Ah, the French Riviera. Home of Cannes, superyachts and so many Michelin-starred restaurants that it needed its own guide. The coast’s jet-setting life has been immortalised in books and cinema for ages, an untouchable ideal of perfection reserved only for the cream of the crop. But with the rise in ‘bistronomy’ in the past decade—where a casual atmos combines with a focus on tradition—the Riviera’s classist barrier is starting to fade away. Gone is the norm of the judgy waiter, once ready with a glare should you mispronounce something. I probed this for myself at my first fancy French dinner in Delhi this year, one curated by an award-winning Riviera chef.
I emphasise on ‘fancy’, because I, like many other Indians, came from a family that didn’t even pass on table etiquette. “Your hands are enough to mix in the achaar, tear meat and blend the rice and dal,” my father would say. When it came to nights out, we were open to visiting restaurants that were Italian, Mexican, Chinese...but never French. It was ‘too foreign’, ‘too highbrow’, ‘too much of table manners’. After leaving the nest, though, I was free to do my own wandering.
I missed the Goût de France in March this year, when 70 Indian restaurants joined hands with the French embassy to bring the cuisine closer to the masses. But in no way was I willing to let go of a private dinner opportunity under Chef Leclerc Jean-Michel, who was visiting a star hotel in the National Capital. The man is part of a wave of Riviera veterans who are stripping back elitist frills to provide customers the best of Mediterranean produce and French technique, without the stress of being a ‘cultured’ diner.
This change in tide seemed long coming, an answer to the dominance of relaxed Asian fusion today. I’m not sure the change is enough to put French fare back on top as the pinnacle of good eats, but on some level, I think that prestige is no longer the goal. Chef Michel’s food seemed to resonate with this thought. The dinner was in a cosy nook at a star hotel, and I’d brought my equally-uninitiated cousin along as plus-one. If we were to be awkward newbies, might as well go down together, right?
Chef spent most of his time in the kitchen, appearing only with each course. His interpreter was missing, which is why we couldn’t pick his brain to adjudge the fanciness of, well, everything. Instead, he’d rattle off the name of each dish, beam at all four of us at the table, and return to the kitchen. In hindsight, coming down to brass tacks was an excellent way of cancelling out the intimidation, allowing us simpletons to genuinely admire the food and only the food.
The surprising star of the night was—you’ll never guess it—eggplant done three ways. It came in three forms—caviar; wrapped in a vegetable cannoli; and as a foamy espuma. After many a winter night of grumbling about bharta, I didn’t think brinjal could be handed back its oomph, but there it was. Another stunner was black cod, served with baby carrots, a chickpea puree and a tomato-cumin reduction. In my head, French food had been mostly poultry, birds and mother sauces, completely omitting the regional Mediterranean influences like chickpea, cod, figs and spices. This, thus, was a nice reinitiation of the cuisine. Chilean sea bass was also on the menu, served with bouillabaisse, a Marseilles fisherman’s staple.
My cousin tried the chicken with fig leaf, and the smoked lamb chop with ratatouille. I think she picked the latter purely out of fondness for Disney. We ended our meal by breaking into a fig tart, bare-handed, throwing propriety out the window. I think our co-diners got a kick out of it too. As we used the tart's hard shell to scoop up our yogurt ice cream, it reminded me of how we ate murighonto back home—a Bangladeshi specialty, we’d use wide and flat fish bones to pick up spicy, rice-laced curry. An odd, shared memory from our childhood, it would never have resurfaced if we didn't end the meal in non-judgmental comfort.
I’d recently read about food science, of how Asian cuisine tends to pair ingredients with contrasting molecules, while European gastronomy has traditionally stuck to foods with complementary molecules. The former allows for a layered clash, while the latter subtly blends similar flavours. Many ethnocentric Indians find this to be a synonym for ‘bland'—I was one of them, convinced nothing could be more complex than Indian food. But after Chef Michel’s humble, bare-bones yet flavour-packed dinner—one that allowed us to form our own opinions instead of just agreeing with a celebrity—I might be a convert. Who needs the savoire faire, if even the French have thrown it to the wind?
Chef Leclerc Jean-Michel was in town between November 29 and December 15 at The Claridges, New Delhi. His Riviera offerings were part of the menu at Sevilla, the hotel’s Spanish restaurant.