I must confess that until recently I had always considered Calais only as a pit stop for refueling and stocking up on cheap wine - and never really as a holiday destination. So I had no preconceptions of what expect as I drove from the Channel Tunnel to the restaurant that had been identified as “The One To Watch” in the 2012 World's 50 Best Restaurants, sponsored by S.Pellegrino and Acqua Panna.
I think it’s a fair assumption to say that the French in general have a relatively low tolerance for modern cuisine and I can see, to a certain extent, their point; why fix something when it’s right? Challenging this concept however, there has been a growing number of chefs over the last decade who have been daring enough to embrace the modern aesthetic.
Alexandre Gauthier is not an exception. Since taking over the reins from his father in 2003, Gauthier has come a long way to regain the Michelin star the restaurant lost in 2001. In addition, he has established a hotel that fully encompasses his unique vision and reflects his ethos of working with nature.
The auberge and restaurant are situated in an idyllic location right by the river Canche, outside the village of Montreuil. This is further enhanced by what appears to be a completely wild and rugged garden, full of wild flowers and grasses. On closer inspection however, it is clear that every detail has been carefully considered, highlighting Gauthier’s respect of the natural environment.
The accommodation is unique. Following the winding garden path from the restaurant you come across the individually designed luxurious wooden huts, cleverly hidden behind a row of bushes and tall grass, ideal for those who seek absolute privacy, and those wishing to detach from the bustle of city living.
The glass door and floor to ceiling window provides a frame for the spectacular local views. Best viewed from the extremely soft and comfortable king size bed set low into the ground of the hut, the window provides a constantly changing canvas of light and colour. The personal attention to detail in this hut is reflected in the conveniently located plugs, pencil holder and folding tables and the cleverly hidden “mini-bar” and coffee machine. The greatest surprise of all was discovering a large bathtub, big enough to fit two adults comfortably, hidden under the wooden entrance floorboards.
There is even Wi-Fi and a TV discreetly tucked away for those who cannot cope with completely disconnecting from the outside world. Whether you choose to hike by the river, laze in the bathtub or catch up on some reading, an overnight stay here is paramount to truly understand the philosophy behind Gauthier’s cuisine. To top it off, one also has the choice of having their delicious breakfast brought to their hut in a basket should they wish to enjoy it in their own privacy.
In usual fashion, we commenced the evening with a glass of champagne and an array of amuse bouches in the sitting room located in the old farmhouse that previously served as the main dining room. The imposing fireplace added character to the rustic room that had wooden beams across the ceiling and polished stone floors. Gauthier has thoughtfully and lovingly conserved the room in its former style, respecting the roots and rich history of the auberge.
The restaurant, on the other hand, went through a serious transformation in 2011 when Gauthier discovered Patrick Bouchain (the architect behind the contemporary gites, Les Cadoles,Maison Troisgros) and employed him to help “reinvent” the restaurant. The result has been a giant theatrical space allowing curious patrons to observe the chefs working methodically in the modern and open kitchen during their meal. The new minimalist dining room equipped with tanned leather chairs and tables is elegant but simple, and does not distract diners from the beautiful garden surrounding the entire room through floor to ceiling windows.
It only took a handful of courses into the tasting menu offered that evening to notice and appreciate the individuality of Gauthier’s cooking. He is the only chef I can recall who is as equally obsessed with respecting and maintaining the purity of the ingredient as Victor Arguinzoniz from Asador Etxebarri in Spain, but perhaps takes it further by shunning all spices bar black pepper. A prime example of his ethos was the delicate lobster tail, slightly poached, and infused lightly with the smoke from the burning juniper branch it was served in. Putting aside the theatrical spectacle of the dish, the buttery flavour and succulent texture of the lobster was stunning and the aroma of the burning juniper enhanced the taste without necessarily complicating the “essence” of the dish.
I must admit tonight was a first for many things but I had not expected to try green strawberry, nor combined it with cockles, seaweed and homemade seawater. The acidity of the unripe strawberry added freshness to the dish and was amazingly balanced by the sweetness of the slightly cooked cockles. The seaweed provided a textural element and the “seawater” was the perfect seasoning to bring the dish altogether. A highly unique and delicious dish! I similarly enjoyed the octopus and petit pois, particularly how
Gauthier played with the texture. The octopus was soft and mushy (as one would usually expect from cooked peas) whereas the giant petit pois were cooked with extreme precision to provide a delicious crunch. The concentrated petit pois juice served at the table rounded off this naturally sweet dish. Admittedly, what amazed me with this dish was how much flavour of the octopus I could taste as they are quite often served with sauces that dominate the flavour of the dish.
Dessert was by no means inferior to the impressive dishes that had preceded it. I certainly would not have thought that presenting a block of honeycomb at our table would have aroused as much excitement as some of the spectacles I experienced in places like el Bulli; but it did. The waitress prepared the piece of honeycomb on a small spoon and dressed it with the juice from a fresh lemon. It was so simple yet ingenious and truly refreshing! To top it off, the waitress prepared us a house sweet wine, that incorporated only local honey, yeast and water, by using what appeared to be an industrial sized pipette. This wine was not too sweet and complimented the chocolate mousse dessert with cookies, parsley and a hint of mint.
I was generally impressed with everything at La Grenouillère from the contemporary huts and the serene gardens that surround the establishment to the unique and avant-garde cuisine that Gauthier had developed. Only by experiencing the whole package together can one begin to comprehend his vision and appreciate his dedication and philosophy of respecting nature. This is definitely one place that I would love to come back to, preferably during a different season to experience the evolving landscape and cuisine, as serenity is the only thing that remains constant here at La Grenouillère.