Saturday, December 1, 2012

Foie Gras and Figs: A Culinary Comparison

Japanese food (or at least the generic Western-palate menu of miso soup, sushi and sashimi, grilled things on skewers, and yakisoba) has become popular in France and joined the Vietnamese, Chinese, and Thai spot in take-out, restaurant, and all-you-can-eat buffet formats. As the the US, they're often run by non-Japanese Asian families, and there's one national chain called eat SUSHI that doesn't seem to have much of a connection with Japan at all. It's not the only sushi place in Tours, but it's one that I noticed because it offers foie gras sushi, and Nutella sushi, and "Italiano" sushi rolls that are filled with marinated dried tomatoes and mozzarella and basil with a thin slice of bresaola, or air-dried beef, wrapped around the outside. It's less a sushi restaurant than a "food in the form of sushi rolls" restaurant. But I was curious about the goose-liver sushi, and wondered how that would work as an item of fusion cuisine. After listening to panels on that very topic at the food conference, I thought that my lunch at the break on the second day would be a good time to try it out. And by happy coincidence, the traditional bistro Le Singe Vert (Bistro Marceau) right next door was offering a fall entrée of seared foie gras with autumn fruits, giving me the chance to compare old and new, traditional and avant-garde.

The restaurants themselves were polar opposites in ambiance as well. The eat SUSHI outlet is all white walls and floor-to-ceiling windows and mirrors and shiny countertops on either side of the curving sushi conveyor belt, and diners perch on stools under the glare of the lights hanging from the ceiling. Bistro Marceau is low-ceilinged and dark, paneled in wood and old French advertising signs, and the tables are crowded together between massive pillars with just enough room for the servers to get by. The place was about half full by the time I got there, but tables were quickly taken as I waited for my meal. I'd asked the waitress to bring me a plate for my sushi and spent time trying to get a decent photo, and sipping my glass of red wine (a local Chinon), and people-watching. There were older couples at several tables, one with a small fuzzy white dog, and each of the men had a tall glass of beer. The table in the corner held four men about my age, two with scarves and two with dangling gold chains, who were making their way through baskets of bread and plates of raw oysters and several bottles of wine. A family came in, eight people from grandparents down to children, and the six-year-old studied the menu with the same attention as the sixty-year-old, but then mostly ignored the slice of terrine and salad that he'd ordered in favor of pushing his toy cars around the table. The gentleman to my left was using a scrap of bread as a knife rest on the table, which I probably should have done because by the time I was finished with my food, rich in goose fat and butter, the edge of my plate was quite messy. I'm not certain of the etiquette of the French table. Perhaps there will be a conference on that, too, which I can attend.

Because I got the sushi to go, there wasn't a fair match-up between the two in terms of plating, but I think the bistro would have won easily in any case. I tried a piece of the sushi first; there was a slice of foie gras in the middle, smeared with fig jam, and the roll was coated in toasted almonds. There was also a sheet of rice paper (I think) wrapped around the jam-coated liver, maybe to help keep it together as it's fairly fragile stuff. Unfortunately that added a weird chewy element and absolutely no flavor to the already bland roll. The rice didn't taste of anything, not even of rice, and while I could taste a bit of the liver it was overwhelmed by the fig jam, and yet even with the jam it was still a really flavorless eating experience.

On the other hand, the seared liver with fruit (pears, apples, fig, and out-of-season apricots, unless there's a particular French fall apricot variety) was marvelous. And full of butter. I took another probiotic pill, and then cut a wedge of the foie, added a square of soft apple, and dipped the corner of the forkful in the small pile of sel gris, pink peppercorns, and cracked black pepper at the top of the plate before taking a bite. Now that was balance: richness, a melting texture on the tongue, a bit of sharp sweetness from the fruit, and the salty spike of the garnish that seemed to skewer the tastes together.

I didn't bother eating the rest of the sushi.

Traditional French dish 1, bizarre Francanese concoction 0.

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