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Old 20-11-2006, 12:58 AM posted to
Max Hauser Max Hauser is offline
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Default Narsai David's "Alexis Bespaloff" chicken dish

I apologize for this slow follow-up (the original thread was 18 years ago).
It's about a recipe that was popular but slightly mysterious. This posting
resolves the mystery and the dish's history. I've included some of the
original 1988 thread because it's missing from current public archives, like
thousands of RFC threads of the late 1980s through early 1990s [1]. The
original 1988 postings appeared on the companion wine newsgroup in a thread on cooking with Sauternes, but they're about
cooking, not wine, so I post this here [2].

Narsai David was an influential restaurateur around Berkeley, California
from the 1970s. (That was the interval when the town became known for food,
a period when charcuterie and artisanal baking replaced teargas as
characteristic smells [3,4].) In recent years Narsai has broadcast frequent
brief spots about food and cooking on San Francisco radio station KCBS.
Alexis Bespaloff was a principal US wine writer in the 1960s and 1970s,
based in New York and remembered as well for wit and eloquence as his
contributions to US wine education.

Dining at Narsai's in the 1970s I saw a chicken-breast sauté on the menu
called Suprêmes de Volaille, Alexis Bespaloff. A June 1978 menu I saved
describes "Filets of chicken breast sautéed in butter and fresh cream and
flambéed with Sauternes to create a rich, delicate sauce." (Priced at USD
$12, in a complete dinner, by the way.) The dish is typical of its time,
for the US: Reduction sauce, rich ingredients, fire (an element frequent in
1970s US high-end restaurants). But it's very simple and also, Sauternes
and cream seemed unlikely but interesting. No one I knew actually tried
the dish at the restaurant. So from the description I played around with it
at home. Shallots seemed a profitable inclusion. I posted my version to a
1988 thread, below. This generated follow-ups, and positive comments on the
recipe even a few years later. (Basically my recipe is to sauté boneless
white chicken meat hot and briefly with chopped shallots; remove the meat
not fully cooked; add Sauternes, then cream; reduce the sauce, reintroducing
the chicken at some point just to cook through, not overcook.) Sauternes
works amazingly well here and adds an elusive spiciness.

When Bespaloff died earlier this year, I alerted Narsai and asked him for
the dish's story. I suggested it as a topic for a radio spot, in memoriam.
Narsai agreed, thanked me for recalling the memories, explained the history,
and afterwards did broadcast the story and recipe (28 April 2006). It's
linked below and is similar to mine but without shallots. Narsai described
meeting Bespaloff in San Francisco in 1971 and inviting him to lunch at home
with some other local food professionals. Reaching into the refrigerator
for dry white wine to deglaze a sauté pan, Narsai found an open bottle of
Sauternes which "somehow sounded like a good idea" and proved to be
successful and popular with the guests. He put it on the menu when opening
his restaurant a few months later (it and the Assyrian Rack of Lamb were the
only dishes offered throughout his restaurant's 15-year life).

That's the rest of the story after 18 years. Below is some of the 1988
thread, a link to Narsai's broadcast recipe, and [end notes].

From: [Max Hauser]
Subject: Recipe: Sauternes in cooking [Edited down]
Summary: A nice and slightly famous one, since the subject has come up
Date: 23 Jul 88 03:55:28 GMT
Distribution: na [North America]

The old Narsai's restaurant here in the Berkeley area used to feature a
chicken dish of the old-school sort that made very good use of Sauternes.
Old-school enough that I would expect it to be about #3150 in Escoffier,
except that it was dubbed Suprêmes de Volaille Alexis Bespaloff. A simple
and elegant dish, and although I never saw the recipe, it was
straightforward enough to recreate. It is one of endless variations on a

[For two servings] sauté a couple of boned and skinned chicken breasts
quickly in a little (sweet) butter until they've browned slightly on the
outside. They will not be cooked through. Remove the chicken and sauté in
the same pan a few chopped shallots for a minute or two, to soften. Return
the chicken and add half a cup of Sauternes or [which may be cheaper]
Barsac. Cover and simmer until the chicken is cooked but still tender.
Remove the cover and remove the chicken to serving plates. Add 1/3 cup of
cream to the pan and cook briefly over high heat to reduce the sauce by 1/2,
but don't let it burn. [I add the cream after other ingredients to reduce
any quarrel between the cream and the wine's acid. I don't bother flaming.]
Add a little salt, to taste, and pour over the chicken. (I suppose you can
serve it under bells in the old style, if you have them handy, to preserve
the aroma until the last moment.)

Only four ingredients not counting the salt, but a good reception is almost
guaranteed by the butterfat, and the natural harmony of the cream, shallots
and Sauternes. I used to use a Barsac that sold for $5-6 the bottle. If
you use a late-harvest Riesling, call it Suprêmes de Volaille
bestimmter-Anbaugebiete or something like that if you want to be clever, but
don't press the point.

Oh yes, and don't use a cast-iron or bare-aluminum skillet no matter how
dogmatic you are about them. This is one of those very delicate yet acidic
dishes that will reveal a metallic flavor if the pan surface is reactive.

Max Hauser

"Adam and Eve sold themselves for an apple. What would they have done for a
truffled fowl?" --Brillat-Savarin

From: Kyle Adler
Subject: Sotern for Cooking and Drinking (really: Wines for Cooking)
Date: 25 July 88 20:09:33 GMT

[Responding to Dave Scroggins's HP message:]
I just last night tried the chicken recipe posted by Max Hauser (it was
delicious, by the way) ... $8 Chateau Lamothe did the trick nicely (and
there was plenty o' wine left over for the fruit tart at dessert!).

From: Stephen Kurtzman
Subject: Sotern for Cooking and Drinking (really: Wines for Cooking)
Date: 26 July 88 19:17:51 GMT

[Quoting Kyle Adler on trying the recipe and it was delicious]

I also tried the recipe this weekend, but I used onions instead of shallots
and an inexpensive non-vintage Muscat de Beaumes de Venise instead of a
Sauternes. It seemed that the primary contribution of the Muscat was sugar
and a vinuous flavor. There was no identifiably-Muscat flavor left after
cooking. That said, the dish was delicious. Bizarre as it sounds, I drank
and Eyrie Vineyards (Oregon) Pinot NOir with it. It wasn't the greatest
match but it worked well. The acid in the Pinot Noir cut through the cream
sauce and its fruity (strawberry and cherry) flavors stood out in contrast
to the rich, lightly onion-flavored sauce.

Currently valid link to Narsai's recipe from 2006 radio broadcast on this


[1] The missing "rec" archives occurred because the person who, very
helpfully, saved most of the newsgroup archives for years ran out of storage
capacity as posting volume grew, and therefore omitted "rec" newsgroups
among others. Thousands of RFC and wine threads occurred in that period,
some of them very useful or historic, but they're not in popular public
archives. (For about its first 15 years, RFC was the sole public internet
cooking forum.)

[2] Besides which, became inactive after the wine postings
moved de-facto to, early 1990s. (Even though RFD is still
listed in some places, confusingly, as the wine newsgroup.)

[3] That town was also the birthplace of this newsgroup as I've described

[4] CN and CS irritant gasses were deployed often and sometimes carelessly
in the late 1960s and early 1970s against student protests. As a schoolboy
right in the middle of those events (not by choice), like other local
citizens I became better acquainted with those gasses than I wanted to.
Once for example, my public junior high school near the University (student
ages about 11-14 years) was gassed en-masse, presumably by accident.

-- Max Hauser. (Original content Copyright 1988, 2006.)