A Fine-Dining Surprise in Lyon

A Fine-Dining Surprise in Lyon

From its popular Bouchons to internationally revered local chef Paul Bocuse, Lyon is a city that takes its cuisine seriously. Nowhere is it more obvious than at the little known Restaurant Vatel.

A Legendary Namesake

What first piques my interest in this teaching restaurant of the Groupe Vatel, a worldwide education group specialized in the various aspect of the hospitality industry, is its choice of patronym.

Lyon-Vatel table setting

The subdued elegance of the table setting annonces a fine-dining experience.

Granted, Francois Vatel (1631-1671) rose from pastry cook apprentice to becoming the most famous event planner at the court of French King Louis XIV (the monarch who left us Versailles). Yet history remembers him only as the man who skewered himself with his own sword because the fish delivery for a royal banquet was late. Hardly a motivating role model for aspiring hospitality business professionals! However, my musings about this long-ago case of professional burnout end at the door of Restaurant Vatel. It’s clear at first sight that its namesake would approve.

A Timeless Temple of Gastronomy

Lyon-Vatel kir royal.

A generous amuse-bouche enhances our spectacular Kir Royal à la Framboise.

The dining room has the understated elegance of a space dedicated to the appreciation of Haute Cuisine. The pale amber walls are enhanced with burled walnut wainscoting and paneling. Spotlights discretely recessed into the white plaster coffered ceilings softly light the tabletops. Dark blue wall-to-wall carpeting muffles any service noise. The generously sized, white linen-clad tables are spaced far enough apart for privacy, and the medallion-back chairs upholstered in goldenrod velvet ensure seating comfort through a multi-course meal. Add gleaming silver and stemware, monogrammed china and delicate centerpieces of fresh flowers, and you have a relaxed setting staged to fade from awareness, so guests can focus their attention on the works of culinary art on their plate.

A Memorable Dining Experience

After a day spent tracking down the famous frescoed walls throughout the city, a cocktail is in order. We start out with a Kir Royal à la Framboise (Champagne with raspberry liqueur). A generous amuse-bouche materializes along with it. It includes a verrine (miniature glass tumbler) of chilled cucumber cream, a tiny savory pound cake with an herbed crumble topping and a pair of fresh anchovy filets in a tangy marinade on a mound of cold quinoa risotto.

Lyon-Vatel guinea fowl.

Roasted breast of guinea fowl on a Gorgonzola glaze.

For our first course, both my dining companion and I opt for a refreshing salad of al dente spring vegetables. It is served on a bed of baby arugula, with dollops of light tapenade and this traditional Lyon specialty, the cervelle de canut (silk-worker’s brain; a creamy fresh cheese blended with herbs, shallots and a touch of garlic). Just the right start for an early summer’s meal.

My main course is a roasted breast of guinea fowl with tiny potatoes and whole garlic cloves, served on a creamy glaze of Gorgonzola sauce and garnished with a marinated sundried tomato. The simple dish is flawlessly executed, with the cheese glaze adding an interesting, delicately tangy note.

Lyon-Vatel stuffed squid.

Squid stuffed with haddock mousse on a coulis of shellfish.

My friend declares her squid stuffed with haddock mousse also a success. It is served with wilted baby spinach and saffron rice, on a coulis of shellfish. I have a discrete taste of the coulis. Ambrosia! Whoever is teaching the sauces class to these soon-to-be chefs deserves a medal.

The wine list offers a comprehensive sampling of the main wine growing areas of France, with a concentration on Burgundy and Côtes du Rhone. These are, after all, considered local wines here. When asked for suggestions, our student sommelier points us to a little known Mâcon vintage, a 2013 Saint Véran Chardonnay from Pierre Ferraud et Fils. The dry, pale golden wine with a faint fruity aroma is a perfect foil for the seafood, but has enough clout to hold up to my roasted fowl as well.

A Dessert Nirvana

Lyon-Vatel dessert.

It is a struggle to restrain myself to just a few options.

A look at the dessert cart convinces us to pass on the cheese course. Three trolleys are wheeled to our table, laden with most of sumptuous classics ever bequeathed to the world by French pastry chefs. There are multi-layered chocolate cakes, showing off several intriguing textures under their veil of lustrous ganache. I spot a Saint Honoré, its high peaks of whipped cream contained within a ring of creampuffs glossy with brittle caramel. Then there is a perfect strawberry cream cake, a Baba au Rhum, and a crunchy Dacquoise with its thick praline butter cream filling sandwiched between two layers of hazelnut meringue. And several varieties of fruit and chocolate tarts, and bowls filled with various flavors of mousses.

Lyon-Vatel petits fours.

An extravagant tray of petits fours closes the meal.

Lest this dessert Nirvana failed to satisfy, our post-dinner espresso arrives with an extravagant tray of petits fours: macaroons, pistachio and chocolate tarts, various miniature cookies, and even a cube of homemade marshmallow.

 

 

 

Well-choreographed Service

Lyon-Vatel wine.

Our sommerlier introduces us to the little-known Saint-Véran Chardonnay.

We are attended by a veritable chorus line of black-suited, eager young servers and sommeliers, about twice the number that would be customary in a luxury restaurant. Yet, the service is unobtrusive and rigorously synchronized. Many of the students are already quite poised; a few are still a bit tense. Understandably so since the entire evening unfolds under the eagle eye of a majordomo who, from a discrete vantage point at the back of the room, clearly doesn’t miss even the smallest detail. But neither does the dining room staff. Everybody is gracious and attentive. The courses are precisely timed and the dishes served with just the right touch of flourish. Glasses are refilled promptly and not a single crumb is ever allowed to linger on the crisp tablecloth as soon as plates are removed.

If you ever yearn to feel like visiting royalty, this is a great place to dine in Lyon. But do plan ahead. Advanced reservations are a must.

Good to Know

  • Restaurant Vatel, 8, Rue Duhamel, Lyon, 69002, is open Tuesday through Saturday, Noon to 2:00 pm and 7:00 pm to 10:00 pm. It is closed on Sunday and Monday. Contact: e-mail lyon@restaurantvatel.fr, tel. +33 (0) 4 78 38 21 92.
  • Getting there – Located in the heart of the Presqu’Ile neighborhood, it is easy to reach on foot from anywhere in central Lyon, or via Métro: station Perrache (line A) or Tram: also station Perrache (lines T1 and T2).
  • Amazing value – Restaurant Vatel is a training facility where students get hands-on experience in their chosen field. The prices, therefore, are considerably lower those of a conventional restaurant of comparable standing. There are two three-course menus at the very friendly fixed prices of 29 and 34 Euros respectively, excluding beverages. Both offer two choices per course, plus a com[limentary amuse-bouche that is a course in itself, as well as an optional cheese course. The wines and bar beverages are equally well priced.

Location, location, location!

Restaurant Vatel

Not Just Another Paris Bistro – L’Accolade

Not Just Another Paris Bistro – L’Accolade

There are literally thousands of neighborhood bistros all over Paris, dishing out meals that go from banal to “can’t-wait-to-tell-my-friends”. It’s a French thing, the telling. When you discover a new swoon-worthy eatery, you are honor-bound to tell your friends. L’Accolade, the newly opened restaurant of Chef Nicolas Tardivel is a clear winner in the “tell” category.

Paris-L'accolade lamb.

The caramelized lamb shoulder is vacuum cooked at low temperature for twenty hours.

This latest stroke of gastronomic good fortune begins with a timing setback, when the place I had in mind turns out to be closed for a private event. At the suggestion of a friend who “hasn’t eaten there yet but has heard good things about it,” I make a short notice reservation at L’Accolade.

 

 

 

An Omen of Delights to Come

Paris-L'arcolade menu

Our server, Malik, discusses the blackboard menu with the gusto of one who has tasted and loved it all.

I know at ‘Bonjour’ that I am on to a good thing. The instantaneous welcome is cordial and attentive. Then come the olives, promptly, with our drink order. Olives? I refrain the urge to turn my nose. Not that I actively dislike this ubiquitous Mediterranean staple, but I tend to dismiss it as the food equivalent of Muzak. These olives, however, play a much different tune. Speckled with herbs and glistening in their white porcelain ramekin, these little black nuggets, somehow, beckon. The first tentative bite reveals a sweet, mildly exotic taste I can’t quite identify. My dining companion and I enthusiastically polish off the dish. “The chef makes his own marinade,” our server volunteers when he comes back to discuss the menu, which I now peruse with added eagerness. A man who can do this to olives has to be a culinary wizard.

The Market’s Seasonal Best

No printed menu here. The blackboard changes every couple of months, but can be tweaked any time to take full advantage the market’s seasonal best. It is kept to five appetizers, five main courses, three desserts and a cheese board. But with every single item oh so intriguing, choice is still a dilemma.

Paris-L'Accolade tomato salad.

Heirloom tomato salad with basil ice cream.

My tomato salad starter is a platter of juicy slices of heirloom tomatoes (I identify at least five varieties), drizzled with Sauce Vierge, and enhanced by a scoop of basil ice cream. My friend’s large black tiger prawns are thinly wrapped in a sheet of crunchy phyllo dough and served with a spicy tomato mayonnaise. Alas, choosing also means renouncing. I can only hope the salad of girolles (golden chanterelles) with garden pea ice cream will still on the menu on my next visit.

Paris-L'Accolade cod.

Poached cod with passion fruit and coriander sauce.

Because my friend has her heart set on the slow-cooked caramelized lamb shoulder on a bed of mini-ratatouille, also my main course first choice, I opt for the cabillaud instead. The flaky slab of delicate cod is served with an al-dente stir-fried medley of seasonal vegetable and a tangy passion fruit sauce. An unusual harmony where tradition meets creativity for dazzling results.

The Sublime Mille-Feuille

Paris-L'Accolade mille-feuille.

Chef Nicholas’ signature mille-feuille.

By the time we reach dessert, we are both approaching the euphoric state of the blissfully satiated. It matters not that there are only three options, since one of them combines two of my guiltiest pleasures, mille-feuille and caramel au beurre salé (Napoleon and sea salt butterscotch). The portion is generous enough that it can be shared without afterthought, and so high and flaky that it can’t be done without making a finger-licking mess. In the process, I notice a thin layer of meringue within the layers, a new twist on the puff pastry classic that makes it extra light and crunchy.

Passion fruit Bavarois ravioli with sautéed pineaple and mango.

Passion fruit Bavarois ravioli with sautéed pineaple and mango.

The elegant passion fruit Bavarois ravioli with diced sautéed pineapple and mango on my friend’s plate is a delicate and refreshing creation. But it will always be the mille-feuille for me, as long as Chef Nicolas cares to keep it on the menu.

 

 

 

 

The Man Behind the Magic

Paris-L'Accolade Tardivel.

Chef Nicolas Tardivel.

Nicolas Tardivel is a man with two passions: rugby and cooking. He follows the former first. But after an early career as a wingman with the major league PUC (Paris Université Club) rugby team, he decides in his late twenties to pursue a culinary career. For the next decade, he hones his skills by assuming ever-increasing responsibilities in several noted Parisian restaurants. Along the way, he finds his mentor in Chef Christian Etchebest, one of the pillars of Bistronomie, the culinary movement started a quarter of a century ago by young classically trained Parisian chefs who wanted to bring haute cuisine down to earth. Applying their own creative talent to the highest quality products from the French heartland, they created simple dishes that brought bistro fare to new heights.

Chef Nicolas has mastered the lesson well. Now that the barely forty-something chef is at the helm of his own restaurant, he personally selects his local artisan suppliers. Then, using only the best of their seasonal bounty, he develops his own imaginative creations, juxtaposing flavors and textures in unconventional dishes that surprise and delight the palate.

L’Accolade’s wine list follows the same mindset: just over thirty labels, favoring handpicked small producers, with an emphasis on Burgundy, Chef Nicolas’ native region. Nine wines, well paired to the menu, are also available by the glass.

I look forward to a return visit to L’Accolade on my next stopover in Paris. I have already invited the friend who “hasn’t gone yet” to join me, as my thanks for steering me to this gem.

 

Good to Know

  • L’Accolade, 208, Rue de la Croix Nivert, Paris, 75015, is open Tuesday through Friday from 12:00 noon to 2:30 pm and 7:00 pm to 10:30 pm. It is open for dinner-only on Saturday from 7:00 pm to 10:30 pm, and for lunch-only on Monday from 12:00 noon to 2:30 pm. It is closed on Sunday. Contact: e-mail laccolade2016@gmail.com, tel.  +33 (0) 1 45 57 73 20.
  • Getting there – Located on a side street of a residential neighborhood near the convention center of the Porte de Versailles, at the southern end of Paris’ fifteenth arrondissement, L’Accolade is easy to reach by Métro from anywhere in Paris: stations Convention or Porte de Versailles (line 12) or Boucicaut (line 8).
  • In addition to its a-la-carte menu (average € 35 to € 50 per person excluding beverages), there is a fixed-menu lunch option (two courses for €19.5 or three courses for € 24.5 excluding beverages). Every night except Saturday, there is a table d’hôte four-course fixed-menu option at € 35 per person.
  • This cozy bistro with a relaxing contemporary flair can accommodate up to 35 guests. While it is still a word-of-mouth kind of place at the time of this writing, the word is deservedly getting around fast. Reservations are strongly recommended any time and are a must on weekends.

Location, location, location!

L'Accolade

My Favorite Table in Aix-en-Provence

My Favorite Table in Aix-en-Provence

Hard to imagine that in the historic center of Aix-en-Provence, where even the tiniest of squares is crammed with bistro terraces thick with tourists, cookie-cutter menus and hurried waiters, there still exist an intimate heaven where you can enjoy imaginative cuisine and considerate service in a relaxed atmosphere.

A Seasonal Feast

France-Aix Table Relaxed Atmosphere.

An intimate heaven of imaginative cuisine in a relaxed atmosphere.

Until I stumble onto La Table des Saisons, an unassuming little hole-in-the-wall on a narrow cobbled lane of the old town, somewhere between the throbbing, cigarette smoke-filled Place des Augustins and the trendy Place des Cardeurs. The jewel-like pastries lined in the refrigerated display case by the open French doors first catch my eye. But before I have a chance to consider skipping dinner and going straight to dessert, the plat de la semaine (weekly special) announced on the blackboard by the door straightens things out. Herb-encrusted filet of cod, served with a zucchini and red-pepper custard, carrot puree and baby string beans? Yes please! My friend, a red meat aficionada, is already sold on the filet of Charolais beef, the most prized cattle meat in France, served en croute, (in puff-pastry, Wellington-style) with shallot and port wine sauce.

France-Aix special cod.

Herb-encrusted filet of cod weekly special.

These simple dishes are flawlessly prepared to order and artfully presented with garnishes of spring vegetable. Because of our disparate choices of main courses we order wine by the glass, pleasing local offerings at friendly prices recommended by our knowledgeablel server. I won’t pretend we’ve left room for dessert, but we indulge anyway. My pistachio Bavarois over a “heart” fresh cherries is pure poetry! And a taste of the exquisite lemon cheesecake earns it top billing on my “next time” list.

A Family Affaire

France-Aix local artists.

The decor makes room for works by local artists.

La Table des Saison is a chef-owned family affaire. In the open kitchen, Lionel officiates with the enthusiasm and efficiently of a one-man orchestra. In the dining room, Martina welcomes guests with all the attention of a gracious hostess. The atmosphere is warm, the décor unpretentious. Comfortable wicker chairs, tables set with casual linen, soft lighting and art by local artists all around the room (yes, it is for sale in case you happen to fall in love with a particular piece).

Filet of Charolais en croute, with shallot and [ort wine sauce.

Filet of Charolais en croute, with shallot and port wine sauce.

The menu, a showcase of ultra-fresh seasonal ingredients from the market and local artisan suppliers, offers a range of options to satisfy the varied demands of the guests. There are imaginative grandes salades: Quinoa taboule with magret de canard (quinoa with grilled duck breast, cherry tomatoes, garden fresh radishes and cucumbers, sautéed baby carrots and black olives, served on a bed of mesclun). Tempting. But so is the Mediterranean-style vegetarian candied zucchini salad, bursting with roasted vegetable, pine nuts and the chef’s own pesto. Then there are the tartes salées (savory pies) that also make for a satisfying lunch or light dinner: red snapper with tapenade or goat cheese and cherry tomatoes. Both are served with a choice a mixed greens or assorted spring vegetable at the time of my visit.

France-Aix Tapenade.

This week’s special is rabbit with tapenade.

But my favorite remains the plat de la semaine available Monday through Friday, a new one offered each week. On my second visit it’s a succulent rabbit leg, in Lionel’s homemade mild tapenade sauce, served with grilled polenta triangles, crunchy string beans, and more of that lovely zucchini and red pepper custard.

 

Guilty Pleasures

France-Aix Bavarois.

Pistachio Bavarois filled with fresh cherries.

By now, La Table des Saisons is my own guilty pleasure in Aix. I stop for coffee and one of their irresistible pastries in the afternoon whenever I am in the neighborhood. And I manage one more visit on my recent stay there, a late lunch antidote to a particularly hectic morning. It’s Saturday, no plat de la semaine today. No problem though, as I have had my eye on one particular item on the regular menu. For me, it’s Gigot d’agneau de Sisteron today, a pan-grilled steak of delicate milk-fed lamb from the Provencal Alps, just one hour north of here, served with garlic cream sauce and eggplant “caviar”. As I pause by the door to let a young woman pass by, she whispers confidentially: “tout est très bon içi ,” and vanishes without breaking stride. The word is out: everything is delicious here!

Good to Know

  • La Table des Saisons, 6 Rue Lieutaud, Aix-en-Provence, France, latabledessaisons.com, is open 12:00 noon to 5:00 pm on Monday, Tuesday and Thursday, 12:00 noon to 10:00 pm on Friday and Saturday, and 12:00 noon to 6:00 pm on Sunday. It is closed on Wednesday. Reservations are prudent on weekend. Contact: e-mail contact@latabledessaisons.com. Tel: +33 (0)4 42 22 97 07.
  • The overall menu is seasonal, updated every couple of months to take full advantage of local offerings at their prime.
  • Lionel, who originally trained as a pastry chef, creates some of the most tempting desserts ever, showcasing local seasonal fruit. His creations can be enjoyed on site, or purchased to go.
  • In addition to featuring vegetarian options on the menu, Lionel is happy to recommend choices and substitutions for gluten-intolerant guests.

A Few Souvenirs

Location, location, location!

La Table des Saisons

An Improbable Foodies Destination – Lille

An Improbable Foodies Destination – Lille

Improbable? Only if one sticks to preconceived stereotypes. Northern cuisine is one of the most underrated in France. Ask any casual outsider about Lille gastronomy and you may get a snickered “moules et frites,” or at best a dismissive Gallic shrug. Yes, mussels and fries are common fare in the historic capital of French Flanders, and reliably some of the freshest and best tasting I have sampled anywhere in France, but so are many other delectable regional specialties that reflect the dual French-Flemish heritage. Step into the first estaminet and find out.

What’s an Estaminet?

France - Lille Estaminet.

L’Estaminet ‘T Rijsel is popular for its local comfort food.

Estaminets are to northern French what bistros are to Parisians and pubs to the British, welcoming casual places where to enjoy local comfort food or just drop in for a drink. They are everywhere in Lille, dishing out hearty carbonnade (beef braised in dark beer), waterzooi (chicken or fish cooked in cream with leeks and carrots), and the unpronounceable pot’je vleesch (pot-cha-flesh). Or just say “potch…” The friendly waitress will say the rest for your benefit and bring on a huge portion of potted boned rabbit, chicken, veal and pork in vinegar aspic, with a heap of crisp French fries on the side. Most things come with French fries in an estaminet, even my all-time favorite lapin aux pruneaux (braised rabbit with prunes in a cream sauce).

L'Estaminet Chez la Vieille (at the Old One)

Boughs of dry hops hang from ceiling beams are a tradition at Chez la Vieille (at the Old One).

Estaminet ‘T Rijsel (that’s Flemish for Lille) is my preferred stop for both pot’je vleesch and rabbit. With its rough plaster walls lined with old framed prints and boughs of dry hops hanging from the beams over the tightly packed wooden tables, it looks like it’s been there forever. It’s cozy, and so popular that it can get quite raucous at the height of the dinner hour.

Estaminet Chez la Vieille (at the Old One) is other fun stop for a Flemish food fix. Same atmosphere and bric-a-brac décor hanging on its exposed ancient brick walls. But here, among the traditional recipes, another local staple that finds its way into a lot of dishes is the pungent local maroilles cheese, which mercifully doesn’t taste nearly as assertive as it smells. I especially like their chicken in maroilles cream sauce, and the leek-maroilles tart. I also rather enjoy their beetroot ice-cream, but the jury is still out on the chicory-flavored one.

Le Lion Bossu

France - Lille Restaurant Lion Bossu.

The Hunchback Lion’s lair is a seventeenth century townhouse.

But a woman cannot live on lapin aux pruneaux and fried potatoes alone. On my latest visit, I opted for Le Lion Bossu (The Hunchback Lion), one of the mainstays of the old town’s gastronomic scene. Here, in a seventeenth century townhouse at the corner of the Place du Lion d’Or (Golden Lion Square), husband and wife team Laurence and Pascal Coué have been welcoming diners since 1989. Madame Coué reigns over the kitchen, while Monsieur manages the dining room. The romantic second-floor dining room seduces at “Bonjour” with its period beamed ceilings, subdued lighting and brick walls enhanced by antiques gilded frames.

Cuisine Bourgeoise at its Best

France - Lille Lion Bossu Carpaccio.

Salmon Carpaccio, Lion Bossu-style.

The menu is a dilemma of interesting temptations. I start with a marinated salmon carpaccio. Instead of the traditional fanned paper-thin slices, it materializes as a finely diced patty of raw salmon on a bed of chopped fennel, surrounded by a lemon and chive cream. It’s more tartare than carpaccio, but lovely just the same so let’s not quibble. I follow with a magret de canard, (duck breast) sautéed to a medium rare perfection and served with a peppercorn sauce; excellent with its accompanying celery risotto and spring baby vegetables.

France - Lille Lionn Duck Breast.

Sautéed duck breast with a peppercorn sauce.

My friend’s poached scrod (dos de cabillaud in French) and baby spinach topped with foie gras mascarpone et caramelized onion compote on a mild curry foam, which of course I have to sample, is voted a success by both of us. But the coup de grace is yet to come. Dessert, a generous verrine of limoncello sabayon over creamy rice pudding and red berries coulis, has me wondering if next time I could ask for a main course portion.
 

France - Lille Lion Sabayon.

Verrine of limoncello sabayon.

The well-balanced wine list, representative of the main wine growing regions of France, is priced a bit on the high side. With the help of Mr. Coué, we select a light red Bourgogne Chardonnay, Domaine de la Vierge Romaine, 2014 that nicely complements both our entrée choices. The service, while attentive and friendly could be a tad faster.

 
 

Good to Know

  • L’Huîtrerie, the venerable centenarian widely recognized as the best fish restaurant and bastion of elegant dining in Lille, which I had intended to include in this roundup, regrettably is no more. I found out, when attempting to call for reservations, that it had closed its doors permanently in late February. Although glowing reviews still figure prominently on guidebooks and websites, beware that it is, alas, gone.
  • Estaminet ‘T Rijsel, 25 Rue de Gand, Lille, is open Tuesday through Friday from 12:00 P.M. to 1:30 P.M. and 7:00 P.M. to 10:00 P.M., Saturday and Sunday from 12:00 P.M. to 2:00 P.M. and 7:00 P.M. to 10:30 P.M., and Monday from 7:00 P.M. to 9:30 P.M. Contact: Tel. +33 (0) 3 20 15 01 59.
  • Estaminet Chez la Vieille, 60 Rue de Gand, Lille, http://estaminetlille.fr/chezlavieille/, is open Tuesday through Thursday from 12:00 P.M. to 3:00 P.M. and 7:00 P.M. to 12:00 A.M., Friday and Saturday from 12:P.M. to 3:00 P.M. and 7:00 P.M. to 12:30 A.M., and closed Sunday and Monday. Contact: Tel. +33 (0) 3 28 36 40 06.
  • Le Lion Bossu, 1 Rue Saint-Jacques, Lille, is open everyday from 12:00 P.M. to 2:00 P.M. and 7:30 P.M. to 10:00 P.M. Reservations are necessary. Contact: Tel. + 33 (0) 3 20 06 06 88.

A Few Souvenirs

Location, location, location!

Lille, France

Foodie Landmarks of the Massachusetts North Shore

Foodie Landmarks of the Massachusetts North Shore

This week, I am on the Massachusetts North Shore, an especially picturesque stretch of historic New England Atlantic coast, where a sure sign of spring is the seasonal reopening of its many fresh-off-the-boat seafood eateries. From simple roadside clams-and-fries shacks to noted restaurants with impressive views of the ocean and menus to match, they are gradually emerging from hibernation to ready themselves for the swarms of visitors that will soon descend upon the area.

New England Seafood History

MA_Rocky Neck Rudder.

The Rudder has been a Rocky Neck foodie landmark since 1957.

It is my good fortune that my arrival happens to coincide with the annual reopening of The Rudder, a Gloucester foodie landmark since 1957. Tucked in a building dating back to the age of sails, the Rocky Neck harbor-front place is already bursting at the seams when we arrive at 6:30 P.M. for an early dinner. The bar is standing room-only, three deep with locals who clearly enjoy having the Rudder to themselves before the tourist invasion begins.

 

MA - Rudder appetizer.

The eggplant Napoleon appetizer.

We edge our way toward the glassed-in dining deck packed cheek by jowl with small square blue Formica tables of an other age. Thanks to my son’s foresight (he made reservations a couple of days ahead) we score a window-side table with a view the harbor bathed in golden sunset light. The décor is resolutely kitsch, the ceiling covered with faded plastic garlands interwoven with pin lights. But there is nothing kitsch about the menu, just delicious, unpretentiously prepared bounty fresh out of the sea.

MA - Rudder scallops.

My main course of broiled scallops and grilled aspargus.

We share a couple of appetizers. The crab cakes, three generous patties of pure lump-crab meat gently sautéed to a golden brown arrive on a bed of arugula drizzled with spicy aioli. As for the eggplant Napoleon, I doubt it’s named after the erstwhile Emperor of the French. But whoever the eponymous gentleman is, he gets my gratitude for the succulent plate of crisp eggplant fritters garnished with sundried tomato pesto and topped with a mound of tangy whipped ricotta. I could easily call it a satisfying meal right there.

MA-Rudder seafood risotto.

The seafood risotto and its medley of shellfish.

However, the sweet local scallops I’ve been yearning for since I started planning this trip are yet to come. A generous baking dish of them arrives, prepared the traditional way, broiled under a light topping of buttery breadcrumbs, with a dash of white wine and garlic sauce. The other notable main dishes at our table are a creamy seafood risotto disappearing under a medley of just steamed shrimps, scallops, mussels and clams, and stuffed sole. The latter consists of two delicate filets of sole wrapped around mounds of lump-crab meat and glazed with beurre blanc. A taste of each convinces me that a return visit is in order.

The Rudder offers a full array of bar beverages. The wine list features a good choice of California wines as well as a few offerings from international wine-growing areas. Most are available by the glass as well as full bottles. The service is efficient and friendly.

An Epic Lobster Roll

Ma-Marblehead lobster roll.

The Muffin Shop’s lobster roll.

On a first visit, the simple storefront of The Muffin Shop could easily be overlooked. Just walk in, grab a soft drink in the glass-fronted cooler as you go by, and order at the counter. Then find a seat at one of the dozen or so wooden tables, wait for your name to be called and come to claim your prize: on a white disposable plate, outlined by a kosher dill pickle, a long sweet bread roll, toasted on the grill and overflowing with heaps of thick lobster chunks. A few thin slices of tomatoes and a couple of lettuce leaves may be added on demand, but otherwise, that’s it, just mounds of succulent fresh lobster meat, barely seasoned with a dab of mayonnaise dressing. Well worth a detour whenever I am in the area. Be prepared to stand in line during the summer months.

Good to Know

  • The Rudder, 73 Rocky Neck Avenue, Gloucester, Massachusetts, rudderrestaurant.com, is open 5:00 P.M. to 10:00 P.M., Thursday through Sunday from its mid-April seasonal opening to mid-May, and daily from late May to of October. Call for exact dates as they may vary slightly from year to year. Dinner reservation recommended. Contact: e-mail info@rudderrestaurant.com, tel. +1 978-283-7967.
  • For the unfortunate souls with seafood dietary restrictions, the menu also offers a small selection of Italian meat dishes. And yes, there are also a few interesting dessert choices, alas beyond the capabilities of my appetite for this visit.
  • Located on a small peninsula within Gloucester’s working harbor, Rocky Neck is home to one of the oldest continuously operating art colonies in the United States. Today, it is home to dozens of galleries where working artists, painters, photographers, potters, textile designers and jewelry makers display their work during the summer months.
  • The Muffin Shop, 126 Washington St, Marblehead, Massachusetts, is open year-round, Monday through Friday from 6:00 A.M. to 4:00 P.M. , and Saturday and Sunday from 6:00 A.M. to 5:00 P.M. Contact: Tel. (781) 631-8223.

 

 

Location, location, location!

Rocky Neck

Bistro Dining – the Guy Savoy Way

Bistro Dining – the Guy Savoy Way

Stretched along the left bank of the Seine at the edge of Saint Germain des Prés, and just a stone throw away from the Pont Neuf and Notre Dame, the Quai des Grands Augustins has been the domain of “les bouquinistes” for over four centuries.

An Historic Paris Institution

The Pont Neuf and the Ile de la Cité.

The Pont Neuf and the Ile de la Cité.

As soon as the Pont Neuf, the then new bridge that is now the oldest remaining one in Paris, was inaugurated in 1609, people flocked there, drawn by the spectacle of its lively stew of street vendors, performers, quacks and charlatans of all stripes. Before long, it had also become a favorite of second-hand book peddlers, who doubtless found this medieval version of the shopping mall a convenient alternative to itinerant markets. Over time these bouquinistes, as they were called, spread out along the banks of the river. They are still here today, with their traditional green box stalls overflowing with used and antiquarian books, vintage magazines, posters and postcards.

The Guy Savoy Touch

Paris - Les Bouquinistes

Les Bouquinistes, Guy Savoy style.

But my favorite place to linger on the Quai is not a bookstall but rather the habit-forming “avec Guy Savoy” bistro across the street, Les Bouquinistes, named as an accolade to this historic Paris institution. Widely recognized as one of the greats chefs of his generation, Guy Savoy is known for his nuanced adaptations of the grand French culinary classics. In addition to his eponymous luxury-dining shrine, he is the owner of five bistros around Paris, including Les Bouquinistes. Here, he takes an active part in the development of the overall menus and individual dishes while entrusting their execution and the management of the kitchen to talented young chef Stéphane Perraud.

Bisto Fare with Flare

Bouquinistes - Gazpacho.

Gazpacho with cucumber sorbet and Burrata cheese.

My most recent meal here begins with a sumptuous gazpacho where all the flavors of garden fresh summer vegetable and herbs are further enhanced by generous dollops of cucumber sorbet and perfectly aged, creamy Burrata cheese. My dining companion also opts for a soup starter, a foamy emulsion of velvet crab bouillabaisse garnished with crab ravioli. I can’t resist claiming of spoonful of it. The frothy liquid is a subtle burst of complex ocean flavors blended with lemon grass and a touch of ginger, a perfect foil for the generous crabmeat ravioli.

Paris - Bouquinistes Lamb

Roasted loin of lamb en croute.

My entrée is a luscious carré d’agneau en croute, a lovely medium rare loin of lamb wrapped in golden, flaky puff pastry and served with grenaille (roasted new baby potatoes) and braised eggplant. My friend’s braised breast of suckling pig is set on a bed of haricots de Paimpol (delicate fresh white beans from Brittany) and topped with a golden pulled pork dumpling.

 

 

 

Paris - Bouquinistes, Chocolate Dessert.

All Things Chocolate.

Predictably, I zero in on the All Things Chocolate dessert – a sinful medley of chocolate mousse, butter cream and a light flourless cake wrapped in ganache. Meanwhile, my friend declares herself delighted with her pyramid of profiteroles on a bed of red fruit compote.

For our wine selection, we follow the sommelier’s advice and opt for an interesting red Côtes du Rhone (2013 Le Temps Est Venu) from Domaine Ogier d’Ampuis, which beautifully enhances both our menu choices.

The Right Setting

Paris - Bouquinistes, interior

Interior design by Jean-Michel Wilmotte.

An additional attraction of Les Bouquinistes is the space itself, recently redesigned by noted French architect and designer Jean-Michel Wilmotte in his understated black and white contemporary style. With its fully glassed-in exterior walls and signature transparent wine refrigerator divider wall, the serene interior fades from awareness. All that remains is the relaxed bistro atmosphere in which to focus on the romantic backdrop of the Seine and Notre Dame, and on the moveable feast on my plate

Good to know

  • Les Bouquinites, lesbouquinistes.com, 53 Quai des Grands Augustins, 75006, Paris, is open every day for lunch from 12:00 pm to 2:30 pm and for dinner from 7:00 pm to 11:00 pm. Advanced reservations are usually necessary. Contact: Email bouquinistes@guysavoy.com, Tel: +33 (0) 1 43 25 45 94.
  • In addition to its a-la-carte menu (average € 75 per person excluding beverages), Les Bouquinistes offers a six-course tasting menu (€ 89). At lunch, there are also daily two and three-course set menus ranging from € 32 to € 45 that include one glass of wine.
  • Nearest Metro stations are Odeon or Saint Michel. Both are within a five-minute walk.
  • Guy Savoy’s brilliant career began with his apprenticeship with the legendary Frères Troisgros in Roanne, in the Loire Valley. He went on to hone his skills at Lasserre in Paris and the Lion d’Or in Cologny, Switzerland, before becoming Head Chef of Claude Verger’s La Barrière de Clichy. He then opened his own restaurant in 1980 at the age of 27 and earned his first Michelin star the following year, followed by a second one in 1985. A third star followed some years later. In addition to his signature restaurants in Paris, Las Vegas and Singapore, he also own five bistros around Paris, each with a different culinary focus.

A Few Souvenirs

Location, location, location!

Les Bouquinistes