To paraphrase Mark Twain, reports of the demise of French haute cuisine are greatly exaggerated. In fact, it would appear that the upper echelons of French cooking are alive and well and capable of producing modern, inventive, and exciting food. Behold exhibit 'A' for the defence: the mesmerising and wilfully eccentric La Grenouillère in La Madelaine-sous-Montreuil.
Tucked away in this northern corner of France on the banks of the Canche river, closer to London than it is to Paris, is an old Picardy farmhouse that had been serving French classic such as frogs legs and Crêpe Suzette since 1900. La Grenouillère had held a Michelin star since 1936, so the loss of it in 2001 must have come as a bitter blow to owner Roland Gauthier. In 2003, Roland summoned his son, Alexandre, then just 24 years old, to return and tasked him with transforming the restaurant's fortunes.
Over glasses of champagne (is there any better way to start dinner) we were served a series of hors d'oeuvre.
We were then led into the main dining room and shown to our table. The contrast between this room and the lounge from which we had come couldn't have been starker. La Grenouillère is probably home to one of the world's most unusual and visually stunning dining rooms, and on entering I couldn't help but stand and stare, my jaw making a beeline for the floor.
I should add, though, that living in Norway has completely spoiled me when it comes to shellfish, the quality of which is unimpeachable and is surely some of the best seafood in the world as a result of the cold pristine northern waters. This dish was very similar in concept to the magnificent langoustine and pine course served at Oslo's two Michelin-starred Maaemo. And as these dish were so similar, I couldn't help but marvel at just how special Norwegian shellfish really is.
As the evening progressed I stopped to look around the dining room. The huge glass windows that looked out onto the surrounding gardens ensured that the light was constantly changing throughout the meal. Bouchain's design of the new building stipulated that there was to be no outside lighting, so as the night drew in the outside world appeared to vanish and soon we were left looking at our reflections in the darkened windows. It's a simple, but effective trick and adds a touch of magic to an already beautiful dining room.
Course 15: Cutlets of tender, pink Boulogne lamb were served with potato purée and ash-dusted mushrooms. A plate brimming with sautéed spring truffles was then brought to the table, which turned this humble and hearty dish into something positively decadent. This was a great example of cooking at its best; keep it simple and let the produce shine. And what produce it was – the French countryside at its best!
Course 17: Pomme de Terre, Fraise (Potato, Strawberry). A white chocolate shell covered with potato was broke open to reveal a thick jammy strawberry centre. The real surprise was the dusting of an intensely sour white powder, a bit like the stuff sour candies are made from, which served to intensify the strawberry flavour.
Course 19: Cacao, Pissenlit (Cocoa, Dandelion). A bizarre angular structure of different preparations of chocolate (sorbet, praline, sablé biscuit) was liberally covered with dandelion flowers. I'm not usually a fan of chocolate desserts, finding them to often be too heavy, so it's testament to how good this one was that I actually finished it with glee.
Course 20: A crisp translucent sugar shell contained sorrel ice cream and was garnished with fresh mint and sweet cicely. This was a lovely cooling, fragrant and reviving dish.
Course 21: Our final course was an inventive dessert of avocado and pistachio sponge, fresh avocado and grass sorbet – a combination of flavours that sounds implausible on paper, but which was absolutely heavenly. Fresh, cooling sorbet, tasting like a newly mown meadow, creamy avocado, and a touch of exotic nutty aromas from the pistachios was a dream to eat.
And with that, as the clock struck midnight, the spell ended and we retired to our rooms to reflect on the meal we had just experienced. It's difficult to sum up a visit to La Grenouillère. On the surface it seems so old world; a Picardy family restaurants that dates back over a hundred years is hardly the place you'd expect to find cooking as inventive as this. Yet Gauthier's delightfully eccentric style in the kitchen produced one of the best meals I've had in France.
Although Gauthier's style may be eccentric, his is not a scattershot approach, being keenly focussed with perfect technical execution. On each plate Gauthier picks two or three flavours and combines them in new and surprising ways (chocolate and dandelion, or lobster and juniper, anyone) to create something beyond its constituent parts. His focus is on delighting with fresh, wild flavours, using produce in ways you wouldn't expect. Gauthier is also not afraid of challenging diners and isn't trapped in the mould of trying to please everyone all the time. He won't compromise on a dish even if only twenty percent of diners like it. But it's a focus and determination that pays off handsomely.
Food: 9 / 10
Service: 10 / 10
Ambiance: 10 / 10
Rue de la Grenouillère
62170 La Madelaine sous Montreuil
Tel. +33 3 21 06 07 22