[Pigging by Wilfrid: March 1, 2010]
The highlight of my dining week had an element of farce to it. In response to one brief post on Mouthfuls, a gaggle of savvy diners set off in pursuit of their quarry like hounds after a fox.
I forebear to speculate on the origins of this dish. It was well-known in grand cuisine circles in eighteenth century France, and associated with master chef Antoine Carême,but has roots deep in country cooking - long slow braises of a muscular wild beast. One might think of it as a hare stew of civet which has undergone a series of refinements.
There are, of course, differences in mode of preparation, but the first important advance this dish makes on an ordinary hare stew is to make a ballotine of the body of the creature. In other words, the saddle is boned, left in one piece, and then wrapped around a forcemeat, typically consisting of the hare's organs, onions, garlic and so on. This is then served in individual cross-sections.
The other main advance is the sauce. The blood of the hare is used, along with red wine, cognac - and on a good day black truffles too - to prepare a thick, velvety sauce. The results can be spectacular.
Although jackrabbits, as they seem to be known here, are common in some parts of the country - and doubtless get shot and eaten - hare cookery is rare in fine dining circles. A polite slice might be offered on the seasonal game menu at Picholine. Paul Liebrandt has been featuring a version of lièvre à la Royale on his top-priced tasting menu at Corton. I am sure that's very good, but one advantage of the version at Cercle Rouge is that it requires an outlay of some $28, which is exceptional value for a dish which requires not only time and skill but a good main ingredient. I am told these hares were imported from Scotland, and have no reason to disbelieve it.
The flavor, you see. For the uninitiated, it must be explained that hare is not like rabbit only bigger. The meat is very dark, and has that strong gamey taste of a creature recently romping in the wild. I would say that, along with grouse and kangaroo, it's one of the best game meats in the world, and thus worth a detour. Chef Pierre Landet nailed it. I have a sneaking suspicion, and I may be entirely wrong, that he enlivened the forcemeat with a little bit of mashed anchovy - by no means an unorthodox addition to a dark stew like a daube. Anyway, it was good, and well accompanied by a half bottle of Gigondas.
Chef Landet's work at Cercle Rouge, which I've praised before, deserves wider recognition. Despite these delights, the restaurant was far from crowded when I visited. I suspect most who are aware of it think of it as just another steak frites/moules brasserie, one of many - and that's pretty much what it was when it opened. In fact, this chef is one of the few we have who is willing and capable when it comes to serving the classics of cuisine bourgeois. Tripes à la mode Caen, veal kidneys, salade Landaise - and I still haven't tried his cassoulet.
I bet the venison dish - chevreuil grand veneur - was good too. If Cercle Rouge could present dishes like this (obviously these are seasonal) with more frequency - and let us all know they are doing so - it could become the presence it deserves to be on the New York feeding radar.
A reminder of their details here.