In the storming of the fine dining Bastille, they’ve taken the luxury ingredients, the china, the suits, the pretense – out! Quality has been democratized, they say,1 and new points of view have created new niches. La Grenouillere bubbles with a mischievous bent. The menu is thrown on the table and slowly unfurls. Crystal is scratched but it still drinks the same. That dining room. Vegetables. Perhaps it is with a wink, or sly smile, but Alexandre Gauthier’s La Grenouillère adds a touch of Marinetti to the rituals of fine dining.
There is history here – the restaurant has been starred since 1936. It sits on a bend along the river Canche, just outside Montreuil-sur-Mer, France. Alexandre Gauthier took over his father’s restaurant in 2003, two years after it lost that star. Eschewing more traditional fare for his ingredient approach; Gauthier regained the restaurant’s honor in 2008 with his first Michelin star. Food Snob has written a biography and history.
Floor to ceiling windows open up into the garden. Spiders crawl in, other bugs do too – You are eating from our garden. Sunlight beams through the room but darkness hangs above. Strung from the ceiling are hundreds of cables wrapped and twisting around each other, around anything, almost threatening to drop down and entangle the patrons in their web. It feels Lynchian2 – and Wild Licks has captured its haunting beauty.
Plates are as green as the view. Flavors are respected. Protein and plant play equals in many dishes.3 Herbs and flowers season and help keep the menu light. Complementary textures surprise while stalks add a consistent crunch. Plates don’t always contain, or frame, the work, and they spill out on the table – many different boundaries are being stretched. There is much surprise throughout.
This was a lunch late last Fall – a tasting menu with a few extras thrown in. I left Paris at 6am by car, took a long nap somewhere in-between, and arrived by noon for lunch. It is, however, a short jaunt from In de Wulf; and, together, they make a spectacular two-day retreat from the City of Light.4
bread, radish tops, quail eggs, fresh cheese
The start of the meal was a stall. A bed of ice, cool and refreshing for the day, soggied the bread above. The radish tops were wilted instead of crunchy. Fresh cheese was creamy, tangy, and tasty; but the plating seemed poorly conceived.
A soothing combination of oat milk, pêche de vigne, and garlic flower was marred by the mealy peach, that itself was too cold – had it been frozen? For a restaurant with a garden, attuned to the timing of ingredients, it was perplexing. But the combination had so much potential! Milks are under-used everywhere. This was a nutty tempered base for what could have been bright, tangy peach slices. Garlic flowers5 kicked in a faint light flavor, imbuing every bite without the sharpness of a slice. At the peach’s prime, this would have been special.
The bread and butter service was excellent – a thick crunchy crust with just a touch of chew around the edge. The butter had a tangy cultured taste, and it was presumably made in-house.
peach, oat milk, garlic flower
Raw monkfish and avocado terrine glistened in the light, sitting slightly askew to the right of the plate. And that opening stutter suddenly turned into a sprint. Biting into the terrine, the firm-ish avocado and monkfish slabs had a textural similarity that played off each other. Their light flavors mingled together. A seawater, made with seaweed and monkfish bone infusions, was very nuanced; a liquid salinity that gently brightened the dish, instead of punctuating salt crystals.6
raw monkfish, avocadi terrine w/ seawater
(giant) gently grilled oyster, zucchini strips, & wild herbs
The next four dishes showed an exceptional use of vegetables. The giant oyster, barely warmed, yielded just before it popped briny in the mouth. With it, zucchini strips, cooked to a similar consistency, again played a game of textural similarity. The herbs darted into the fatty mouthfeel.
Octopus was sauteed and crispy on the surface, and cut thick enough to retain its wonderful pliable chewy texture. With each piece, the crunchy purslane leaves and stalks lent their lemon zing through the bites. Like its neighbor In de Wulf a few days before, this chipped away at the notion that protein must be the lead ingredient – the range of flavors and textures is infinite – why do we limit ourselves so?
octopus, purslane, misc herbs
brussel sprout leaves, smoked monkfish eggs, mustard
Brussel sprouts, with smoked roe, and mustard flowers coud not be confined to the plate. The smoky backdrop of the monkfish eggs set a nice stage for the spicy interplay of the raw sprout leaves and mustard flowers. Each crunchy leaf, an ad-hoc container for the sticky roe crumbles, would catch the teeth for a split second, and more smoke permeated the mouth.
And for the last of the vegetable-centric dishes, a citrus wave crashed ashore and left clams with sliced zucchini cones. Barely there, the citrus foam stung soft and lingered long – just strong enough to serve as a focal point for the main ingredients.
clams, zucchini, & citrus foam
lobster / juniper branches
Poached lobster was buried inside a smoking stone of juniper branches – eat with your hands, beware the flame. At night, fireflies with trails of smoke. The fragrance and smoke filled the sweet, fatty lobster; and consumed the table too. Singed lobster bits, the fire random, gave some bites a perfect charred foil to the richness.
Beef, sweetbreads, both were extras. The beef paired generously with chickweed but the intense crust, crackling, cooked too much of the meat for my tastes, where rawer is always better. But the chickweed, so simple, so effective, Spring is here – it’s probably growing nearby.
Desserts trended with the food. The cream brushed on the side of lemon curd might have been further sweetened in other hands but its natural sweetness was allowed to balance the tartness. Sorrel ice cream, plated with sorrel leaves, was smashed on the plate. It was sufficiently sour by itself but, when paired with its own leaves, in a relative turn of taste, its sweetness burst through. Striking and exciting.
sorrel ice cream
It pushes – young, vibrant, and unabashedly confident in its point of view. It is also more mature than it admits. There were mistakes and idiosyncrasies, some amusing, others baffling, but the meal was bursting with ideas. Alexandre Gauthier has an affinity for the wild and pure – sometimes the confrontational – and these foundations should prove interesting to watch grow. Catch the early stages now – go.
1 – This is often described as trickle down, fine dining and its great talents going casual, and thus influencing tiers below it. But that’s a simplified model. Did products not percolate up? Interest in artisanal and historical methods gained popularity, freeing them from the binary confines of cult or craft. Top-down models are more metaphor than reality; networks and complex systems better explain trends. Fringe players on the outskirts often destabilize systems.
2 – The most stunning dining room I have seen, including Michel Bras and Regis Marcon. It’s David Lynch with shades of steampunk in a bucolic French village and garden. I can only imagine the night.
3 – However, animal gets first billing in dish names, except one. I haven’t fumbled through older posts but it seems like the animal is always credited first. Does that suggest that protein still drives the dishes, and the menu? Or sells it to the dining market? Can we cross a line where plants get the main credit, with only a supplementary role by a protein that is not bacon?
4 – The two restaurants are only one hour apart, sitting on opposite sides of the French border. The two chefs are also friends.
5 – A few chefs have recently rumbled about flowers popping up on menus everywhere, perhaps insinuating fashion over function. But flowers pack similar tastes to their namesake plants, sometimes more powerful, sometimes more faint. More arsenal for flavor profiles. I also appreciate they can add the flavor but still maintain a lightness that’s hard to achieve otherwise.
6 – Milks, seawaters, and cold broths are the poetry of tasting menus – allusions and references – just as powerful for their suggestions as their taste. Foams, used most effectively, achieve this same quality.
because at the end of a trip like this…