WineLine No. 30
Written and © copyright by Dave McIntyre
May 12, 2003

Star Ascendant

Dear Friends:

Here's a woman who knows how to make a first impression: Thin slices of poached pheasant breast served as a base for ... something that looked strangely like ice cream. Indeed, "Foie gras ice cream," the waiter nearly whispered as he ladled a steaming rich brown pheasant broth onto our plates.

My wife and I fairly lunged for our spoons, eager to taste the ice cream before it melted and enriched the soup. It tasted like cold, creamy foie gras, coating our palates with a sense of supreme luxury. Soon it disappeared, or transformed; it was never fully gone until our plates were empty. And then naturally the next course arrived - the foie gras confit.

We were at Restaurant Hélène Darroze, in the 6th arrondisement of Paris, upon the whispered recommendation of an acquaintance who also lives for food. (Does everyone whisper when mentioning this name?) The restaurant had one Michelin star when we visited, with ambitions, quality and price clearly aiming for more - it received its second star with the 2003 edition of the Guide.

Hélène Darroze has received her fair share of ink in the U.S. foodie press, courtesy of Gourmet magazine and a recent Chef series in The New York Times. Patricia Wells has hailed her as one of Paris' up-and-coming women chefs in a market still dominated by men. Based on our one meal at her upstairs salon, she deserves the acclaim.

Darroze, like her mentor Alain Ducasse, hails from foie gras country in the southwest of France. She bucked the family trend by closing the local inn her father and grandfather had run and moving the restaurant to Paris, where she quickly earned her first Michelin star. She preserves her family roots in the cuisine, the wines, and best of all in the Armagnac her father distills, available at extremely reasonable prices and in vintages reaching back a few generations for anyone who believes in the idea of digestif.

Our pheasant soup began the menu d'inspiration, perfect for those of us whose French or ability to choose is not up to the regular menu. It was followed by a thick slab of foie gras confit and a parade of courses, more than advertised, ending with the best pork dish (again a confit) that either of us had ever tasted. Superb cooking, superb ingredients, a superb touch.

There were a few minor flaws that might have attracted the attention of a Michelin critic. Our waiter's tuxedo had been pining too long for the dry cleaner's, and the kitchen door cried out for a gentler hinge. The wines paired with the tasting menu also favored the southwest; that kept with the restaurant's theme, but aside from a nice Jurançon with the pheasant soup, the wines did not keep pace with the quality of the food. And we were treated to a pungent stream of invective from the kitchen after the waitstaff forgot to inform the chef of my wife's shellfish allergy. That said, the Provençal-style rouget that emerged from the kitchen a few minutes later was even better than my sea scallops.

It is awkward to lust after a chef when dining with one's wife, but I suppose that works both ways when the chef is male. Hélène Darroze is pretty and petite, modest and demure in English if not in French, and blonde in a way that appeals to a camera and a hungry stomach. I can't claim to know her; we only exchanged pleasantries as she made her rounds of the dining room, and I was concentrating on the porc confit. But I saw her face in a magazine recently and I was instantly hungry.

Enough said.

Hélène Darroze, 4 rue d'Assas 75006 Paris. Telephone: (011 33) 01 42 22 00 11; Fax: (011 33) 01 42 22 25 40. Email: Open Tuesday through Saturday for lunch and dinner; closed July 23 - Aug. 22. "La Table de Hélène" is a less formal dining room downstairs. This review was based on a single dinner in the upstairs restaurant. Expensive, but worth it.

My recent article on Plymouth Gin prompted a few comments from vodka lovers. For them, here's a new offering from the States - Idaho, actually, king of potatoes and now maybe vodka.

Introduced recently in California and now in the D.C. market, Blue Ice is made from those famous Idaho Russet Burbank potatoes and well water fed by Rocky Mountain snowcaps filtered through volcanic rock. The Silver Creek Distillery avoids other grains common in vodka production - rye, wheat, corn, barley or oats - and filters the product five times for clarity and purity.

The result is an unusually smooth and subtle spirit; recognizably vodka but without the characteristic harshness that many brands feature. At 80 proof, it'll numb you, but you'll want to slow down and enjoy the ride. And at $18 suggested retail for a 750-ml bottle, it gives other chic domestic vodkas a wake-up call for value. Its attractive packaging, with icicles appearing through a blue-tinged bottle with stenciled labeling, will tempt you to keep this one at the front of your liquor display. Within easy reach, that is.

With the weather finally turning warm, it's time to search out some lighter white wines for patio sipping. An early contender is Vignabaldo Grechetto 2002 from Umbria in Italy, imported in the D.C. area by Michael Downey Selections. At $6 retail, don't look for complexity, just nutty, refreshing fruit that pairs well with antipasti without the heaviness of many U.S. white wines. This would make an excellent aperitif or a by-the-glass selection at restaurants to match with first courses.

And just to prove that the United States should not be counted out when it comes to bargain wines, Beringer chimes in with two inexpensive eyebrow-lifters from the 2002 vintage. The Gewurztaminer captures not only the fruitiness of lychee but also that exotic fruit's earthy quality. (I can't explain this; if you've ever eaten a fully ripe, fresh lychee you know what I mean.) The Chenin Blanc shows apple and pear flavors with an appealing tinge of nutmeg. Both are California appellation, off-dry but impeccably balanced whites suitable for quaffing or pairing with cheeses or lighter dishes. And at about $7, they make dynamite bargains.

Dave McIntyre

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