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Vezelay: L’Esperance

Saint Pere sous Vezelay , Phone: 0386.333.910

Reviewed by: Gavin Crawford from Australia, review #1762

When: 2005

Marc Meneau operates two restaurants and a hotel at Saint Pere sous Vezelay. L’Esperance is a two hat (Michelin) restaurant.

On arriving the team of maitre d’, waiters and sommelier greeted us at the front door. We were led through to the lounge room and seated in armchairs. The sommelier suggested an aperitif and the maitre d' provided the menus. We ordered Kir Royale and confirmed that we were having the degustation menu “Collection d’Automne”

I really find it difficult to write a review of a restaurant of this nature. For a start, I can hardly claim to be so knowledgeable about food and restaurants to write a “critical” review. I am also conscious of the fact that restaurants at this end of the stratosphere cater to a certain kind of clientele and both the restaurateur, staff and customer have clearly defined expectations of each other. We don’t really fit into the equation, and therefore some of the things that I might be critical about would be of no consequence to most of their customers.

L’Esperance is a two hat restaurant. It was a three hat until early last year. Why did it lose a hat? Beats me. What does he have to do to win back a hat? Maybe he has already done it.

Our Kir Royals arrived along with les amusettet’s. On a large plate, a sheet of rough slate with a stone glued to one end. A hole drilled in the stone in which there is a lolly pop stick topped with foie gras glazed with berry and two small rounds of toast. It’s the sort of nightmare you haven’t planned on. We are the first to be served. What are we supposed to do with it? Pick it up by the stick and eat the foie gras? Use a knife to cut off a piece and spread on the toast?

If we are going to be the first served all afternoon, it could get stressful. The pumpkin soup with croutons and lardoons with a pancetta stirring stick is less challenging and both are an excellent start to the meal.

After some twenty minutes, we were taken into the dining room. For lunch, they used the garden dining room. This is the room closest to the lounge, with glass walls looking out on the terrace and the extensive gardens with statuary and little bridges across the stream that winds through the garden. There is another garden room further across and for evening meals in autumn and winter, an inside dining room. There was another table of three, three tables of two and one table of one. Only ourselves and the other table of three were having the full degustation menu.

The sommelier was a young lady in her late twenties. As with the wine list at Le Jules Verne in Paris, it is so extensive that it makes it extremely difficult to make any sensible choice. For a non-French customer, we don’t even know most of the wines on the list. We don’t really know what is going to suit all courses of the meal, and apart from stratospheric prices reducing the options, there isn’t much else to help.

At these prices, we will make do with one bottle of red wine for the entire meal. At the lower end of the stratosphere and upper end of the troposphere, were two burgundies, both from Bouchard (Beaune). I asked the sommelier which of the two would be best suited and she suggested the “Clos de La Mousse”. Later when returning from the “ladies room”, Cheryl passed the sommelier and said how much she was enjoying the wine and she replied, “Yes, you made an excellent choice”. Now there is a brilliant sommelier; one who compliments the customer on any choice they make. It could also be argued that they wouldn’t stock an ordinary wine anyway, so anything you order would be excellent. Ches actually felt that it was the best wine she had in France, so at 80 euros we found our level.

Let the degustation begin:

Le Homard (En Aspic, Crème de Brocolis) Lobster in aspic with crème of broccoli sauce and truffled pepper and salt. This was served in a inverted hat shaped glass bowl that tilted forward on the china plate. The truffled pepper and salt scattered around the plate. We were the first to be served and therefore had to make the decision, do you wet your finger and dip in the truffled pepper and salt, take a portion of the lobster and dip in the truffled pepper and salt or ??? Bit of both actually and later I noted that our French neighbours also licked their finger and dipped in the truffled pepper.

L’Huitre (De Plougrescant, Puree de Choux Fleurs and Punch a l’Orange) Two oysters with onion rings (as in fritto misto fried) with puree of cauliflower and garnished with fried tiny cauliflower flowerettes. This was served with a shot glass of rum, orange and cream. Wow! Ches asked the maitre d’ if she was to dip the oysters in the Punch a l’Orange and he was startled and quickly responded with a laugh and “Oh no, madame.”

L’Oeuf de poule (En Meringue et Emulsion d’Olives) A soft egg yolk in a frothed egg white served in a thin meringue shell with olive emulsion. O.K., so how would you approach eating this? We broke the yolk into the frothed whites and broke pieces of the meringue into it to eat with a spoon. Our neighbours appeared to be equally challenged when it came their turn. This was also served in the glass hat shaped bowl.

By this stage, both Cheryl and Jenny had taken it in turns to visit the “ladies” so that our neighbours caught up to us and when there were only two of us at the table the waiters served our next course to them and we fell in behind them. At last, someone to take the lead and help us decide how to approach each course. As Jenny later commented, “Thank god they served each course with its own cutlery and we didn’t start out with 40 or 50 implements and have to decide what to use with each course.”

Le Foie Gras de Canard (Grille, Lentilles a la Reine) This is not what it seems. Duck Foie Gras (kidney/liver) poached and then grilled and served on a bed of lentils. A crisp outside and creamy centre that melted in the mouth.

Le Poisson de Riviere (Sandre aux Carottes Confites et Jus d’Oseille Cru) Fresh water fish with crisp fried skin finished in the oven and served with carrot confit and pea jus. Fish cooked in this way is just about perfect. The carrots were again carrots with an amazing depth of flavour that we only seem to find in France. They were very finely diced and steamed. The peas were an absolute surprise and magnificent. They were barely warmed and pureed. If you love eating small sweet fresh peas straight from the shell, that was the flavour. Basically pureed warm raw peas. Just perfect.

La Volaille de Bresse (En Poupeton a la Goret, Feves a la Sarriette) Chicken leg, deboned and stuffed, poached and then crisp fried, served with broad beans and potatoes. The potatoes were paper thin slices. Between two slices was a parsley leaf, pressed together and fried crisp in shallow oil. You could see the green leaf through the transparent potato.

Les Legumes (Crème De Mais aux Girolles) Girolle mushrooms with cream and mayonaisse.

Le Fromage (Comte Millesime 2001) The trolley was wheeled to our table and we were presented with the remaining half of a massive wheel of this four year old cheese. Slices cut and served on a plate and bowls of sultanas, green apple balls, walnuts and marinated liqueur cumquats. Sweet and tart accompaniments for a wonderfully strong tasty cheese.

Throughout, the service was exemplary. Each course was fully explained when served and they all went to a lot of trouble to translate and explain not only what it was but how it was prepared. The service was there when you needed it, unobtrusive most of the time and yet we were always conscious that the maitre d’ was quietly managing the performance. Marc Meneau had been having a glass of wine in the lounge when we arrived. Just a quiet pre-lunch drink with a couple of locals. Half way through the meal, he joined the lone diner for a brief chat and then returned to the kitchen. The sommelier very subtly replenished our wine and water so that it stretched for the full meal.

Le Dessert (Defile, de Douceurs et Fruits au Sucre) Initially we were brought a large crystal bowl on a tall metal stand. Filled with hard and soft caramels, nougats and sugared jellied fruits.

Next came a large square plate. In the four corners and to be eaten in sequence; sweet, acid, bitter and sour. Sweet: a tube of spun sugar inclosing a sugar coated sage leaf and blackberries on a thin shortbread biscuit. Acid: A small glass of passionfruit and peach pulp with lime. Bitter: 70% dark cocoa chocolate in a clear sugar shell with crème anglais. Sour: marshmallow squares sandwiching a marmalade of granny smith apples and mustard, decorated with raspberries and a nasturtium flower.

In the centre of the plate a shot glass of strawberry juice. Beside the plate, a bowl of hibiscus flower sorbet.

We each had all of the above. We also shared another platter of spun sugar and sugared fresh fruits (grapes, white and red, blackberries, mandarins and red berries, and another platter of meringues filled with coffee mouse and hazelnut mousse. We made a pathetic attempt at sampling these final platters.

After some three hours, we retired to the lounge room for coffee and tea, and meringues sandwiched with date paste. Marc Meneau joined us briefly and I requested a copy of the menu. When we left, a waiter handed me a menu in a folder with a message from Marc. He had written: “Cuisine is an art, cooking it is work, eating is the pleasure”.

It most respects, it is impossible to compare or contrast with the dinner we had at Le Lievre Gourmand. [See my review on SlowTrav.]

Unfortunately, when we received the bill, Cheryl felt that it took the edge off what had been a wonderful experience. While William Page included wine with every course, and wines that were well matched to the food, and charged reasonable prices for his aperitifs and coffee, we felt that L’Esperance isn’t a particularly good value for the add ons. I understand that L’Esperance has a large professional staff and therefore 185 euros per head for the meal is necessary, but 22 euros for an aperitif and 8 euros for a cup of tea ridiculous. I don’t regret the experience. It was a once in a lifetime experience. Last year we spent the same amount on a two hour balloon flight down the Dordogne and both were special one-off experiences.

Le Lievre Gourmand on the other hand is something I would look to experience on every trip to France.

This review is the opinion of a Slow Travel member and not of slowtrav.com.

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