Sa Qua Na (Honfleur, France) – Light & Crisp
“I remain very attached to the Japanese talent for simplicity and understatement” – Alexandre Bourdas
Sa Qua Na is nestled in the picturesque port city of Honfleur, France. It is manned by Alexandre Bourdas, who cooked for Michel Bras in Japan and has clearly been influenced by his former boss. The restaurant’s name, derived from “Sakana”, Japanese for fish, hints at the aesthetic – lightness and purity. It may only have one Michelin star but the food is remarkably refined and taut, good enough for two. While not without its faults, Sa Qua Na succeeded as a blend of east and west, without the cliches of fusion, that few restaurants accomplish.
Honfleur is a visually stunning port city in Normandy, two hours west of Paris by car, or four by train and bus. It escaped the bombing of World War II and managed to preserve its 17th century buildings and street layouts. It would be easy for Honfleur to fall into a tourist trap mentality and, while there are plenty of shops selling goods of dubious quality, the architecture and slim alleyways provide ample curiosity for an afternoon or two. There are small visual details found throughout the city, many maritime in nature, congruent with its past, that should be fascinating to anyone interested in history, crafts, or iconography.
The iconic shot of Honfleur’s harbor, repeated in every slip of literature describing the place. It is more beautiful than pictures do justice.
Sa Qua Na is located on a square, its sleek design belying its surroundings. The exterior is bland, choosing an ivory over the bold primary colors of its neighbors. The interior design choice is regrettable, having taken its cues from Wallpaper magazine instead of anything resembling Honfleur. It was a missed opportunity to ground the restaurant in its physical place and cultural past. Arguably, the food tries to connect itself to the land; why would the restaurant design not?
What lies behind this dull exterior?
Only one tasting menu was offered. Thanks to the long days of mid-summer, a high latitude, and a window seat, lighting was excellent for most of the meal, and the pictures came out nicely.
à se partager, une pascade aveyronnaise à l’huile de truffe
This crepe-like dish had a surprisingly ephemeral flavor. The caramelized crust, chives and truffle oil hark back to medieval alchemy – simple, basic ingredients that mixed lightly and just floated on the tongue for a long finish. A remarkable start that immediately set expectations higher.
Daurade poche au citron vert, feuilles de liveche & coriandre, un bouillon clair a la noix de coco et huile de Combava
A piece of sea bream was placed in a stone bowl and it was (barely) cooked by a broth of coconut and lime oil. Fresh leaves of lovage and coriander were added. This is a signature quality dish – a tantalizing blend of careful flavors, none overpowering the fish, all masterfully balanced. A mix of east and west that would be difficult to improve – the sort of precision and refinement I would hope to find at Olivier Roellinger.
Des gougeres au jus de roquette, emulsion de pomme de terre, feves, jus de viande & truffes d’ete
One could complain that the summer truffles were tastless, and that the accompanying truffle oil was no substitute, but the emulsion continued the theme – light in flavor. The texture was very airy, as if the emulsion barely existed. Its strength was arguably its weakness too – it was a nice dish but it went nowhere when viewed in the context of the previous dishes.
Le foie gras de canard poele, moutarde, pate de Tarbais au lard demi sel & sirop de betterave
The seared foie gras was balanced by the sweeter beet syrup but the dish seemed out of place for this menu. A light and creamy torchon may have integrated better, while still continuing the journey; instead, this dish, while fine, was a bit heavy when compared to the previous dishes.
Petis-pois / Huile d’olive / Citron confit
Light, pure, and balanced – is it nouvelle cuisine, italian, or japanese? The citrus gave it that right amount of brightness, accentuating the intensity of the peas. This is the sort of dish I fall for these days.
Un filet de turbot meuniere, brocolis, creme de noisettes grillees & sabayon aux fruits de la passion
This was a good piece of turbot, but nothing stellar. The cooking and conception were strong but the ingredient failed the potential – a thin piece that lacked much gelatinous mouth feel. The passion fruit sabayon would have made a nice foil for a thicker piece of turbot.
Une longe de veau tout simplement roti, cotes et feuilles de blettes, yaourt a l’aubergine, jus court & mousse au gingembre
The veal was the sole disappointing dish of the night. It was not over-cooked, quite pink, but it was nearly inedible – stringy and tough. The waiter sympathized but she did not really offer an explanation as to what went wrong – was this really veal? Disappointing, yes, but considering the success of the previous dishes, acceptable in the grand scheme of the meal.
Une tartine… une creme traitee comme un fromage – herbs & poivre Reines des Pres, confiture d’abricot & framboises
Un sorbet a la pulpe d’ananas, fenouil confit a froid, feuille de cachuetes & creme vierge
Philosophically, Sa Qua Na could fall into the nouvelle cuisine bucket, as would be argued by Julot in his nouvelle cuisine article. It is entirely focused on the expression of the ingredients, not coaxing them into something more. Others might argue that the lightness and purity of the flavors, similar to L’Arpege and Michel Bras are more modern in approach. Stylistically, it certainly takes nods from Japan, with an emphasis on purity and lightness. It is not fusion and its tireless cliches; instead, it is an effortless merging of two interpretations of, arguably, similar approaches to food.
As Bourdas states on his web site, the food is under-stated and simple – pure. There are no big impacts here, aside from the success of such a soft-spoken menu. No, Sa Qua Na does not reach the upper echelon of the aforementioned three star restaurants, but it feels like the work of a confident chef – someone striving to get to that level. The ingredients on this night failed him a few times; but the problem seems surmountable.
The food is quite light, and one must like that approach to fully enjoy the restaurant. If anything, that could be the main argument against the food – all of it occupies similar territory – no real journey is taken through the meal. Bourdas has a style but maybe nothing to say. Regardless, this was the best meal of my recent trip and I would highly recommend it as a side trip from Paris in the spring, summer, or fall.
Getting & Staying There
Sa Qua Na, and Honfleur, is a day trip from Paris – two hours by car and four by train. Leave Paris around 9am in the morning, take the 2 hour train ride to Le Havre, wait 1.5 hours and board the 30 minute bus to Honfleur. Walk around town, marvel at the historic houses, snack here and there, and saunter into dinner around 8pm. Spend the night and leave Honfleur early afternoon and arrive back in Paris by 5pm.
In the things-to-do department, the old (many restored) houses and back alleys should provide a few hours entertainment. The tourist shops might be your thing and there are plenty of those. The butterfly museum at the edge of town was a bit disappointing, not to mention brutally hot. The maritime museum was quite small but probably worth the minimal admission fee. People-watching on the port should yield some interesting times as well. In short, I’d give it an afternoon and morning before booking it back to Paris.