Swashbuckling Fare


Gascony is one of France’s celebrated culinary regions. The birthplace of King Henry IV, who knew that we all need a chicken in the pot every Sunday, it is home to foie gras, confit de canard, and Armagnac. It was also home to D’Artagnan, the most famous of Dumas’s musketeers, and to one of the founders of the American company of foie gras purveyors that bears his name. I’d spent a lifetime being seduced by the swashbuckling Porthos and Athos, and knew that Aramis was more than a men’s cologne. I’d even met the ebullient Ariane Daguin, a one-woman ambulatory promotion board for Gascony and Gascon food. It was inevitable then that I’d find myself seated at one of the high-back chairs in the homey upstairs dining room of her new restaurant, an East Side spot that celebrates not only the musketeers but their food.

It’s a miracle I made it upstairs on my first visit when, waiting for my guest at the bar, I took to sampling the Armagnac-laced house specials that celebrate the characters of Dumas’s novel. Having downed a Porthos with a raspberry in it and a D’Artagnan with a prune in it and a Milady I don’t remember so well, I was setting to work on the ominously gray Richelieu—a tasty mix of the local orange cordial, blue curaçao, and Armagnac, garnished with a raspberry for the red of the cardinal’s hat—when she mercifully arrived. Luckily, a few bites of the sumptuous terrine of duck foie gras with the sweet complement of sauternes jelly ($21) had me back in working order in record time. My friend was so taken by her special offering of a sweet corn soup with lobster quenelle that she was crying out for mercy. A seasonal menu change had removed it by my next visit. But items like a foie gras trio ($21)—in which standouts were an unctuous slab of terrine and an Armagnac-marinated prune filled with an airy puff of the stuff—remained, and a salad called “The Duck Stops Here” ($17), notable for thin slices of peppery duck prosciutto, was added. The soup special ($7), an intensely flavorful thin carrot broth, was pronounced “insipid” by the curmudgeon who ordered it expecting heartier fare. He caviled too at the thick slab of rotisserie leg of lamb ($24), pronouncing it tough, but averred that the accompanying roasted potatoes, browned to a slight crisp and creamy within, were among the best he’d ever tasted. My garbure ($23) proved just the ticket, melting chunks of vegetable and falling-off-the-bone duck confit floating in a rich stock made even tastier by the addition of its chabrot, a glass of red wine to be added to the final slurps.

The menu had warned: “Cassoulet is not really a recipe, it is a way to argue among neighboring villages in Gascony. Recipes vary—some calling for lamb or breadcrumbs and others strictly frowning on such additions. Our recipe abides by the tradition of Auch, the capital of the region. It is a stew of white Coco tarbais beans, garlic and duck sausages, duck leg confit, and carrots—certainly no lamb or breadcrumbs here.” Argue we did, dueling heatedly over the merits of the dish. Some loved the chewy tenderness of the unusual Coco tarbais beans, which kept their consistency more than the usual haricots; others judged them tough and missed the creaminess of other forms of the dish. A bottle of a pleasantly rugged Saint Chinian red ($29), vaunted as one of the wines of the musketeers, and a glass or two of Armagnac mellowed us out. The duel was declared a draw, and we headed out thinking that though cassoulet may be all for one, it’s not always one for all.