July 12, 2004
One of my projects at work has sent me to Lille for a few days at a time these past few weeks. I'd had the opportunity to travel out of town on business before, but this was my first time staying overnight, and it turned out to be a very pleasant, if tiring, experience. I enjoy being on my own from time to time, and find it thrilling in a very unique way to be the lone stranger in an unknown city, taking cabs and sleeping in hotel rooms, feeling like a character a movie.
Of course, the minute I learned about these upcoming trips, I was happily exploring various resources, trying to determine where to have dinner. Among the recommendations I collected, one came from Nicolas Vagnon, the chef at La Table de Lucullus, who told me about La Laiterie, a gastronomic restaurant owned by his chef-friend Benoît Bernard. I called and made a reservation for one.
La Laiterie is located in a very pretty town called Lambersart, a short taxi ride outside of Lille. The restaurant is nested in the middle of a lovely garden, with two large rooms which can accommodate about 80 guests, and a wooden deck terrace to eat out if the weather permits (unlikely, but of even greater value). The restaurant has been around for quite a while, but was on a downward slope up until three years ago, when Benoît Bernard took over, redecorated and started working in the kitchen, sending sparks all around.
I walked up the gravel path, and stepped inside the lobby to be greeted by the maître d'hôtel. Since I had mentioned on the phone that Nicolas was sending me, the chef, a mountainous man in his early thirties, came to meet me and ask for news of his friend. I was then seated in the main room, very comfortably, facing the rest of the room and enjoying a view out onto the garden.
It's not very frequent in France to have dinner on your own, especially for a woman, and especially in a fine restaurant like this, but it is an experience I thoroughly enjoyed and highly recommend : your attention is undividedly devoted to what's on your plate, and this makes the sensations that much more intense. You get to observe the other guests (people-watching is admittedly one of my favorite sports) and the workings of the restaurant, and you can let your mind wander, think about things, toy with ideas, and just generally enjoy your own company, pampered and catered to by the attentive staff. It can be a good idea to bring a few accessories with you -- a notebook and a pencil, a book or a magazine -- to overcome the initial shyness.
And since it isn't everyday that I take myself out to dinner at a gastronomic restaurant, I decided to go for the surprise tasting menu. The sommelier, a young woman, came to ask me what I'd like to drink, and I asked for wine by the glass, giving her carte blanche about the choice of wine since I didn't know what I was going to eat yet. She poured me a glass of Crozes-Hermitage 2001, a white wine with a strong personality, woodsy accents and a note of lime-blossom.
A young waiter came to present me with the bread basket, giving me a choice of pain de campagne, pain aux six céréales, pain aux noix, baguette Parisienne, or faluche à l'huile d'olive. I went for the latter, a delicious little focaccia. I learned later that the bread at La Laiterie is provided by Alex Croquet, who owns a boulangerie just outside of Lille, in Wattignies. And this happened to be the other foodie must-see Nicolas Vagnon had recommended.
The opener was a Thon façon sashimi mariné à la fleur de sel : a thin slice of raw tuna, marinated and sprinkled with fleur de sel, topped with a little tuft of onion sprouts. Clean and fresh, this was perfectly seasoned, and the tender tuna was wonderfully complemented by the crunchy, sharp tasting sprouts.
Then came a Thon aux cinq épices parsemé de sel de Guérande, mayonnaise aux agrumes : two small pieces of tuna, cooked very rare, pink inside with the dark crust of spices on the outside. This was remarkably tasty, and I tried to guess what the five spices were : I got two right (cinnamon and cloves), was wrong about a third (nope, no ginger), and inquired about the others, which turned out to be Sechuan pepper, fennel and aniseed. The plating was beautiful, a recurring quality throughout the meal : the two pieces of tuna were balanced one on top of the other, and arranged on a thick rectangular slab of granite, with a little square cup on the side, containing the thin citrus mayonnaise, of the perfect consistency to dip the tuna in.
I was then served a Queue d'écrevisse, sorbet citron vert et fenouil, vinaigrette de légumes croquants : a scoop of lime and fennel sorbet served on a large, curly-handled spoon, a warm crayfish tail, and a dash of vinaigrette spread parallel to the crayfish tail and sprinkled of tiny raw veggies (thin slices of asparagus and radish, and cherry tomato halves so small they would be more accurately described as redcurrant tomatoes). A sumptuous mix of flavors, temperatures and consistencies : sweet and tangy, warm and cold, soft and firm.
Next up was a Risotto en émulsion et tomate confite, servi au couteau : this was a risotto with couteaux inside, those seashells shaped like a knife handle (scientific name : solen) which I loved to collect on the beaches of Brittany as a child, and which were the perfect pencil to draw shapes in the sand. I had never eaten them, though, and was delighted for the chance to taste a childhood memory. They were absolutely delicious, sweet and chewy with a slightly sandy consistency, and a lot of fun to eat because of their long, thin shape. The risotto was fabulous, topped with foam and more soupy than firm, with a strong cheese taste. Again, beautiful plating : the risotto was served in the deep hollow of a large-rimmed soup plate, with a petal of slow-roasted tomato on top, and a decorative couteau shell balanced from the side onto the risotto. I can't say the tomato added much to the dish in terms of flavor, but it certainly provided great contrast in the plating.
All of a sudden, it started pouring rain outside on the wooden deck terrace, heightening the feeling of cosiness and warmth inside the room. My glass was empty, and the sommelier offered to bring me a second glass of wine : this time she selected a Côte-de-Provence Grande Réserve 2002 Domaine de la Rouillère, another white wine with incredible flavors of candy , passionfruit and pineapple, acidulated and delicious.
The next dish was a Rascasse poêlée, sushi de tomate, réduction de ketchup : rascasse is the equivalent of scorpionfish, a white and moist fish, with a tightly textured flesh, which here had been sauteed to develop a nice golden crust. The "tomato sushi" was a skinned raw tomato, seasoned and girdled in nori (the Japanese seaweed) to resemble a maki. A wonderful sweet sauce, a reduction of olive oil and ketchup, had been dotted in the four cardinal points of the plate. An original and cheeky dish, a mix-n-match of inspirations which could have clashed, but instead came together in a very efficient way.
All of these dishes were of course served in small quantities, but I was starting to feel my limit getting closer (yes, some may doubt it, but I do have a limit), and when they brought me my sixth set of fish silverware, a thought passed through my mind -- "oh boy, is this ever going to stop?" -- but it was that same pleasing kind of panic you experience when you reach the middle of a roller-coaster, and things slow down a bit, but you're well aware that it's not over and no, you are not going to get away that easily, mister.
The sixth dish was a Bar rôti, baluchon épinards et huître : an oven-roasted fillet of bar, piping hot but still moist and lightly pink inside. Next to it, a pretty little package wrapped in a spinach leaf, dumpling-shaped and stuffed with thinly diced oysters and veggies. And this turned out to be the final savory dish in this spectacular, all-seafood tasting menu.
I was then brought the "préparation au dessert", sometimes also called "pré-dessert", which is a fresh, fruity and subtly sweet dish, meant to cleanse your palate and prepare it for dessert. Here, it was a Suprême de fraise, sorbet cerise , arranged gracefully on a rectangular plate. A tiny high-necked glass of velvety strawberry soup, with a mini-spoon balanced in the little handle. A small scoop of cherry sorbet, explosive in flavor. A thin, rainbow-shaped chocolate ribbon, planted in the sorbet and bridging over to the front of the plate. Not that my palate ever needed much preparation for dessert, but this was a true delight.
The actual dessert came next, a Poêlée d'abricots à la lavande. This was served warm, in a shallow soup plate : five apricot halves, at their peak of ripeness, poached in a flavorful light syrup, and sprinkled with lavender buds and redcurrants. In the center, a small scoop of yogurt ice-cream, melting into the syrup, and a narrow, very high pyramid of thin laced butter cookie planted in it. A comma-shaped chocolate ribbon, thicker than the last, finished off the stunning presentation. This was as tasty and sophisticated as the savory dishes had been.
I ordered a cup of coffee after that, and a cute little two-tiered tray was brought along with it, laden with mignardises, in sets of two : pistachio financiers, tiny raspberry macarons, fudgy caramels, raspberry tartlets, and walnut chocolate biscuits -- a real feast! This alone would have been dessert of course, and I just had a little taste of each with sips of my coffee, relinquishing the rest as a humble offering to the gods of gastronomy.
After dinner, blissfully full and delighted, I lingered for a little while, took a tour of the kitchen, chatted with the chef and his staff, and then took a cab home to my hotel room.
A beautiful setting, extremely fresh products (most of the fish comes from Dunkerque, a nearby port city), inventive yet simple and sensible pairings, artful platings, professional and very friendly service -- this is a Michelin star waiting to happen! I had such a fabulous time and enjoyed the food so much that I went back the week after, in the company of Maxence who had joined me for a couple of days : this time I asked for us to be seated at the table d'hôte, right in the kitchen, and that was another sensational, unforgettable experience.
Paris Restaurant Picks: Bones, Walaku, Jeanne B., Septime @ Wanderlust