It can be intimidating to inherit an institution. Harvey and Marlou Cross knew, when they bought 28-year-old La Cuisine from the renowned François Sully this spring, that scores of regular customers would be judging them closely. Sully had built up a loyal following, including many Americans, with his dogged commitment to traditional French cooking.
“Some are actually frightened when they come in and they don’t see François behind the stove,” says Marlou, who runs the front of the house.
Now Sully and wife Janet have decamped for France, retiring early to the farmhouse they’d spent years renovating. The Crosses promised Sully to keep standards high — but they didn’t promise not to make any changes. So no longer will La Cuisine close down for 10 weeks every summer. The Crosses have added martinis to the list of French wines and cognacs Sully insisted upon, and they plan a new menu for the fall.
Till then, the short menu is exactly the same, though subject to Harvey’s interpretation. His clients will be watching him closely in more ways than one: A completely open kitchen, staffed by Cross alone, is the first thing you see as you reach the top of the stairs. There Cross chops each vegetable, stirs each pot. When I complimented him on his organizational skills, he said it was just a question of knowing “when to look at this, when to look at that.”
And besides, he’s serving 3,000 fewer customers a day than in his old job, as food service manager at the University of Windsor. But not to worry: Before that, he apprenticed at French restaurants in Toronto. That’s where he learned traditional dishes like bouillabaisse, beef marchands de vin, duck confit and escargots forestière, and traditional desserts like crêpes suzette and mont blanc au marron.
When you go to La Cuisine, here’s what to do: Order a starter of foie gras (a feature, not a regular menu item). Although it’s not a huge portion, $18 Canadian is not really a lot for this taste sensation that everyone ought to try at least once in their lives. Bused in from Quebec, it’s rich, rich, rich, yet melt-in-your-mouth, served on butter-soaked toast with ladles of Madeira sauce that gild the lily.
For a green starter, the salade de Provence is elegant and delectable, with a barely tarragoned dressing. Those who like their salads loaded can ask for the Montmartroise with croutons, bacon and Swiss, and the other end of the spectrum is described as “lettuce with oil and vinegar,” for $1.75 Canadian.
I was less impressed by my onion soup, which is mild. It came to the table boiling, with the bread almost entirely disintegrated.
For the main event, I cannot speak too highly of the bouillabaisse, that celebrated Provençale fish stew with saffron. Cross uses fresh mussels, of course, and scallops and usually a white fish. The stock is rich with shallots and garlic and a hint of Pernod. In the future, he plans to ask customers to call ahead when they want bouillabaisse, to make sure he has the right fish on hand, but I had no trouble whatsoever with potluck.
Nearly as stellar are the beef marchands de vin, tender as can be in their red-wine reduction, and rack
of lamb over tomatoes Provençale. Lamb and tomatoes don’t seem like a natural pairing, but the delicate little chops work perfectly with the garlicked tomatoes. All three of these dishes will remain on the new menu come fall.
I was less happy with my duck confit. The idea sounds right — a bitter-orange sauce to cut the richness of the duck — but the duck was a bit dry and the sauce too astringent to really work.
Cross makes a house terrine that is quite fine, and perhaps the accompaniment is actually a fine French mustard that just happens to look (bright yellow) and taste (hot dog-ready) like French’s brand. My advice is to change this jarring note, and to serve real, crunchy baguettes instead of softer bread.
La Cuisine’s inexpensive lunch menu is almost entirely different from dinnertime’s, featuring quiche, croque Monsieur, crêpes filled with asparagus and Hollandaise, smoked salmon or ratatouille, and the popular chocolate-banana crêpe.
The Crosses will continue the tradition of a seven-course dinner for $35 on the last Friday and Saturday of each month. Open for lunch and dinner Tuesday-Saturday.
Jane Slaughter dines for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected].