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Restaurant Review: The French Corner

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Lean Cuisine?

Jacques Qualin creates mesmerizing meals at the French Corner in Stone Ridge. But how does he stay so slim?    By Lynn Hazlewood

 

The French, who blithely eat rich, cream-laden food washed down with a glass or two of wine, are much slimmer than we are, and have a lower incidence of heart disease. This phenomenon is known as the French Paradox, and it’s one I’m willing to put to the test as often possible. So you can imagine my delight a few years back when chef Jacques Qualin — fresh from his triumphs at Le Cirque, Jean Georges and Le Perigord in the great metropolis — decided his next stop would be a restaurant of his own in our little Ulster County town of Stone Ridge. It wasn’t long before he and his wife, Leslie Flam (also a chef with some swanky credentials), had transformed a local eatery into The French Corner and were turning out some of the best food in the region.

Qualin and Flam (she runs the front of the house) seemed to tune in to the local zeitgeist right away. The restaurant’s two rooms are pared down but softly lit, with wood floors, yellow walls, and a few antique doodads for charm. There’s also a tiny bar where you can settle in for a house specialty drink (and do try one — they’re made with fresh juices and, as an aperitif, set you up for the treats in store).

Treats there are, too. When four of us ate 12 different dishes one Friday night, there was only one small disappointment in the bunch. Everything else — whether rustic and robust or delicate and nuanced — was truly noteworthy. Qualin even bakes the bread: that evening we were offered slices of a good chewy baguette and a whole wheat brioche.

After a minor kerfuffle with menus (the place was full and there weren’t enough to go around), service went smoothly. We ordered a 2001 Rabasse Charvin Cotes du Rhone from the well-chosen list of moderately priced, mostly French wines.

Our appetizers hinted at Qualin’s range. The beet salad with horseradish emulsion  is not only pretty, with yellow, red and orange baby beets glistening like big gemstones on a pile of greens, but earthily delicious. Each beet offers its own distinct taste and was perked up by the mild horseradish dressing. (My husband, who generally turns up his nose at beets, always orders this appetizer.) The wild mushroom soup was equally flavorful, thick and rich with oyster and chanterelle mushrooms, and a thin slice of smoky duck breast floating on top as a tasty bonus.

Duck and foie gras rillettes, which came in four little sausage shapes, were a bit dry, and lacked the rich concentration of flavor I’d expected — but I feel almost nitpicky mentioning it. (On other occasions I’ve had Qualin’s rustic house-made pâté, and found it much more satisfying.) The mixed green salad is perfect for anyone in the mood for a lighter start, with crisp greens in a light vinaigrette dressing enlivened with truffle juice, lemon juice, and soy sauce.

Main courses were excellent. Duck breast and confit leg is a dish that turns up often on menus these days, with varying degrees of success. Qualin’s version has the leg partly boned, and he crisps up the skin just before serving, leaving the meat below succulent. The plump breast, spiced with ginger, clove, white pepper and nutmeg, was cooked perfectly to order. Buttery parsnip purée dotted with pomegranate seeds, and a few medallions of baked apple made sweet counterpoints.

The salmon “Filet Mignon” was another hit: a thick round of moist fish in a carbonade sauce, perched amid nicely  herbed red cabbage cooked with huckleberries and orange zest.

Qualin’s signature dish, turbot with a Comte crust, really shows off his sophisticated touch. Comte is a cheese rather like Gruyere; the light cheese and bread crumb crust added a pleasing soft crunch to the flaky fish without masking its delicate flavor, while the creamy Champagne sauce raised the thing to haute status. It came with a little mound of creamed spinach capped by fresh sautéed chanterelles — all the tastes and textures on the plate contrasting and complementary at the same time.

All Qualin’s dishes seem so carefully thought out, we wondered if substitutions could be made (chefs as masterful as he is often don’t like their creations tampered with — especially on a prix-fixe menu). Our pleasant young waitress went off to check and bounced back to announce that it was “not a problem at all.”

Lamb shanks, a prix-fixe offering that day, was fork-tender and fragrant with subtle Moroccan spices topped by a hint of cinnamon. They were sizeable enough that we had to wrap one to take home (no question of leaving it on the plate). As requested, they came atop a bed of Savoy cabbage that retained its bright green color despite being braised to a soothing, satiny texture. Fingerling potatoes were fine but seemed ordinary, perhaps because they were also a last-minute substitution.

Qualin’s desserts are also inspired. A mocha tart with coffee ice cream was wonderfully intense, with coffee tastes ranging from espresso to the ice cream’s cafe au lait. A piquant lemon tart had a tender buttery crust; an apple clafouti (a custardy dish baked in batter — and made with local apples, Flam informed us) tasted fresh with just the right amount of sweetness. The big hit was something Qualin had concocted for a wine pairing (in fact, to go with the Cotes du Rhone we were drinking). The sphere of dark chocolate encasing white chocolate mousse, sitting in a tangy passion fruit sauce with a wafer thin coconut tuile balanced on top, had our chocolate lover purring.

Dishes are nicely presented on white scalloped plates without too many flourishes. The ingredients are the stars, and Qualin treats all of his with the same degree of respect and creativity, elevating the humbler ones, like root vegetables and cabbage, to the level of fancier ones. Try something here that you think you don’t like (as my husband does with the beets), and you may be surprised.

Finally, a word about the prix-fixe menu, which was voted Best in the Hudson Valley by this magazine in 2004. Even though the price has gone up a couple of bucks to $28 since then, it would be hard to find a better deal. Dishes from the regular menu rotate onto it, and there’s no sense of skimping.

Oh, and for the record: Qualin and Flam, who presumably eat this delicious fare all the time, are both slim and healthy looking.

 

The French Corner

3407 Cooper St.

, Stone Ridge. 845-687-0810;

www.frcorner.com

Dinner Thurs.-Sun. 5-10 p.m., Sunday brunch 11 a.m.-2 p.m. Appetizers range from $8-$12, entrées from $26-$34; desserts are $7 to $10.

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