My visit to La Grenouillere, a Michelin starred restaurant in a village called La Madelaine Sous Montreuil in Nothern France, had a certain resonance.
My husband and I first visited on a bitterly cold day in late winter, the trees along the river Canche bare to the wind. We had come to celebrate my 35th birthday,yet I felt unusually sad. While we sat in a wood beamed dining room, decorated with murals of frogs and a log fire roaring, I did not find my lunch to be memorable. I was preoccupied with trying unsuccessfully to fall pregnant, and turning 35 seemed as unwelcome a milestone as I could have imagined. Had I known then that a few months later my wish was to be granted, I would have paid more attention to the meal. Sadly the restaurant lost its star shortly thereafter.
15 years later both the restaurant and I have undergone many changes for the better. My husband and I returned to La Grenouillere to celebrate our 16th wedding anniversary, now parents to two teenagers. So it was with a sense of thanksgiving for the good fortune in our lives that we embraced the reincarnation of the restaurant.
And what a transformation has been achieved. The old auberge, festooned with frogs, has been turned into a lounge in which to take an aperitif on a cold winter’s day. As we arrived in blazing sunshine, we were ushered into the garden, where we took shelter from the midday heat under the apple trees. Perched on a tree stump, a crisp glass of white in hand, we ate the tiny amuse bouche that kept arriving – think quails egg dipped in sea algae, popped whole into the mouth due to its liquid centre – and perused the menu.
Although a four course lunch menu is on offer, we had come to sample the nine course tasting menu. At night it extends to 11 courses. The menu is simply printed on an A4 sheet of paper with the chefs notes included. Some find this pretentiously understated but I always like to take a menu home with me if possible, so it suited me well.
Each item on the menu notes only its main ingredients followed by three dots … I later read the chef’s personal statement – more a personal booklet – in which he writes that the dish is not complete in the kitchen but only completed by the diner. Therefore the three dots suggest that the dish is still to be completed. It is also purposely turning on its head the old fashioned French notion of describing each dish in elaborate prose, including every ingredient, sauce and preparation method.
Aperitifs downed, we were ushered into the new restaurant which has been designed to resemble a forge with lots of metal and leather.
Waiters wear leather aprons, the table tops are leather as are the chairs. But this is soft brown leather not the type preferred by bikers or the S&M brigade. This is a room in which to spend time. It is a triumph of design with many exciting features from the lighting on wires to the torn leather curtains.
But the most outstanding of all the design features was surely the crockery. Each raku-fired plate was more exquisite than the one before. Many restaurants create dishes that look like art works. At La Grenouillere, not only did the food look beautiful, but was inextricably linked to the magnificent ceramic disc on which it was placed.
When I later read that the plates were created by an artist in Manosque I could have kicked myself retrospectively. For last summer we holidays in the Alps de Hauts Provence not far from this very town!
Throughout the meal we ate with the same knife, the chef proposing an alternative to a table filled with cutlery, suggesting instead that the knife bears the history of the meal being eaten.
So what did we get to eat on these beautiful plates?
First a selection of three breads arrived accompanied by a truly beautiful butter. I have no doubt that the bread is home made and would not be surprised if the butter was too. This alone is so good that it can easily be one’s undoing, leaving no space for the food to come.
The first course was entitled crevette grises, tofu de chevre … A bowl arrived at the table in which nestled a block of silky tofu with the unmistakeable flavour of goats cheese. Considering that tofu is often flavourless, this version was a revelation of how good it can be. The texture was offset by the light crunch of the tiny shrimp with extra flavour and colour added by the baby basil.
Next up – but not on the menu – was a razor clam shell in which rested a froth of egg white topped with a sliver of razor clam and dusted with grains of popcorn, not much bigger than sand. The contrasting texture of froth, crunch and slimy solid created an interesting mouthful even if the overall taste was not the highlight of the meal.
Course number two was torteau, melon … which involved paper thin strips of orange melon wrapped around a few morsels of white crab meat. Alongside these cylinders stood marshmallow textured cylinders which seemed to be made from egg white. It was a mini sculptural installation, perhaps more visually appealing than on the tongue.
When discussing the seasonality of the menu with the waitress she pointed to this dish – it being mid-summer when the melons are at their height – whereas a couple of weeks earlier this slot on the menu had been occupied by an asparagus dish.
Course number three, cornichon, tarama a l’estargon … was a grilled cucumber – I first thought it was a courgette – with a tarama of tarragon. Although the one vegetable I dislike is cucumber – hence the dish would have worked better for me if it had been a courgette – the tarama was a delicious concoction of fish roe and tarragon, a herb that adds its liquorice note so well to a fish dish.
The food began to crescendo from course number four – saint pierre, epinard fume … Known in the UK as John Dory, this small fillet of fish arrived perched atop a bed of green, smoked spinach and spring onion. The delicately salted fish was only just set and happily accompanied the silky spinach with crunch added by the spring onion.
Course number five – girolle,peau de lait … had me wondering in advance, for I adore girolles simply panfried in a light garlic butter. These arrived nestling below a skin of milk – as thin as a leaf of gelatine, giving off a slightly sour milky note. Alongside the girolles lay a tiny griddled dough dumpling.
Course number six – cochon comme un jambon – was preceded by a phallic shaped salted brioche which stood to attention on the bread board awaiting its meaty companion.
As the plates bearing the meat had sperm-shaped markings, I assumed this must all be some sort of culinary pun but neglected to ask the waitress for the reason behind the pairing. I was too busy enjoying the plate of food before me. A small piece of pork cut in the shape of a serrano ham, as rare as a steak, sat upon a puree of broccoli. Once again spring onion provided crunch and some greenery along with a few herbs.
To clear our palates before the dessert courses, the waitress arrived bearing a large honeycomb and halved lemons.
She cut us each a piece of honeycomb which she placed in a bent spoon before squeezing on a spritz of lemon juice.
Like an intravenous shot of pure sugar, perhaps this offering is inserted to perk up any diners who may be feeling fatigued by this stage.
Time after time I have felt disappointed by the dessert courses in fine restaurants. Here the best was yet to come. The seventh course was entitled fraises, pomme de terre … a superb dish that will live long in my memory. On a bed of slightly soured cream perched what looked like a peeled, tiny new potato. The ‘potato’ was surrounded by tiny flakes of grated boiled potato mixed with sherbet. I was immediately transported back to childhood when I would dip a lollipop into a packet of sherbet, a favourite after school treat purchased at the local café.
Biting into the ‘potato’ I discovered that it was an implausibly thin shell of white chocolate which melted on contact with the mouth , revealing inside a strawberry puree of such intensity that I can only describe it as divine.
As if this dessert was not enough of a high point to the meal, course eight – herbes grasse… was a riff on green. Three sides of the restaurant are glass walls which gives the feeling of eating in a meadow. The chef’s penchant for using home grown herbs and grasses makes one feel as if one is actually eating the meadow at points.
This dish consisted of layers of green and had the overall effect of eating a green field. The bottom layer revealed thinly sliced, creamy avocado on which sat a piece of green sponge cake itself topped with a green, herb ice cream. The combination of creamy avo, soft sweet cake and cold tangy ice cream was beautiful to eat.
The final and nineth course – framboise, coquelicot, zan … was a gorgeous sight. Elegantly balanced on a black ceramic disc, was a tower of tiny, thin squares of raspberry jelly on black biscuits of the same size, topped with poppy petals. This was surrounded by a slick of goat’s yoghurt and a raspberry. It tasted as colourful as it looked.
An espresso and a pot of mint tea – why a tea bag rather than fresh mint? – arrived along with two petit fours.
The first a minute yellow, elongated macaroon, looking like a tiny yellow courgette, was filled with a lemon and marjoram cream.
Secondly, a ‘cactus’ of rhubarb served in a flower pot in a sweet ‘soil’ of tiny pieces of crushed meringue, almonds and other nuts.
This was without doubt the most inventive meal I have had the pleasure to eat and while not every dish thrilled me, the whole was exciting. The combination of the unknown and unexpected, unusual tastes and textures, food puns, informative staff and a beautiful surrounding made us fully satisfied with our experience. We considered that the price of the meal was similar to that of a pair of opera tickets and we concluded that we had enjoyed easily as much entertainment.
They say that a restaurant is only as good as its loos. I can happily report that this room was painted black, candle lit, a black and white movie of chefs at work projected on to the wall. Even the handwash smelled good enough to eat, being made of mandarin skin, rosemary and cedar.
Three and a half hours later, we were the last to leave. Reluctantly I might add. Had we stayed any longer we would have encountered the evening staff arrive.
I would have been quite happy to stay for dinner! Instead we walked along the river Canche, the trees now abundant in foliage, the countryside abuzz with life and vitality.
I thought about the passage of time and the seasons, the joy of family and a good lunch. I realised that although the restaurant is in France, it is but a 4 hour journey from my front door and therefore well within reach for lunch. Now all I need is another occasion for a celebration.
La Grenouillere, La Madeleine Sous Montreuil, 33 (0)1321060722 @lagrenouillere.fr