We were about four hours outside of Paris, with only one day left on our trip to France, when Don Day’s Wife said to me, “So how do you want to spend it?”
“Let’s drive into the city”, I replied. “I’ve been reading on the Internet (a new invention at the time) about La Fontaine de Mars, a restaurant where all the chefs go for their cassoulet.”
I’m guessing a lot of couples have one. A favorite something to eat that they consider our dish. I’m not sure how cassoulet, that amazing combo of beans, duck and sausage, became ours. Other than the first time we had it was in France. And I believe there’s a reason that country’s name rhymes with romance.
We’ve had a lot of good cassoulets over the years. At home and in France. Last week we had an extraordinarily good one. In the middle of Mexico.
I ran into Richard Fink and Lee Duberman at San Miguel’s Tuesday Market. It was true. They were back in town. Yes, they had actually sold their restaurant in Vermont and would be spending almost all of their time in San Miguel de Allende. And yes, there would be even more opportunities for me to eat their food.
I first discovered Richard and Lee four years ago when they were doing Wednesday night prix-fixe dinners at the now-shuttered Provecho. Then came their scrumptious pop-up lunches and dinners at a couple of locations in Colonia Guadalupe. Then a special-catered lunch to answer the cranky cravings of about 20 guys for better Asian in this town, including a rare appearance of the Japanese soup, ramen. But always, it was back to Vermont, as soon as they heard the snowbirds were on the wing again.
Chef Lee told me that, now they are here permanently, they would be doing weekly dinners plus Richard was finishing up a brick oven for pizza on their roof every Sunday afternoon. I emailed a couple of weeks later. How would they like to host The Gentlemen Who Lunch for their inaugural pizza bake?
18 of us enjoyed a lot more than the view and a couple of days later I was copied on an email to Lee and Richard from one of the 18, Andy Reddyhoff. How would Casa Papaya (the name of their new home) like to host a traditional French dinner for 12 of us? The main course of that dinner was, of course, that extraordinary cassoulet.
We arrived at Casa Papaya at 6:00 pm and headed up to the roof for the appetizer. I think a traditional French dinner should always start with pâté. Dinner at Casa Papaya started with a classic and creamy duck liver, chicken liver and pork pâté.
Paired with the pâté was a choice of two sweet and slightly savory relishes, a confit of onion or a watermelon rind and mustard seed.
The starter was also the start of a confirmation for me: Lee Duberman is an absolutely superb chef whose mastery of French cuisine rivals that of her Asian.
We headed down to the courtyard where two tables were set for course number two, a salad of perfectly roasted root vegetables over a bed of arugula with a perfectly poached egg.
And then came the cassoulet.
A classic cassoulet is an oven-baked casserole of white beans, duck or goose confit, sausages and, usually, another meat. Casa Papaya’s is what Richard Fink called a “deconstructed cassoulet”. I’m rarely a traditionalist when it comes to classic dishes, even our dish, and what I loved about Casa Papaya’s was how, instead of all the flavors melding together, there were so many individual flavors.
“The beans were cooked gently in duck stock with smokey bacon from Carniceria Nueva Aurora in La Luz and the duck legs were cooked sous vide in their own fat, then crisped in a cast iron pan”, Richard told me. “The other meat is a top round of New Zealand lamb, grilled to a perfect medium rare.”
Don Day’s Wife asked Chef Lee where she sourced her ducks, a rare bird in this part of the world. Lee told us, “The duck comes from Costco; it’s the always-reliable Maple Leaf brand that I’ve used in the states.”
The white Pekin ducks are raised on family owned farms, often by Mennonite or Amish farmers. They’re fed an all natural diet of corn, wheat and soybeans purchased from local farmers, many of them Mennonite or Amish.
Lee’s homemade garlic pork sausage with hints of nutmeg and thyme was ground extra fine and had been cooked sous vide, then browned in duck fat.
I knew nothing could top the cassoulet but something came very close.
Tarte tatin is a French dessert dating back to the 19th Century that was accidentally created by two sisters, Stéphanie and Caroline Tatin, who ran a hotel south of Paris. The upside-down pie is traditionally made with apples. Lee Duberman’s buttery-crusted version is made with pears and vive la difference. The homemade (a word you could use with almost everything on Casa Papaya’s menu) Mexican vanilla ice cream was an ideal companion on the plate. The tarte was the perfect finale to our four-act French play.
We had experienced a delightful French dinner with one of the best versions of our beloved cassoulet we’d ever had. And we had done it without jetlag or even a four hour drive to Paris. Our dish was now walking distance from our home.
Casa Papaya is located at Valle Alcocer 11 in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. The way to stay informed about their dinners is by checking their website at casapapayasanmiguel.com or, even better, email them at email@example.com and ask to be put on their mailing list.