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?
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).
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
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
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.
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.
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, http://www.ruedesrestos.com/restaurateurs/rijsel/, 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, http://www.ruedesrestos.com/restaurateurs/lelionbossu/, 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.