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The Good Life

L'Esperance, St.-Pere-Sous-Vezelay, France

By David Shaw | From Linda Evangelista, Autumn 95

If there is a richer, more voluptuous bite of food anywhere on the planet than Marc Meneau's cromesqui, I have yet to taste it. To make cromesquis, Meneau melts foie gras and blends it with truffle juice, Port and cream; he then shapes the mixture into one-inch cubes, coats the cubes with fine-grain bread crumbs and quickly deep-fries them. You pop an entire cromesqui into your mouth, and when you bite down, the hot liquid bursts forth--a veritable explosion of flavors and textures.

Cromesquis are Meneau's adaptation of a nineteenth-century Polish recipe, a typical (and typically brilliant) example of his culinary style. Meneau is the chef-proprietor of L'Espérance, in the tiny Burgundian village of St.-Père-sous-Vezelay, about two hours south of Paris. Unlike most great French chefs, who learned their art as apprentices to other great French chefs, Meneau is largely self-taught. He learned to cook by reading old cookbooks and using those time-honored recipes and techniques as both inspiration and a springboard for experimentation in his own kitchen.

L'Espérance has 40 rooms, its own vineyard and a humidor in the bar adjacent to a large, glass-enclosed dining room that overlooks the garden and the stream beyond. But what L'Espérance has, above all, is Meneau's creative cuisine. A native of St.-Père-sous-Vezelay, where his parents operated a combination grocery store/bar/saddle-making shop, Meneau studied hotel management before deciding he would rather be a chef. He studied cookbooks and began experimenting. In 1968, he and his wife, Françoise, took over the family business and closed everything but the bar, which they turned into a restaurant.

In 1974, they bought a large home down the road from Meneau's childhood home and converted it into a small hotel and restaurant. A decade later, after substantial expansion and modernization, they joined the elite pantheon of restaurants awarded three stars from the Michelin Guide.

Meneau continues to peruse old cookbooks, and once a year he prepares a special lunch featuring only recipes from those books; his guests are eight friends who also collect old cookbooks. I've eaten at L'Espérance 10 times, dating back to 1979, and when my wife, Lucy, and I were here in 1987, the annual lunch was scheduled for the last day of our stay. There were 29 courses in all, and Meneau made extra portions of three of them for us to begin our dinner that night--fresh eel in a red wine gelée; cocks' kidneys in a sauce of truffles, cream and marsala wine, and a soufflé of eggs with truffle juice.

On my most recent visit to L'Espérance, I witnessed both Meneau's creativity and his playfulness. Some French chefs like to mix caviar with egg yolk and put the blend back in the shell--egg inside egg; Meneau beats egg whites to make a soft, egg-shaped meringue--egg in (and on) egg. After that, I had a warm gelée of lobster, surrounded by a pool of cool crème fraîche, infused with essence of lobster. Then, a whole roast turbot, served with meat juice and the marrow of a veal bone, followed by lamb, cheese and dessert. To accompany dinner, Meneau's sommelier had recommended a white Burgundy from Meneau's own vineyard and a 1989 Gevrey-Chambertin from Alain Burguet. The entire meal--the entire experience--was magnificent.

After dinner, Meneau and I retired to the bar for a cigar, accompanied by his dog Volt, a large reddish-brown German pointer. I asked him about the tiny card I had noticed on each table in the dining room on which were printed (in French and English) the words: "Ladies and gentlemen /Smokers and nonsmokers/ Courtesy and Politeness."

Cigarette smokers, not cigar smokers, are the big problem, Meneau says. "Ninety-five percent of all cigar smokers are polite and courteous; 95 percent of all cigarette smokers are impolite and discourteous." Meneau loves cigars: They're sensual, he says. He prefers a full-bodied cigar, such as a Partagas, early in the day but now was smoking a lighter cigar, an Hoyo de Monterrey, because his palate is tired late at night. In fact, his entire body was tired. Like most chefs, he works long hours--up until 3 o'clock in the morning and back up before 8--except Tuesdays, when the restaurant is closed; on Monday night, he sleeps ten hours.

This being Monday night--late on a Monday night--I quickly bid Meneau a grateful bonne nuit and went to my room.

-- David Shaw

David Shaw is a Pulitzer prize-winning media critic at the Los Angeles Times and an occasional contributor to Cigar Aficionado.

Phone: (33) 86 33 20 45
Fax: (33) 86 33 26 15
Dinner: about $150 per person, with wine

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