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July 15, 1999
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FOOD FOR THOUGHT: French Food in America

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FRENCH LESSON

Here's some food for thought and here's a French lesson. Do you know the difference between a bistro, a brasserie and a café? Have you ever thought where the word "restaurant" comes from? And is any thought or credit ever given for indispensable food words like "dessert", "entrée" or "hors d'oeuvers". And while we're at it, why are French restaurants such a tough sell in America, when every red sauce-drenched pasta parlor sells it's tepid tortellini like hotcakes?

Some of these answers are easy and some defy analysis. For those still with me, meaning those of you not saying to yourself, "but I like Italian food." As you ponder yet another Olive Garden atrocity or Macaroni Grill massacre--for you stalwart listeners and gastronomes--here are the answers to our little quiz from a died-in-the-wool francophile: A bistro is a small unpretentious restaurant serving a limited menu of house specialties and wine; brasseries are larger, Alsatian (which means French-German) in origin, and ornate in a fin de siecle sort of way (we're talking a hundred years ago, not now); and cafes are large or small but resemble coffee houses crossed with a casual bar serving a very causal menu at all hours of the day.

In America, no one cares about these distinctions, but the French take them very seriously. In fact, the French take everything seriously. Prompting Mark Twain to remark that the French are simply Italians in a bad mood. This perception is probably another reason Americans don't take well to French food. But it doesn't explain why a good reasonably-priced neighborhood place like Petite Provence couldn't make it despite serving food that was far superior to dozens of more successful restaurants around town. The food there, like that of all decent French restaurants, was savory and intense in ways that challenged, refreshed and restored the palette and soul--in other words, it was a restaurant and I for one will miss it.

This is John Curtas.

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