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Au Revoir, les Cassoulets

New season, new menu at Encore.

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I was sitting at Encore's sufficiently well-stocked bar savoring an Amstel Light and considering the "Big Reds" portion of the wine list when the bartender gave me the news. Under other circumstances the information might have gone down as easily as an oyster shooter, but this hit me out of the blue and as hard as the sudden loss of a dear friend.

"What do you think is good tonight?" I asked my server. "Should I have the ahi tuna or the cassoulet?" It wasn't a real question, merely an occasion to engage in light, quasi-relevant banter as we played out a familiar dining ritual. Chef Jose Gutierrez's tuna is a magnificent construction of fat, buttery fish brought to brilliant, head-clearing life with a purée of fresh green peas and angry wasabi. But to tell the truth, it was the last thing on my stomach's mind. I wanted the cassoulet. The simple fact is, I always want the cassoulet.

"Personally, I would probably get the tuna," my server said, "but the menu's changing, and you won't be able to get the cassoulet after next week." Upon hearing these awful words my heart sank, and I'm certain I let out a gasp that you could hear in Provence, or in Collierville at the very least.

I tried to hide my anxiety and said as nonchalantly as possible, "Well, I suppose I should have the cassoulet then." Encore's menu changes with the season, and summer is just around the corner, after all. Many perfectly nice people don't think heavy stews are appropriate for the warmer months. But, apparently, many perfectly nice people don't think cassoulet is appropriate ever, which makes Gutierrez sound noncommital about bringing it back.

Cassoulet is a slow-cooked staple of French cooking with its mysterious (and contested) origins in southwestern France. Although it's a rare treat for Americans, in Europe it's not unusual to buy it prepared in a can like some less industrious cooks buy their chili, hash, or beef stew. The canned variety, however, is seldom more than white beans with some weenies and tomato paste, and cassoulet, though simple, is much more than that. In a perfect world, it's made with duck or goose slow-cooked in its own fat, trimmed out with spicy sausage and fat and juicy chunks of braised pork, all topped off with a healthy serving of savory white beans. It's a one-pot meal: no side items required. Gutierrez's cassoulet is special because it's made with cocoa beans that give his homemade sausages a deep, chocolaty sweetness. It's hearty perfection designed to accommodate a horse-sized appetite served in a cast-iron feedbag.

Waiting for my meal to arrive, it occurred to me how Encore, the restaurant Gutierrez opened in late 2005 after more than two decades as chef de cuisine at Chez Philippe, is like a cassoulet. From the white, Eames-era curtain that runs the length of the dining room, to the small brownish contemporary light fixtures that hang over the bar, everything is an exercise in tension, curves, and subtlety. On first glance, the environment might seem a bit bland, and yet it's not difficult to imagine Sinatra and the entire Rat Pack cutting up in a corner. Encore's atmosphere is timeless and a little at odds with the noisy Peabody Place mall environment that houses it. In an ideal world, the stereo would play nothing but Stan Getz, and cassoulet would be served year-round.

Chef Gutierrez joined me at the bar moments after my meal was served, and I asked how he could bring himself to discontinue something so delicious.

"Well, the cassoulet is really a wintertime dish, isn't it?" he answered. "Besides, who around here knows what cassoulet is, hmmmm?"

"I know it," I said. "I try to make it at home and it's always an absolute disaster. That's why I need you to make it for me."

The chef mumbled something under his breath about how I probably wasn't cooking the duck in its own fat long enough, and I held up my arms in defeat. "Who has time to make a full cassoulet from scratch?" I asked. The celebrated chef shrugged and made his way back to the kitchen. I ordered a Terrazas Cabernet Sauvignon from the bar and drank it like a shot of tequila.

The ahi tuna is still going to be on the menu, a bartender said consolingly. What do I care? There will be lots and lots of good things on the new menu, no doubt. But none of them will be my sweet cassoulet. At least we'll always have Peabody Place.

Encore, 150 Peabody Place (528-1514)

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