out during a good session with some tasty food. Add enough wine and all sorts of neat feelings flow around. Being relaxed and more open is almost unavoidable. Convincing another to give up their singledom or virginity becomes a much easier task. After that they usually no longer need to be led into temptation; they can find their own way. Even when you’re not counting on treats to convince another to relinquish their body to you, a sexual connotation still nips at the heels of eats and drink. To some, anticipating the first taste of a fine wine is comparable to anticipating the first taste of your new mate. I once knew a wine collector who’d get an erection when he learned a certain liquor store was having a sale. That may be going a bit too far, but you get my point.

At Le Crocodile, in addition to the fine lunch menu, specials are always available. Among today’s are two I must have: Fresh sautéed goose liver is one and Escargot in edible pastry shells in a classic garlic butter (which is on the dinner menu) is another. The sautéed goat cheese salad over mixed greens with balsamic vinegar off the regular lunch menu is also a certainty. Some other items off the lunch appetizer list are grilled deboned (for the most part) quail served on a potato galette with curly endive salad; grilled oyster and shitake mushrooms, mesclun salad and fried onions; and lobster bisque with cognac and crème fraiche.

Looking up, I see a reddish head bobbing toward the restaurant. George is here. He must have valet’d at the Sutton. He explains the lateness and is forgiven since it was unavoidable business. I also know that he’s not been so quick on his feet lately. He took a nasty spill the other day and sprained his bottom. (Don’t laugh; I know what it’s like. I broke my tailbone in 1990. Slipped on a patch of black ice and landed on my butt. It was a lot of pain, the extent of which I realized later while attempting a sit-up. That took months to heal.) Wine is poured, specials are re-recited and he opts for the fresh goose liver as well, followed by the grilled lamb chops with Provencal herbs and citrus sauce from the lunch menu’s main courses. Other examples of lunch entrées are crab ravioli with cream, parmesan and smoked salmon julienne; grilled calf liver with fried onions and beurre Provencal; pan fried Dover sole, beurre noisette and capers.

I haven’t been here in ages. Friendly and festive Italian took over the dining scene around here from the early 1990’s. French was somewhat left behind, long associated with cholesterol and snobs. Today, with the aid of a new generation of chefs, all fine dining regions have come around to modern thinking in both attitude and health. There are more people of discerning means and more dining choices than ever and those numbers grow at a constant rate. No one can rest on past laurels. New and old find themselves in the same boat: to keep customers you have to be good. Good service, good food, good atmosphere, good location. A keen restaurant, like any smart business, will keep one eye on the competition while never losing sight of why it exists-to satisfy the customer’s desires. No one cares if you’re traditional, the edgiest, or who your daddy is. In the modern restaurant jungle, only the fittest survive. But hey, there are also a lot of species. And they can all coexist because the predator likes variety. As long as it’s a good variety.

The French do their share of kidding around. I knew a chef who worked here once. She used to tell me a story of a sous chef who, during customer kitchen tours, would play a trick. He would don rubber gloves and would sneak one index finger out of its sheath. He’d be chopping vegetables and just when the unsuspecting guests passed he would chop off the empty finger ‘by accident’. Then as they screamed and looked horrified he would glance down at his ‘mistake’, think for a second, and without a change in facial expression just scrape the finger into the garbage with the edge of the knife and continue chopping. That always got ‘em.

Our first courses are here: my escargot, his goose liver. Both are excellent, very rich. You’re welcome to dip bread in any of the sauces, although I’m going to pass because I know I have two more dishes coming. We are almost out of wine. Another bottle please, this time the Châteaneuf-du-Pape Château du Beaucastel 1996. This one competes less with the food. It is big, yet mellower and more dignified, which is exactly what I expect from this wine.

George and I have great conversations. Today one of the topics is our family. The eccentricities of older relatives are hilarious when one is safely out of their controlling grasp. My father is presently without my mother. The trouble with old world people who moved to the new world is that they ‘go back home’ (ever notice that ‘home’ to some is a place they haven’t lived for 40 years?) for extended periods of time. My mother has gone to Iran for two months to visit her mother. Hence I have been spending more time with my 72 year old father. The other week I asked him for a ride to the drug store. I told him that I’d just be a minute. I returned to the car to find him walking the parking lot in slippers. He’s not crazy; he just doesn’t care. The other day he had to have six teeth removed (more in a long line of repercussions from a medieval dental job decades ago). The replacement teeth are not yet made. I walked in on him dropping a bran muffin and a glass of milk into the blender, giving it a whirr and then drinking the result. He long ago went beyond Health Nut to Health Lunatic. He has burned out two microwave ovens, one by over cooking a lone garlic bulb by five minutes and recently by trying to cook a ginseng root. So let’s see: walks around in slippers, no teeth, does ridiculous things… I’m living with Grandpa Simpson. These two months had best go by quickly.

Our second courses are here. His lamb is a fine portion. George usually goes with fish or pasta for lunch, but when in France… There’s a grilled ribeye steak with pomme frites on the menu that looks like what tipped over the Flinstones’ car in the drive-thru. My goose liver is the same as before: good, rich, and squishy. The goat cheese brings with it a cleansing portion of greens.

Our courses are done with and the wine is ending. Do we wish dessert? Not this time, Jean Pierre. We will return for your profiterolls and sorbets another time. For now we will enjoy the remainder of this beautiful afternoon elsewhere with a change of scenery. Then I look at George and add, Elsewhere with comfy chairs. Besides, I’m sure the staff wants to prepare for dinner in peace. Thanks for everything, Le Crocodile; I promise we’ll return. And I hope that you will join us then as well. Taking time to enjoy life is what it’s all about and it’s been a pleasure spending this truant day with you. We’ll do it again soon. Au revoir!

Le Crocodile: 604-669-4298 909 Burrard, entrance on Smithe, Vancouver, BC, Canada

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