By JEFF GORDINIER in The New York Times
Béatrice de Géa for The New York Times
“YOU feel transported,” Adam Gopnik said, moments after easing into a red banquette at La Grenouille, the Gallic grande dame on East 52nd Street that made its debut a few weeks after the Cuban missile crisis. “This is a reminder of why there were great French restaurants, once upon a time.”
It was a Tuesday evening in late September, and Mr. Gopnik, a longtime writer at The New Yorker, the author of the new book “The Table Comes First: Family, France, and the Meaning of Food”(Knopf) and possibly America’s most devoted public Francophile, had come to dip into one of the pleasures that he celebrates and explicates in the book: the full, old-school arc of an archetypal French dinner, from that first sip of Champagne to the final jolt of caffeine.
Every element in such a meal has a rich history and a symbolic purpose, and Mr. Gopnik is the kind of eater whose enjoyment is heightened by knowing as much as he can about each luxurious gesture.
That meal-capping coffee, for instance. It can be traced back to 1789, when France’s National Assembly “made it legal to sell coffee and wine and spirits in the same place,” he points out in the book. “A modern meal is a drama unfolding between the Opening Drink and the Concluding Coffee, with the several acts passing between the libations.”
So coffee, Mr. Gopnik said over dinner, “restores us to the world,” but it also helped create the contours of an extended restaurant repast, one in which “for three hours, you’re an aristocrat.”
If the evening at La Grenouille had an unspooling narrative, it was an echo of the one captured in “Midnight in Paris,” the recent Woody Allen film in which a contemporary scribe, played by Owen Wilson, is borne back in time to an earlier City of Light that he believes to be more civilized and more romantic.
“And who wouldn’t want to?” Mr. Gopnik mused. “For what imaginable reason would you not want to go back in time to the belle époque? And the weird thing is, in lots of ways it’s harder to go back in time to the belle époque in Paris than it is in New York. Because we preserve it as a museum experience.”
In France, he said, the grand three-star temples no longer seem to matter as much to Le Fooding generation. Mr. Gopnik, who lives with his wife and two children on the East Side (after about five years in Paris), and who doesn’t betray a trace of world weariness at 55, seemed to have dropped in from a different era, too, one in which the role of the dapper and omnivorous public intellectual was still a viable career choice.
In conversation he made casual references to Orson Welles and Kenneth Tynan and A. J. Liebling. He chatted easily with the waiter in French. He wore a suit made by Richard James, a Savile Row tailor. (To dine at La Grenouille, a man must wear a jacket, just as he would have been expected to do in 1962.) He was carrying a bag full of books from the Strand.
“I would love a bottle of red Burgundy, if you’re a red Burgundy fan,” he said. “I like red Burgundy maybe more than anything there is.”
When a server presented him with the bottle of 2007 Beaune Grèves a few beats later, Mr. Gopnik was in the midst of talking about how “our arguments about values get expressed in our arguments about food.” But he set aside his train of thought and his voice dropped to a murmur when he tasted the wine.
“This is really nice,” he said. “Like everybody, I love pinot noir. At home we drink Oregon and California pinot noirs every night because they’re cheap and they’re delicious. But occasionally when you get a bottle of real French Burgundy you’re sort of reminded of all of the mystique and the smoke and the complexity. And the myth of France, which is a very powerful myth.”
Mr. Gopnik’s new book is largely about that myth and how it has influenced our conceptions of fine dining for roughly two centuries.
Although the book takes captivating detours to England and Spain, and earnestly grapples with issues like whether it’s ethical to eat meat, “The Table Comes First” keeps returning to an idea of gustatory experience that began in the years after 1780, in and around a sort of Parisian strip mall called the Palais Royal.
That, Mr. Gopnik said, is where the very idea of a restaurant was born, and the idea later reached its apotheosis in New York with the rise of “le” and “la” temples like Le Pavillon and La Côte Basque. After mapping out his dinner (an appetizer of foie gras, an entree of lamb and a Grand Marnier soufflé for dessert), he took a look around the hushed amber-hued dining room at La Grenouille, the last survivor of that Gallic pack.
“We’re witnessing the ongoing life of an institution that it’s difficult for us to believe was ever invented,” he said. “Because we simply take this experience for granted: you and I sitting here in this red banquette, ordering our meal from a man in evening clothes.”
Originally, these fancy trappings were meant to set a restaurant meal apart from what was “sloppily served and amateurishly prepared” at an 18th-century tavern. Even the procession of courses, with sugar “banished to the end,” was supposed to codify a new mode of enlightened eating in which sweet and savory dishes were separate and distinct, instead of being flavor-blurred together throughout the meal.
“A meal cooked in an invisible kitchen, which is a very important point,” he said. “We have no firsthand information about what’s going on back there.”
Then again, if anyone is wired to find out, Mr. Gopnik is. To say that he is an inquisitive eater would be an understatement.
“I find that he is driven by this overwhelming curiosity,” said Dan Barber, the Blue Hill chef who has developed a friendship with the writer. “But it’s a very hedonistic drive, too. I think of him as this great pleasure-seeker. The more he knows about the food — its context, its history, who’s cooking it, what they’re cooking with, what kind of pan — it all becomes part of the delight and the pleasure of eating. I think it actually makes the food taste better, for him.”
Mr. Gopnik’s mind was constantly at work at La Grenouille. As dinner moved along, he began to talk about the difference between the “available” past and the “archival” past. “This is one of my little riffs,” he said. The available past, he said, is something that’s still an active part of the cultural dialogue.
His son, for instance, has been learning Jimi Hendrix songs on the guitar.
But most teenagers are unlikely to spend a whole lot of time listening to Lester Young, the jazz saxophonist. Which is why Lester Young is part of the archival past, Mr. Gopnik said, as are haute cuisine stalwarts like La Grenouille, even though expressing as much seemed to give him a slight ache.
“This became part of the archival past about 10 years ago,” he said wistfully. “That isn’t to say that it isn’t wonderful.”
Mr. Gopnik’s soufflé arrived soon after, suffused with Grand Marnier and so ineffably light that its crust gave way to the edge of a spoon like wisps of cloud surrendering to the wings of a jet. Years ago Mr. Gopnik learned how to cook the same soufflé from his mother, Myrna, a linguist.
“Oh, my goodness,” he said as a waiter broke the surface of the soufflé and spooned sabayon into its steam-releasing core. “This is what we came for. This requires craft that stretches back through the centuries. This, to me, is the perfect dessert. It’s a reminder of what French cooking is about, and what we stand to lose.”