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Mix Master

Jean-Marie Amat's bold international cooking brings out the best in young Red Bordeaux.

Posted: June 21, 2001

Chef Jean-Marie Amat
  Recipe: Pastilla de Coquille St. Jacques (scallops in phyllo pastry)  
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Mix Master

Jean-Marie Amat's bold international cooking brings out the best in young red Bordeaux

By Michèle Shah and Dana Nigro

Standing on a hill just outside the city of Bordeaux, chef Jean-Marie Amat's ultramodern St. James hotel and restaurant looks a bit like a deconstructed metallic Zen temple. It makes a striking contrast with the city's 18th century skyline, but that doesn't deter the locals and visitors who keep both the hotel's Michelin one-star restaurant and its chic café busy at all times.

But if the architecture breaks with Bordeaux tradition, it is in harmony with the man it serves. Amat, 55, is a boldly innovative cook. He reinvents the traditional Moroccan poultry and phyllo pie as a napoleon-like concoction that layers sautéed chicken, onions, candied lemon, pink olives, garlic, prunes and Middle Eastern spices with scrambled eggs and phyllo dusted with cinnamon sugar.

Dishes like these can be a headache for sommeliers, since matching wines to such diverse and strong flavors is challenging. But Amat is convinced that red Bordeaux, particularly young and rich clarets, are highly versatile with food and often the perfect foil to eclectic cooking.

Wine Spectator asked Amat to demonstrate his principles for matching fruity, tannic young reds with food. The five dishes pictured here take their inspiration from Asia and North Africa. The chef doesn't limit himself to fusion-style cooking, however -- the other creations we tasted, including a foie gras terrine and hearty stew of calf's head and tongue, are rooted in Bordelaise tradition.

"One of the big changes in Bordeaux today is that young vintages have improved in quality. They are fruitier, more concentrated and more seductive," says Amat. "They're made to be more food friendly, with more potential for matching them to one's own taste in food. But with aged classic Bordeaux, one is conditioned to serve more traditional foods.

"My basic philosophy is eat and drink whatever you like; there should be no fixed rules," he said, standing over a hot pan of sizzling mackerel fillets. Standing about 6 feet tall, he looks more the part of sculptor. His hair is disheveled. He looks like he has been up all night, finishing a recent creation. "I started cooking at the age of 14," he says. "At the time, it was a job like any other, but I soon became aware of its unlimited potential. I wanted to advance, research and break all boundaries."

With that, he opens a bottle of Clos des Jacobins St.-Emilion 1998 to accompany freshly shucked oysters in a seaweed bouillon. The green broth is delicately scented with fresh ginger and coriander. Initially, the St.-Emilion, a Merlot and Cabernet Franc blend, overrides the dish. But the oyster brings out the soft fruity flavors of the wine and rescues the soup. It's an unexpected success.

Next come phyllo packets of scallops, seaweed, mushrooms and shallots, deep-fried until crispy and golden (see recipe below). "It is important to create a variation of textures in a meal -- soft, crispy, rough, gelatinous. Textures give pleasure and need to be balanced with taste," explains Amat.

These dishes are contrasted with lightly fried eggplant wedges, glazed with caramelized sweet Muscatel wine and soy sauce. The sweetness of the eggplant keeps the wine's tannins in check.

Then there's mackerel, pan-fried and caramelized in spiced soy sauce and served with a red-onion pickle. The pickle is zingy, the sauce sweet and tangy. "Mackerel has a strong fishy flavor that needs to be toned down and balanced with something stringent," says Amat. "And one needs acidity in a meal, like one needs acidity in wine. It liberates the taste, while tannins prolong the flavor."

And good cooking, he insists, is "a tonic -- it should give one energy. Even if the ingredients are rich, like this mackerel, or on the cutting edge, if they are well-balanced, you'll leave the table feeling invigorated."

Pastilla de Coquille St. Jacques
(scallops in phyllo pastry)

  • 1 medium shallot, chopped fine
  • 1 medium carrot
  • 2 1/2 ounces shiitake mushrooms
  • 2 teaspoons olive oil, plus more for frying
  • 1 small garlic clove, chopped fine
  • 6 ounces scallops
  • 1/8 to 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • Freshly ground pepper to taste
  • 5 12-inch by 16-inch sheets of phyllo
  • 2 sheets nori (pressed seaweed used for sushi), cut into 2-inch squares
  • 1 raw egg, scrambled
  • Mint leaves, for garnish (optional)

Dice the shallots, carrots and mushrooms into tiny cubes, about 1/2 inch square. Heat the olive oil in a non-stick pan, add the shallots and cook over medium-low heat until they're transparent, about 5 minutes. Add the carrots, mushrooms and garlic, reduce heat to low and cook for 20 minutes, or until the carrots are cooked but not mushy. Remove the vegetables from the heat and set them aside to cool.

Mix together the cooled vegetables, raw diced scallops and salt and pepper. Cut the sheets of phyllo in half, to make 10 6-inch by 8-inch pieces. Stack these under a clean, damp tea towel, to keep them from drying out while you work.

Fill and fold the pastries one at a time. First, take a cut phyllo sheet and fold the two long sides in so that they meet in the center. Place a scant two tablespoons of the scallop/vegetable mixture at one end of the rectangle, top it with a square of nori and commence folding from the same end, picking up one corner, then the opposite one, and so forth, until you have a neat, triangular packet. Brush the pastry with egg to seal it.

Fry the pastries in 1/2 inch of very hot olive oil, until crispy and nicely browned. Drain on paper towels and garnish with a mint leaf. Serves 10.

For the complete article, please see the June 30, 2001, issue of Wine Spectator magazine, page 70. (
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