Modern French gastronomy has never not been in crisis, in rupture from itself. Nouvelle cuisine was a response to the cream-laden excess of Marie-Antoine Carême and Auguste Escoffier; cuisine minceur distanced itself even further from their approach. Roger Vergé and Michel Bras made immaculate, seasonal cooking their raison d’être; Alain Passard (briefly) went one better and rejected meat entirely. Bistronomie stripped haute cuisine of its pretensions, occasioning just the latest cri de coeur in a century-long tradition of pundits proclaiming this as the moment when classic French cooking definitively died.
In America, the story of French food, on the surface at least, is simpler: It was the pinnacle, then it wasn’t. There are any number of reasons why it was toppled from its position of pre-eminence: the emergence of viable alternative models; the winnowing away of pomp and circumstance from menus and dining rooms in the wake of 9/11; health concerns and simple fashion too, probably. Whatever the cause, the postwar giants — La Côte Basque, La Caravelle, Le Pavillon — closed one by one, and a more symbolic door seemed to have shut with them.
The reasons for French food’s resurgence in the years since Time magazine deified its new, emphatically non-French (and decidedly male) Gods of Food are as multifarious as the reasons for its original decline: Simple fashion, again, is probably only one of them.
But certainly, by the time Lucky Peach was asking its panel about the future of gastronomy for the Fall 2016 “Cooks & Chefs III: Fine Dining” issue, the gastronomy of the past was once again on the table. Christopher Kostow, the chef of California’s three-Michelin-star Restaurant at Meadowood, predicted chefs would soon be “looking further back and asking ourselves why we have rid ourselves of certain things”; trailblazing Alinea chef Grant Achatz was even more specific, predicting the return of “old French-style restaurants” — nothing less than “a resurgence of classicism.”
Really, he could have been describing Le Coucou, which opened in New York City in June of that year with a theatrical Gallic flourish, toques and all. Chef Daniel Rose intended it as a modern homage to Lutèce, perhaps the most emblematic of the grand postwar restaurants championed by then-New York Times critic Craig Claiborne. And if current New York Times critic Pete Wells didn’t quite match the four stars eventually bestowed by Claiborne on Lutèce, he nevertheless thrilled to the similarities between the two restaurants, and Le Coucou’s recontextualization of what he termed “the old high style.” Somewhere willing to serve authentic Lyonnaise quenelles de brochet in 2016 New York was undeniably distinctive — “an unmistakable outlier,” per Eater NY’s Ryan Sutton — but was also far more than a mere novelty play: It felt significant enough to move Eater’s national critic Bill Addison to predict that 2017 would finally (once again) be the year of the “proudly French restaurant.”
Fifteen months on, that feels like a pretty good call. Achatz himself is midway through a six-month exploration of 20th century French gastronomy at Next, in Chicago; Nouvelle Cuisine will replace the Cuisine Classique theme at the end of this month. In New York, Le Coucou now has a sibling, La Mercerie, which twins an innovative retail concept with an all-day menu boasting crepes and more recherché fare, like the tourteau fromagé; a couple of blocks away, Frenchette flies the tricolore for more affordable bistro dishes (and, less traditionally, natural wines). Grand Café in Minneapolis was one of last year’s most anticipated (re)openings; in the span of a few months, the West Coast has seen first Bar Crenn and now Canard come to the party, two of the highest-profile newcomers of 2018 so far. And Balthazar, Keith McNally’s oft-imitated ode to Parisian brasseries in New York City, is up for a James Beard Award for Outstanding Restaurant, 21 years after its first opened.
What is striking in each of these cases is not that they are French, but quite how unapologetically French they are. Where for the past decade or so French influence largely needed to be ironized, deftly reimagined, or otherwise attenuated — think the celeriac en vessie or carrot tartare at Eleven Madison Park — in 2018, the truly old-fashioned and excessive is back on the menu. Some of the more recent openings may share some of their DNA with the Montreal maximalists Joe Beef — like Grand Café, whose riff on the Paris-Brest substitutes a mousse of chicken livers cooked in cognac and cream for the more common praline — but more often than not it is canonical Gallic gastronomy, without further mediation or reinterpretation, that is on offer.
Words that once functioned as shorthands for a very specific form of fine dining fussiness and fustiness — beurre blanc, tarte flambée, soufflé, mousseline, mille-feuille — are once again reclaiming their rightful place on menus embracing, not scorning, the past. In parallel with the rise of culinary New Romanticism, with its personal narratives, organic style of plating, and bouquets of edible flowers, is it time to speak of a neoclassical revival, too?
However small in scale (for now, at least), the resurgence is not confined to places that self-define as capital-F French. At the genre-bending New York City restaurant Momofuku Ko, one of the signature dishes — previously an occasional fixture on the tasting menu, now available daily at the new bar — is something that a French chef from a hundred years ago would recognize as a classic pithivier: burnished, flaky, beautifully scored pastry encasing a savory farce (now duck, previously pheasant and foie gras). Pies like it have recently appeared on menus in Hong Kong (at Belon, courtesy of British chef Daniel Calvert), and in London (at both the Laughing Heart and Portland). In each case, old-fashioned grand cuisine is positioned in a context that otherwise scans as completely contemporary.
This juxtaposition is part of the pithivier’s appeal for chef Sean Gray, who likes how it feels “kind of out of place” alongside other dishes on the Ko menu. But he sees it as far from a stagnant fixture there, despite its popularity; for him and his team, it has become almost a provocation: “How good can it be? How good can we make it?”
It’s no idle question: A dish like this, which involves at least a dozen steps across multiple days, is pure, old-fashioned, labor-intensive technique at its most exacting. Which, of course, is also part of its appeal. For customers, there’s the wonder at seeing something you definitely couldn’t do at home; for head chefs mindful of the need to educate their young charges, there’s the training aid that it represents; for the person cooking it, there’s the accountability of taking control of a technically challenging process that can span multiple days.
This being 2018, there’s the Instagram angle, too. In a feed cluttered with rainbow-unicorn prettiness and tweezered terrarium plating, the stark geometric shapes and neutral colour palette of the neoclassical dish stand boldly and strikingly apart; the British chef Calum Franklin has amassed tens of thousands of followers (including at least one famous fan) on the back of this sort of immaculate, precision-engineered craftsmanship. Image-sharing has doubtless helped fuel the aesthetic’s reemergence, affording likeminded cooks a platform to show off their creations and spur each other on to even more elaborate extremes.
The furthest extreme to date — and the signal neoclassical opening of 2018 so far — is surely San Francisco’s Bar Crenn. Every element of the design, from the decor to the servicewear (lovingly plucked from Parisian flea markets) has been specifically selected, chef Dominique Crenn says, to “tell the story” of 1920s and ’30s salon life, to recreate an atmosphere in which “people gathered and exchanged ideas” with far more freedom than they do now.
The free exchange of ideas between past and present influences Crenn’s work more broadly: “You cannot go forward or be inspired,” she says, “without being aware of your heritage, where you came from.” And while some chefs might be looking back to the past with perhaps misplaced nostalgia — the heyday of French cuisine was also a time of imperialism, racism, and sexism — for Crenn the journey back in time through her culinary tradition is both personal and thoughtful; it is precisely this approach that informs the menu at Bar Crenn, which positions uncompromising French icon-dishes from the likes of Alain Ducasse, Paul Bocuse, and Pierre Koffmann alongside equally uncompromising riffs on French classics, like pâté en croute from Crenn herself.
It’s a juxtaposition that foregrounds quite how much of a boys club French fine dining has historically been. There is something strikingly transgressive, too, in the finished dishes being eaten not in the grand ateliers of Lyon or Paris but as “bar snacks” in a room that abuts one of America’s most progressive temples of fine dining. But, in Crenn’s eyes, this conversation between different schools of and approaches to high-end gastronomy is central to the overall effect: “If you put a Monet, and a Gaugin, and a Dalí on the wall, they may all be from different backgrounds and eras, but they are still in dialogue. And that dialogue might spark something.”
Bar Crenn itself is in a sort of dialogue with two other San Francisco restaurants, each opened by another chef with multiple Michelin stars to their name. Perhaps its most obvious analogue is Monsieur Benjamin, the modern bistro from Corey Lee whose lengthy menu is inspired by “the great Parisian bistro culture and traditions of French cooking.” And although this is clearly one crucial element of the neoclassical resurgence, Bar Crenn’s drive to recontextualize French traditions puts it in conversation, too, with In Situ, Lee’s project across town. There, modern culinary masterpieces play off each other in the suggestive setting of SFMOMA; it is a framing device that speaks volumes about the role that restaurants play in the curation and/or conservation of different schools and traditions.
Merely preserving the past is not enough for chefs like Crenn; for her, there is no point in going back if it doesn’t also help us to move forward. Postwar French restaurants in America were always museums, in a sense; visions of classical French cookery frozen in amber for half a century or more. But at Bar Crenn — as at other exemplars of the French neoclassical wave — the exhibits are finally coming to life.
George Reynolds is a London-based writer and contributes to Eater London.
Editor: Hillary Dixler Canavan