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IN PARIS A DINER’S DESTINY IS IN THE STARS

SHARE IN PARIS A DINER’S DESTINY IS IN THE STARS

In the universe of Michelin, the stars twinkle brighter in clusters.

On the pages of the red hotel and restaurant guide published by the French tire manufacturer, therefore, a single star gives off a discernible glow. A pair of stars shine more brightly, and in those rare instances when three stars are linked, the result is a veritable radiance.In the less poetic language of the guide itself, a one-star rating (held by only 500-plus restaurants in the nation of 300-plus cheeses) means a restaurant "very good in its category." A two-star (there are less than 90 of them) "merits a detour," while a three-star establishment (of which currently there are a mere 21) is "worth a voyage."

Since 1926, gastronomes from around the world, as well as all over France, have been wearing out their Michelin tires making detours and voyages to worship at these temples of gastronomy. The guide itself was first published in 1900, but it took a quarter-century for the editors to decide to add ratings to its yearly guide. As a result, "the majestic red Bible of Gastronomy," as Rudolph Chelmenski labeled it in his perceptive book "The French at Table," emerged.

Notable for its "quality and inevitability," Chelmenski wrote, it became "the book of reference ... the one, more than all the others combined, in which cooks dream of seeing their names ... The impact of the Michelin on restaurants' destinies is direct, dramatic and usually immediate. Careers are made and broken by the Michelin's judgments; restaurants prosper or go broke; cooks become members of an envied elite or founder into blank anonymity. The power of the Michelin is terrifying and not to be taken lightly."

One result has been a disproportionate reverence for the three-star restaurant, which, in addition to serving rarified food, is expected to have an ambience of comfort and luxury.

This is indicated by a second symbol, a pair of crossed forks. Michelin's anonymous inspectors award one to four of them to show how "comfortable" the restaurant is. Sometimes, when the comfort level is particularly pleasant or the setting is notably restful, the crossed forks will be printed in red. All five Paris three-stars have four or five crossed forks, and dinner in any one of them with a modicum of wine is going to cost a minimum of $200 per person - and probably considerably more.

If the expectation at a three-star Michelin restaurant is perfection, and it should be, what then does one expect to find at a two-star or a one-star? If the price is less (and it will be, unless gluttony or extravagance distorts the bill unduly), what is lost in terms of ambience, service and cuisine?

There is more than academic interest in these comparisons these days because a number of three- and two-star operations have opened spinoffs that may or may not represent discount dining.

The general assumption among those not wedded to the prestige of three-star dining or dependent on the security it provides, is that a two-star meal is often more rewarding than a three-star, if only because the two-star establishment is - in the spirit of Avis - trying harder. As for one-stars, they tend to be considerably less formal and with more varied cuisine since the menu may represent the cooking of a specific region, a certain type of food (such as fish) or the personality of a creative chef.

Personal taste enters into any judgment. Also, frequently the comparison is one of apples to oranges when different cooking styles, ingredients and styles of service are taken into account. As for cost, there are chic one-stars where the prices reach the two-star level; but, in general, a two-star meal should cost about 30 percent less than a three-star and a one-star meal could be 30 percent to 50 percent below a two-star.

Recently, however, I managed to eliminate a good many of the variables by having, two nights apart, virtually the same menu in a two-star and a one-star restaurant owned by the same chef.

The two-star is Carre des Feuillants, located amid luxury hotels and shops at the corner of Rue de Castiglione and Rue St. Honore. Both unconventional and elegant, it manages to exist comfortably in a modern building on a historic site. The one-star is Au Trou Gascon, a Belle Epoche jewel of a dining room with only 46 seats on residential Rue Taine in the 12th arrondissement, well off-the-beaten culinary track. Chef-owner Alain Dutournier, an intelligent and thoughtful Gascon with great pride in the products of his native region, opened Trou Gascon in 1973, while still in his 20s. Stars move or disappear with the chef, so when Dutournier opened Carre des Feuillants in 1986, leaving the original restaurant in the capable hands of his wife, Nicole, he took a hard-won two-star rating to his new kitchen. Within two years, Au Trou Gascon won a star of its own.

According to the chef, Trou Gascon has 12 employees, seven of whom work in the kitchen. The number at Carre - which seats about 80 - is 44, 24 of whom are in the kitchen. Both restaurants use the same purveyors. Furthermore, both restaurants offer a six-course fixed price menu "Idees de la Saison" with the possibility of "harmonisation" with glasses of four little-known wines. At Trou Gascon, the price is about $100 for both ($75 for food, $25 for wine). At Carre des Feuillants, it is about $150, $110 for food and $40 for wine. (Remember, in France, tax and 15 percent service charge are included in the price.)

Here's what happened.

On Saturday night, the several intimate dining rooms that make up Carre des Feuillants fill slowly, with all tables not taken until 9 p.m. The interior decor is light and distinctive, with blond wood, wide-board wood floors and mirrors. On the walls are fantasy paintings of fruits, vegetables and faces, plus murano glass chandeliers, sconces and grape clusters. Staff uniforms and even the service plates reflect Chef Dutournier's love of green and gold. There are fresh flowers on each table. With the exception of one couple in jeans and leather jackets, women and men are well-dressed.

Two immediately pleasing touches of class: The starched napkin is linen and is the size of a tent while the house Champagne turns out to be Moet Imperial, poured by the glass at table from a magnum bottle.

For someone not ordering the fixed-price offering, the seasonal menu offers nine appetizers ($30-$37), a dozen fish and meat dishes ($40-$52) and eight desserts ($13-$17). The wine list contains the expected big names from Bordeaux and a goodly number of lesser-known chateaux as well, plus wines from Gascony and elsewhere in the southwest at moderate prices.

Before the meal, a trio of tidbits - not memorable, in fact - are presented.

The prix-fixe seasonal dinner itself begins with an extra-base hit: a rich-textured, light coffee-colored soup flavored with meaty fresh chestnuts and containing thin shreds of "blanc" of female pheasant (the prime breast meat). A ton of calories? Evidently not. The maitre d' had to overcome my disbelief when he swore the soup contained neither butter nor cream. The wine: St. Aubin, a pleasant white from Burgundy.

Evidently not willing to build slowly, the chef's second offering is a home run. Posed on a white plate, the dish is as visually arresting as a Japanese still-life and yet boldly seasoned and alive with flavor. The centerpiece is an eggroll-shaped cylinder with a skin of transparent potato encasing a pair of perfect scallops. So thin is the potato, with its autumn brown color, that leaves of parsley are visible through it. Also on the plate is a molded tower of chopped Swiss chard, moistened with the scallop cooking juices and topped with a rust-colored veil of fried tomato skin. Dabs of sweet red pepper oil take the place of a sauce, while golden chips of garlic provide decor and a complementary taste.

The wine poured is a gamay from the Touraine, leaner than Beaujolais made from the same grape.

Next, a letdown: a warm "petit pate" of cepes, the king of mushrooms, on a bed of lovely mixed greens that once again mirror the colors of fall. The mushroom's distinctive smell and flavor is there, but the pate is not sufficiently firm or intense to be exciting.

For diversion, there's the sheer entertainment of watching the team of youthful captains, waiters and busboys perform the ballet of service. Rarely do restaurants have so many hands available to execute presentation and removal of plates and dishes, or so many eyes to make sure wine glases are never empty and empty plates do not stay long before a guest.

There are slips, but very few. Dome is lifted at a nearby table and a plate is hurriedly turned to get it in the proper position. A captain enters the dining room carrying a tray of plates, stops abruptly, utters the timeless phrase "Oh la la!" and retreats. The table that was his destination had not been cleared of the previous course. Within a minute, five of the staff appeared from different directions and the task was done in moments.

The kitchen returns to form with roast pheasant breast pieces posed atop a pair of potato cakes garnished only with crispy pancetta and two sprigs of chervil. So simple, yet the potato is erotically earthy and the bird is from the wild, firm yet moist and subtly pungent with a long, sweet aftertaste. There's no sauce, just a little pan juice. The cook, mature enough to know you don't fuss with perfection, got out of the way on this one. The wine is a 1990 red from Fronsac in the Bordeaux region.

The cheese course consists of a Compte bleu layered with marscapone and served with grapes and nut bread. Very tasty.

Dessert is downright exotic. On the plate are a pastry filled with figs, nougat ice cream and pistachio-flavored custard sauce with pistachios as garnish. In the glass, Filipetti marsala. Finally, coffee, a cordial farewell and out into the night for a stroll to contemplate a memorable meal and service that fully lived up to the two-star billing and, in some instances, surpassed it.

Two nights later, at lovely, softly lighted Au Trou Gascon, the fit is tighter and the mood is much less formal. Madame Dutournier directs the dining room with aplomb, the food still arrives under silver domes, but flowers are posed in Perrier bottles and the hard-working trio of waiters is wearing vest and shirts with sleeves partly rolled up.

Here, had we not chosen the fixed-price meal, the 10 appetizers on the menu would have been $17-$27, the nine fish and meats $29-$42 and the eight desserts $5-$13.

Before the prix-fixe meal, there is a sampling of marvelously flavorful cured ham and salami shipped to the restaurant from the Landes region in the deep southwest. The soup sets the tone for what follows. It is tasty, very tasty, but the finesse in the slicing of the pheasant, the seamless richness of the broth is lacking. This is a very good soup. Le Carre's was ethereal.

The scallop has the same sweetness it did previously, the chard is chopped even finer, but the potato covering is thicker and the parsley mosaic is missing. There's a hint of oil that suggests the temperature for cooking wasn't perfect. Fewer hands in the kitchen, less experience, too, perhaps. My companions, who didn't taste the dish Saturday, are delighted.

In turn, the mushroom pate and salad is better here, with the mushroom flavor as intoxicating as perfume.

The wine for both these courses is a lively white Jurancon. It is followed by a flavorful, 8-year-old Madiran, the other outstanding wine of the southwest.

The main course at Trou Gascon is hare, a tender, very red meat flavored with truffle accompanied by polenta and a peppery, blood-thickened red wine sauce. A rich, satisfying dish, hardier than anything served at Carre des Feuillants, but not so rich to prevent me from enjoying some remarkable goat and sheeps' milk cheeses with a red wine that didn't survive to be recorded in my notes.

The dessert croustade was simpler than Le Carre's, but satisfying on its own.

That's the point, I decided, sipping a Dutournier 1969 Armagnac, after some notably tasty coffee: At a two-star such as Carre des Feuillants you find the imagination and craftsmanship that allowed France to rule the restaurant world for two centuries. At a sincere, impassioned one-star such as Au Trou Gascon you find the ingredients and integrity that make even the simplest of French classics memorable. The difference is in the details, but the details add up and each of them, in terms of ingredients or human effort, costs money.

My judgment is that both restaurants are "worth it," but the next time I surely will reverse the order and dine at the one-star before having my meal at the two-star.

For reservations, write or call: Carre des Feuillants, 14 rue Castiglione, 1st; 42-86-82-82. Au Trou Gascon, 40 rue Taine, 12th; 43-44-34-26. (From the States, add 011-33-1 before the phone numbers listed.) Both dining rooms are wheelchair accessible.