7 June 2013

La Grenouillère, La Madeleine-sous-Montreuil – Restaurant Review

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.
Alexandre had trained as a chef in nearby Le Touquet before spending time working in kitchens across France, the UK, China and Switzerland. On returning to La Grenouillère he broke with his father's tradition and set about creating something much more modern with a focus on seasonal ingredients. His efforts were rewarded, when in 2008 he regained La Grenouillère's lost star and the restaurant is now listed as one of the top 100 restaurants in the world according to the influential Restaurant magazine.
We began our meal in the lounge, part of the original building, and what used to be the former dining room. Visually, there's a lot to absorb in this somewhat cluttered room: half-timbered walls, intricate rugs, an iron fireplace, and some spectacular frog-themed frescos. Every horizontal surface seemed to be littered with more amphibian memorabilia, the effect being not unlike walking into the dusty old living room of an endearingly mad frog-loving aunt.

Over glasses of champagne (is there any better way to start dinner) we were served a series of hors d'oeuvre.
Hors d'oeuvre 1: Soft-boiled quail eggs dusted with dried seaweed were popped in the mouth to release a yolk of liquid silk.

Hors d'oeuvre 2: Shards of "squid paper" were exactly as their name suggests: translucent wafers of dried squid, which tasted fine but could have been crisper.

Hors d'oeuvre 3: Thin slices of toast with rhubarb were served next; tasty if somewhat muted in flavour.

Hors d'oeuvre 4: A small dollop of cod cream wrapped in turnip. These were again fine, but gave no hint as to the culinary fireworks that were soon to come.

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.

Built just two years ago, the dining room is part of the Patrick Bouchain designed structure that was constructed during the recent renovation and expansion of La Grenouillère. Along with the dining room, a gargantuan new kitchen and luxurious self-contained grass covered huts for guests, complete with hidden bathtubs, wood-burning stoves, and iPod docks, were also added.
The juxtaposition of the twee rural style of the original building with the glass and metal harshness of the new structure is marked, and the effect is simply astonishing. From our pleasingly tactile leather-clad table we sat, eyes agog, surveying the odd mix of steampunk quirkiness meets industrial warehouse. Above us, a tangle of wires hung from steel rafters feeding a myriad of tiny LED lights. The centre of the room is dominated by a bizarre clockwork fireplace which houses a single flame that emerges from a large Bunsen burner type device. A breadbasket is suspended from an elaborate pulley and wire contraption.

La Grenouillère offers both an à la carte as well as tasting menu. We went for the 11-course menu priced at €115 with matching wines for €60. Although, as it turned out we ended up enjoying over twenty courses during our four hour gastronomic voyage.

Course 1: Asperge Verte, Lotte (Green Asparagus, Monkfish). A small bowl containing a beautiful presentation of raw monkfish wrapped in shavings of asparagus had a great contrast of textures. Unfortunately the addition of a "fish entrail" sauce (which I guess must have been made from monkfish liver) rendered this dish a little too fishy for my liking.

Bread and Butter

Course 2: A surprise additional course of razor clam was placed on the edge of our bowl. The clam was served in its shell on a layer of soft egg white foam dusted with corn. This dish had a nice clean mineral-like taste with a little crunch provided by the corn. Very nice, but to be honest we were starting to become a little apprehensive that the wished-for culinary magic wasn't going to materialise.

Course 3: Asperge Verte, Cébette (Green Asparagus, Spring Onion). It turned out we needn't have been worried at all, as what followed was a plate of food so beautiful that I almost couldn't bear to disturb it. Spears of asparagus were set in asparagus purée, sitting proud and vertical, like some imposing metropolis skyline. Each spear had been threaded through a loop of spring onion and the dish was finished with small shiny spheres of balsamic vinegar. What a dish this was; crisp, grassy asparagus in its prime, creamy purée and a nice acidic kick from the balsamic. Finally, it seemed like the kitchen was now firing on all cylinders.

Course 4: Seiche, Petis Pois (Squid, Peas). If there were such a thing as a global flavour repository, a place where examples of what different kinds of food should taste like, then this dish would most certainly have to be the shining example of what the humble pea should taste like. A bright green dish of peas with a pea pod sauce tasted sweet, fresh and earthy – the very epitome of spring. I haven't even mentioned the squid hiding underneath, which was soft and supple and such a joy to eat. A magnificent dish!

Course 5: St Pierre, Épinard Fumé (John Dory, Smoked Spinach). Another wonderful dish, this time fillets of John Dory were served with lightly smoked spinach and leeks. The sweet, buttery fish paired well with the smokiness from the spinach, while the addition of wild herbs added a slight bitterness to balance the dish.

Course 6: Another dish not listed on the menu was this course of smoked veal tartare, served with grilled onions and dusted with broccoli. Soft, roughly cut pieces of veal appeared to literally dissolve on the tongue, while the acidity from the grilled pickled onions cut through the beefy fat nicely. The broccoli added some welcome vegetal bitterness. Such a well thought combination of flavours. Faultless.

Course 7: Ravioli, Persil (Ravioli, Parsley). So we have a simple parsley ravioli nestled under some parsley leaves right? Well, not quite so simple. For hidden in the raviolo, which was made from exquisitely thin pasta, was a warm liquid egg yolk that oozed out so seductively over the plate that the dish should probably come with an 18 rating.

Course 8: Grenouilles Meunière (Frogs' Legs Meunière) Next was a dish that didn't appear on the tasting menu, but one we saw on the à la carte menu and simply had to try. I mean who comes to a restaurant called La Grenouillère without eating frogs' legs? The frogs' legs were served family style in a large tray having first been dredged in flour and sautéed in butter and lemon. They were accompanied by small crisp croutons, which gave a textural contrast and had the added bonus of soaking up all the delicious juices. This was another imperious display of Gauthier's skills and it vanished in a matter of minutes, leaving behind a small neat pile of froggy bones. And yes, they taste just like chicken.

Course 9: Next, a large bunch of stinging nettles was brought to the table. "Please take one," instructed the waiter pointing to a small pillow-like square nestled in the middle of the nettles. Bracing myself for the inevitable stinging pain, I reached in to grab one of the pillows and placed it on the table, my hand miraculously unscathed. The pillow was actually a soft doughy square of bread filled with a warm nettle purée, rich with the fragrance of a spring walk along the riverbank.

Course 10: Homard, Genièvre (Lobster, Juniper). Plates of burning juniper branches were theatrically served next, nestled in the middle of which was a fat succulent lobster tail. We were to dive in and eat the lobster tail with our fingers. The lobster was beautifully sweet and tender, and had been gently perfumed with the fragrant smoky scent of juniper. I really enjoyed this dish; clever presentation and great execution.

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.

Course 11: Gnocchi, Truffe d'Été (Gnocchi, Summer Truffle). A clever little dish was next in the form of a playful take on the classic Italian gnocchi. A potato had been encased in crisp black pepper spiked pasta and silky smooth goose egg yolk was poured over the top straight from the shell. The black pepper packed quite a kick that was tamed by warm comforting potato, while the egg yolk bound everything together nicely. There were truffles in there too, somewhere, which is always a good thing in my book.

Course 12: This was followed by a wonderfully crazy dish. An enormous morel mushroom had been stuffed with sweetbreads and garnished with dainty thin cones of raw turnip. This was savouriness turned up to 11 – dense and meaty, full of earthy and gamey flavours. It was heavenly, and quite nearly the straw that broke the camel's back (stomach?), but a few minutes break saw us ready to continue.

Course 13: A reviving dish of spinach with a risotto of green wheat grains was next, the grains having a satisfying chewy bite to them.

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 14: A neat stack of burnt leeks, bitter and sweet, were served with the lactic tang of a goat cheese-like cream. Another fantastic dish.

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 16: A large vat of a mysterious golden liquid was brought to the table. The waitress then proceeded to decant glasses of the liquid using a strange mouth pump contraption. A large slab of honeycomb was then brought to the table and pieces were cut out and placed on a spoon and doused with a few drops of lemon juice. The liquid, of course, turned out to be homemade mead made from the local honey. This was a wonderful combination, the honey being light and floral while the lemon juice stopped it being too cloying. One for the honey-lovers, and love it I did.

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 18: This was followed by one of the most beautiful and exciting desserts I've ever had. Tall batons of meringue were carefully placed in a base of sea buckthorn mousse and served with wild marjoram and a tart sea buckthorn purée. The effect was explosive, a riot of fresh sweet and sour flavours combined with soft and crunchy textures that the brain at first struggled to comprehend. Absolutely sublime!

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.

A visit to La Grenouillère is an all-encompassing experience too. From the flawless and friendly service of the front of house team, led by the affable and charming Pascal Garnier, to the rustic luxuriousness of the rooms and the simple breakfast spread that awaits you the next morning. Indeed, for what it's worth, I find it somewhat surprising that La Grenouillère is listed in the Michelin Guide with 'only' one star, for surely this is one of the most exciting and innovative restaurants in France at the moment? And I for one certainly plan on making a special journey back.

Food:             9 / 10
Service:       10 / 10
Ambiance:   10 / 10

La Grenouillère
Rue de la Grenouillère
62170 La Madelaine sous Montreuil
Tel. +33 3 21 06 07 22


  1. Fantastic writeup! Yet another reason to go back to France someday (soon hopefully)...

  2. So is the tasting menu 11 courses? did you order the other 9 from the a la carte or where they gifts from the kitchen? Great post!

    1. Hello Anonymous,
      The restaurant offers two tasting menus (11- and 9-courses) as well as an à la carte. We went for the '11-course' menu and also chose a dish from the à la carte. Like many high-end restaurants, though, it's pretty common for the kitchen to throw in a few extra surprise dishes that aren't listed on the tasting menu.

  3. Hi Mr Nibbler, great post! I have a table reserved here in July as well as the nearby In De Wulf, did you go there? I know what you mean about "extra courses" just like your favourite http://fergusmiller.com/2013/06/12/maaemo/ which offers you a 10 course and you end up getting 25! I think restaurants like these should do the same as Noma & Fäviken and not put a number on how many course you may or may not receive! I wonder who did the "Shellfish & smoking Juniper" recipe first, I hear its an old traditional Nordic recipe, but my gut feeling is that out of "today's" chefs it was Magnus at Fäviken, I had a very similar dish at Geranium the other day which was excellent. Regards Fergus

  4. That's a special meal at a special place. The nearby In de Wulf is as good if not better and in the same vein. But you should also consider La Marine in Brittany which offers a completely different cooking style but is just as compelling.

    1. Hi Steve, thanks, I'll definitely try and check out La Marine next time I'm in the area. As for In de Wulf, I was there the day before going to La Grenouillère, so watch this space for a write-up!