January 4 - January 10, 1996

Crème de la Crème

B y  R e b e c c a  C o o k


ONCE CONSIDERED THE epitome of culinary excellence, classic French cuisine has sometimes taken a back seat to innovative nouvelle cuisines.

In recent years, unusual combinations of foods and seasonings, most often representative of regional bounties, have elicited appreciative oohs and ahhs from an adoring dining public.

Had traditional French cooking become passé to a new generation of upwardly-mobile gourmands?

Just as in haute couture there are fashion items that always remain in vogue, the haute cuisine of France continues to occupy a secure place at the top of the culinary food chain. And nowhere is this more obvious than at Tucson's Le Rendez-vous.

Specializing in classic French cooking, Le Rendez-vous has been a Tucson institution for the last 15 years. Owner-chef Jean-Claude Berger, who hails from the Alsace-Lorraine region of France, was trained and educated in cooking as well as in restaurant and hotel management while still in France.

Once in the United States, Berger honed his talents at several top Chicago restaurants before making the move to Tucson in 1979.

pix A meal at Le Rendez-vous is an event, something to linger over and savor. If you're looking for a quick in-and-out dinner, forget Le Rendez-vous. To rush a dining experience here would not only prove difficult, it would be a sacrilege.

If making reservations, you may want to specify which of two dining rooms you'd like to sit in. There's a lovely covered patio room, encased by windows through which one glimpses greenery and, at night, small twinkling white lights. In addition, there's a more formal dining room, which tends to be a little warmer this time year.

Several appetizers and first-course soups and salads are offered at Le Rendez-vous, including the paté maison (duck pate), crème aux potiron potage (cream of squash soup) and a salade aux champignons (mushroom salad).

I wouldn't dream of visiting a French restaurant without trying the escargots, and Le Rendez-vous' version of this classic dish is nothing short of magnificent. Six tasty and tender mollusks arrived at our table still sizzling in individual pockets of butter, garlic and herbs. Accented with basil and a pinch of parmesan cheese, this was one heavenly dish.

On another occasion, my dining companion began by ordering the onion soup gratinee while I opted for the salade "Le Rendez-vous." The soup consisted of a savory and full-bodied beef broth, which a trace of thyme ladled over a piece of French bread and capped with a thick layer of broiled and golden Swiss cheese. For those with lighter appetites, this soup could easily suffice as a main course.

The house salad was a lively blend of mixed greens, slivered green and red bell peppers, nicoise olives, shredded carrot, sliced cucumbers, tomatoes and red onion tossed with a delicate vinaigrette, with just a hint of tarragon. It was a buoyantly fresh combination.

Entrees at Le Rendez-vous run the gamut from duck a l'orange to sweetbreads, but for me nothing is more tempting than the specials of the day, which invariably feature one or more fresh seafood dishes.

On my first visit I had cabrilla from the Sea of Cortez, cooked with lemon, capers and croutons. The fish was as fresh as any I've enjoyed while beachcombing in Mexico, and the flavors, although uncomplicated, were piquant and pleasing.

My dining partner that night sampled a salmon fillet served with sorrel sauce and found it equally delicious, although not quite as fresh and much richer than the cabrilla.

A second visit to Le Rendez-vous found me enjoying halibut en papillote, halibut baked inside parchment along with a mixture of julienned red and green bell peppers, zucchini, carrots, onion, an abundance of freshly ground black pepper and a pinch of thyme. Again, the fish was unbelievably fresh, considering we live in a desert, and the other flavors were distinct and zesty.

My companion that evening tried another special of the day, a baby rack of lamb for one. Six chops were served accompanied by a rich, velvety demi-glacé sauce redolent with meat juices, sherry and, perhaps, a suggestion of rosemary. The lamb was cooked to order (medium-rare in this case) and was tender and juicy. The word "succulent" kept escaping my companion's lips as he proceeded to devour every last bite.

I should mention that all entrees at Le Rendez-vous come with side dishes that are just as tasty as the main course. Also on the plate was an au gratin tomato, a medley of sautéed, julienned vegetables and pan-fried, sliced potatoes and onions, which are cooked until tender and golden brown. The fact that these supporting players are so scrumptious is evidence of Le Rendez-vous' immaculate attention to detail.

And lastly, what would a great meal be without dessert?

At Le Rendez-vous, dessert deliberations must begin early if you want to consider the Grand Marnier soufflé, which takes about 45 minutes to prepare and arrives at your table fresh out of the oven.

Served puffed and golden in its own small soufflé dish, the dessert is then punctured in the center and a lemon-orange curd spooned into the spongy void. It's an elegant and luscious conclusion to a meal at Le Rendez-vous, and one that shouldn't be missed if you can possibly find the room.

Crepes suzette may be ordered from the menu or you may find yourself seduced by a choice from Le Rendez-vous' pastry cart. The San Claude tort, which consists of meringue layers with a hazelnut filling, was tasty although a bit too sweet and lacking a distinctive hazelnut flavor.

Also impressive were the floating islands, stiffly beaten and sweetened egg white mounds set adrift in a thin sea of custard sauce. Also known as oeufs à la neige, or "snow eggs," this dessert was another winner.

Le Rendez-vous' wine list is impressive indeed, constituting 39 pages and taking you on a tour of France as well as a briefer side trip to California. You should have no trouble finding the perfect wine to accompany your meal.

The service at Le Rendez-vous is professional and friendly and the staff members are excellent resources in helping you make all dining decisions.

While your pocketbook--and your cholesterol level--will definitely take a hit after a meal at Le Rendez-vous, it's an experience that shouldn't be missed. Some pleasures are worth all the sacrifice. A meal at Le Rendez-vous is one of these.

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January 4 - January 10, 1996

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