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Vailly-sur-Sauldre: Le Lievre Gourmand

14 Grand Rue , Phone:

Reviewed by: Gavin Crawford from Australia, review #1761

When: 2005

This restaurant is something special.

William Page was born in P.N.G., moved to Adelaide where he worked in catering and some ten years ago, opened his restaurant here in Vailly-sur-Sauldre. Early last year, he was awarded his first Michelin “hat”.

I am at a loss to describe William’s cooking. Perhaps “food theatre’ or “food art”. I even feel guilty referring to his restaurant and what he does as “his work” or “his business”. I don’t know him well enough to even determine what his attitude is. At the end of the evening, as we stood talking at the front door, the best I could do was ask him “Are you still enjoying what you are doing, as much as you always have?” I figured that while he is obviously dependent on the restaurant for his livelihood, it must be more than that. He must get enormous satisfaction from creating new dishes and from the reaction from his customers to some of the culinary surprises.

I guess fine food is a lot like art. It is one thing for the artist or the chef to create their piece of art, but it is in the eye and palate and/or palette of the beholder that it takes on a different life or meaning. So, this is our interpretation of William’s “piece” served up on this evening:

At the door, the same maitre d’ as last year greeted us with “Bon Soir Monsieur et Madame Crawford”. She is extremely polite and always speaks slowly for Ches to follow what she is saying. She lead us into the lounge room and seated us in the same chairs as last year. Very large, low and soft leather armchairs with a very low coffee table. Ches wondered if she would ever be able to lever herself out again. She also noted that at 7.30 we were the only ones there and that because she had addressed us by name, were we the only ones booked for dinner?

She brought us our “amuse bouche” and took our orders for aperitif. Ches had Kir Royale (Cassis with Champagne) while I had peach liqueur with champagne. The amuse bouche consisted of a shot glass with mousse and absolutely tiny cauliflower florets on top and then a repeat performance from last year. Even though we had this last year, it still has the ability to surprise. In the same way that scientists have discovered that by giving a smell a pleasant name, it can effect the brain's response, it would seem that by providing you with what appears to the eye as a small chocolate encased in white chocolate, the brain is expecting the sweet rich flavour. What a surprise to the palate and the brain when the first bite released the strong rich flavour of foie gras and chilled goose fat. We both exclaimed in delight that we had been deceived again.

See what I mean, this is "food theatre” or “food art” or at the very least a game of fun. We remembered that last year, a table of six next to us had all exclaimed with surprise and big grins when they had eaten this as one of the courses.

William came out to welcome us, and by 8.15 the maitre d’ took us in to the dining room. This could be embarrassing! Are we the only ones dining tonight? No, there is a table of 4 booked beside us and a table of 2 on the other side of the room. William later explained that at least they aren’t Spanish and likely to want to dine around 11.00, but can be erratic in dining times. He also explained that the main T.V. news of the day is at 8.00 pm, so often people will not come out to eat 'til after the news. The table of two arrived for only a few courses around 8.45 and the table of four at 9.15. Let it also be noted that the French could learn something from us when it comes to dressing for dinner. We have set the standards for the last two weeks, and my tailor and shoe supplier in Paris would be proud. These French country people just don’t have a sense of style.

Now, for tonight’s performance, we have ten acts. I’m not counting the overture or epilogues in the lounge room.

Act 1 Accompanied by Domaine Lafage 2003 (Grenache blanc, chardonnay and muscat)

Scene 1: Le rouleau de saumon fume et cresson (finger food of smoked salmon rolled around spring onions and watercress)

Scene 2: Le sushi de lotte (burbot sushi with tiny inoki mushrooms - really tiny) gazpacho aux huitres (oyster gazpacho)

Scene 3: La noix de coquilles St Jacques grillee (This could be the most perfect grilled scallop I have ever eaten. Seared top and bottom to the point of caramelising, so sweet and juicy, I took eight small bites to eat. I never wanted this scene to end.)

Act 2 Accompanied by Domaine des Saffices 2004 (Viognier) This was a special “guest appearance” as William had selected an Australian Chardonnay to accompany these courses but he decided that just for us, we should experience something different. It was magnificent.

Scene 1: Les huitres tiedes, gelee de citron confit et mousseline au gingembre (a warmed oyster with citrus confit and ginger mousse). The citrus was so subtle that you couldn’t determine if lemon or orange and just a hint of ginger as well. This was a very subtle performance with just hints of flavours so as not to overwhelm the oyster.

Scene 2: La tasse de foie gras “café crème” Amazing. Absolutely amazing. A virtuoso performance. Foie gras frothed up as light as air with the essence of the flavour and then coffee bean finely grated on top. Was he serious, coffee on foie gras? Just the lightest dusting of the coffee and it created a flavour surprise that still amazes me five days later. I’m salivating as I write.

Scene 3: Le cornet de glace aux cepes, poudre de cepes (mushroom ice-cream in a cornet with powdered mushroom dusted over the top) The cornet was similar to a wonton wrapper in thickness and had been formed and then brushed with olive oil and baked. It was therefore crisp. The mushroom ice-cream was amazing. At least we weren’t taken by surprise and the brain had time to process what was about to be tasted.

Act 3 Accompanied by Domaine Lafage 2003 (Syrah, Grenache Noir and cabernet). This was the best of four wonderful wines.

Scene 1: Le magret de canard laque aux cinq epices (Breast of duck in five spices – poached and then finished under a grill – moist and crisp on top.)

Scene 2: Le jarret de veau en croustillant, crème de raifort (veal hock in pastry with horseradish cream)

Act 4 Accompanied by Domaine Cabliac 2004 (Syrah)

Scene 1: Les plateaux de fromages ou les fromages blancs fermiers de Michel Desriaux a Vailly (vache ou chevre) I haven’t got a clue. I primarily had goat cheeses while Ches the softer brie type cheeses. We had to choose three or four slices from a trolley of thirty or so cheeses.

Scene 2: Les desserts A shot glass of liqueur that reminded us of tokay but the name we have forgotten (again it was from the Languedoc region like all the other wines tonight) A shot glass of Fig mousse. A shot glass of Fennel ice cream with tiny diced pieces of stewed fennel. Amazing. Kent would have loved it.

And. We retired to the lounge room for coffee/tea and petit fours. The best coffee in Europe in weeks; some of William's Papua and New Guinea coffee. The petit fours; mini meringues and chocolate truffles and Cheryl’s tea was infused with fresh mint leaves.

The degustation menu is €59 or €79 including wines. Aperitifes and coffee extra, so our meal cost us €180.

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

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