My work recently took me and a coworker of mine (whom we’ll call H. to protect her privacy) on a day trip to Dijon, the capital of Bourgogne. As it happens, many of us at my company are very much into good food and wine — although it doesn’t quite get to such proportions for them — and H. is luckily no exception. When she told me about that meeting, the twinkle in her eye could not fool me, and I suggested we arrange to have lunch somewhere nice afterwards. A little research pointed me to Stéphane Derbord’s restaurant, called quite simply Restaurant Stéphane Derbord (who needs a fancy name, really?). It had been awarded one star in the Michelin guide and 15/20 in the Gault Millau guide, and it offered a 25-euro four-course menu for lunch : this sounded like a perfect fit.
After a morning meeting which went rather well, H. and I took a taxi to get to the restaurant. Having had to get up at dawn to get to Dijon in due time, we were both starving, which was an excellent thing considering the meal we were about to share. It was rather late when we arrived, and most guests were finishing their meal. We were seated at a round table in a smaller extension of the main room, beneath a glass roof and close to a bay window overlooking the garden. The inside of the restaurant was well-lit and inviting, decorated rather classically, in warm yellow tones with huge bouquets of flowers everywhere.
We were handed the menus, and to help us ponder the possibilities, we were each served a small rectangular slate plate with small appetizers : a flaked pastry spiral flavored with ham, a small piece of brick dough rolled into a pencil shape with a cheese and herb filling, a smoked salmon mini-macaron and a tiny loaf of pain viennois (that brioche-like bread) with an époisse filling (époisse being a typical Bourgogne cheese). For the latter, the waiter kindly warned us that you had to eat it in one bite, for the filling was prone to spillage, which indeed it was. To the side were fresh twigs of thyme and rosemary for you to nibble on, or just let their perfume rise up to your delicate nostrils as you ate.
This was a truly fine start, each little nibble having its own personality but holding its ground harmoniously within the group. H. and I were getting happier by the minute, and naturally, what was bound to happen, happened : although the no-frills (or at least less-frills) lunch menu was what we had in mind initially, it was very hard to resist the call of the other, more promising offers, and we both decided to go for the 43-euro menu instead. Which is exactly why they have a 25-euro menu in the first place, of course. We were also brought the wine menu, in which we chose a half-bottle of Mercurey, a 1999 Premier Cru Clos des Myglands.
I feel I must note at this point what I noticed throughout the meal, and will no doubt affect my write-up of this astounding meal : apart from a few exceptions, the wait staff had a particularly speedy way of announcing the dishes they were bringing to the table, delivering complex descriptions in 2 seconds flat. Since a lot of what we were served were those extras not on the menu (amuse-bouche, mignardises and other intermediary dishes), I often had them repeat things for me, just to be able to tell the words apart, asking about unusual ingredients. But that seemed to make them either a little uncomfortable or annoyed somehow, so I didn’t insist as much as I would have liked. Also, I didn’t feel like pulling out my trusty notebook in the company of my coworker, so all my notes were jotted down (along with the plating sketches I love to doodle, which I find really help with the recollection) on the train ride back to Paris, in the hazy vapors of contented digestion and delicious Mercurey.
As is often the modus operandi in high-scale restaurants, we were then offered the bread basket, with an assortment of different kinds of bread. I always find it excruciating to limit myself to tasting just one, but that is The Rule (one can’t very well say “um, just leave it there, we’ll help ourselves”), so I went for a little loaf of pain aux céréales (multigrain bread), while H. chose the pain de campagne (country bread).
The waiter then brought us the amuse-bouche course (ha ha, you thought the previous plate was the amuse-bouche, didn’t you), on a narrow rectangular plate. To the left was a small square cup with a tiny filet of silure, a kind of catfish from the nearby Saône river. The fish was in a light, foamy cream sauce, and was topped with a leaf of artichoke. To the right of the plate was a small narrow glass, shaped like a test tube, and placed on a thin slice of raw zucchini, like a tiny glass mat. At the bottom of the glass and filling half of it was a cold tomato soup, then a small blob of a firm, herby mousse, topped with a delicate tuile de comté. Tuile (which means tile in French) is the name of a thin tile-shaped almond biscuit, but the name is also used for any fragile preparation with a round and curved shape. You can make delicious tuiles with grated and baked parmesan, or here with comté cheese.
This course was a very interesting composition, with the parallelism of the two mini-dishes that it contained : each had a vegetable (artichoke and tomato), a dairy (foamy sauce and herb mousse), and a protein (fish and cheese). Each had a liquid (sauce and soup), a solid (fish and mousse) and something to eat with your fingers (artichoke leaf and tuile de comté). I enjoyed the latter element in particular, as there is a definite appeal to eating with your fingers in a starred restaurant. However, although I can see a point in this amuse-bouche now, I didn’t find it very decipherable at the time : it was tasty, colorful and enjoyable, but it didn’t quite come together as a whole.
The first course followed. The menu, which read like a poem, described it thus :
“Le Foie Gras de Canard Cuit au Naturel,
Chapelure d’Oranges et Pain d’Epice”
“Duck Foie Gras Cooked in Natural Style,
Orange and Pain d’Epice Breadcrumbs”
In the center of yet another rectangular plate (see a pattern emerging, here?) was a slice of homemade foie gras, fresh and sweet and flavorful, and all around the plate was a complete staff of condiments and complements, bustling and hustling around the foie gras like the diva it was. A little mound of chunky apricot chutney, a little bush of mixed salad leaves, a few brandy sour cherries, a tiny pyramid of bitter orange jelly and, on the bottom right-hand corner, spread on the plate like — for lack of a better image — two lines of cocaine, ground orange peel and pain d’épice reduced to breadcrumbs. We were also brought a special bread to eat with it, small slices of a brioche-y orange and raisin bread.
This was fabulous : as I mentioned before, I love that kind of DIY dishes, allowing you to experiment with flavors and textures. The different accompaniments offered many versions of tangy, savory, spicy, bitter or sweet, which you could combine to your heart’s content, bringing out the different characteristics of the truly excellent foie gras.
One could argue that this was yet another very complex dish, but I was beginning to understand that this may be Stéphane Derbord’s signature style, and he undoubtedly has the talent and technique to pull it off, building elaborate but coherent ensembles. And in a way, this may be the key to avoiding that “first two bites” syndrome, after which a dish ceases to interest, excite and rock your tastebuds : by letting you into the driver’s seat, though on a closed circuit, the chef gives you the freedom and responsibility to please and tease your palate as you see fit. After all, you’re the one who knows it best.
[To be continued... Long lunch!]
Restaurant Stéphane Derbord
10, place Wilson
03 80 67 74 64