L'Esperance, Saint-Pere-sous-Vezelay, France
(Note: the correct accented title should be L'Espérance, Saint-Père-sous-Vézelay, France, but this makes the entry disappear from search results so it has the incorrect un-accented version.)
It's been more than a month since I was at L'Espérance, a renowned three-star Michelin hotel-restaurant at the foot of the picture perfect medieval hill town of Vézelay in the Yonne region of Bourgogne (Burgundy). Since then I've enjoyed a number of other fine restaurants in France and New York, and written about them here.
Yet, I have been procrastinating for weeks over my write up of L'Espérance. It was a very confusing experience that has been very hard to digest intellectually. It was not a meal to invoke uncomplicated pleasure. I don't think this has anything to do with the fact that it is a starred restaurant either, because I've enjoyed other starred places without experiencing this feeling that I didn't quite get it.
A little bit of background: Marc Meneau, the chef of L'Espérance, was a hot young star of French cuisine in the 1970s. He is probably in his 60s now; we saw him because he was sitting with a group of people in the lounge area when we arrived, and he also came to talk to us at our table later on. One indication that he is started his career in the 1970s is the Andy Warhol portrait of him that hangs on one wall. That doesn't mean in any way that the L'Espérance offerings are outdated though. I did find it interesting to see that there were some books being sold in the obligatory boutique co-authored by the chef dedicated to medieval and monastery cuisine. (Regrettably I didn't buy any because the meal itself totally wiped out our budget!)
The dining room, which is in a conservatory overlooking a garden, is beautiful. The service is rather formal but impeccable. The table settings and decor are gorgeous, even the carpet. Just look at that carpet. (See, this is the advantage of blogger restaurant reviews - you get photos of restaurant carpets.)
We decided to go all out and have their tasting menu. The food, the food..it had the highest of highs, and a couple of clunkers. The highs were so high they were transcendent experiences. The lowest low was almost inedible. I suppose that the easiest thing for me to do is to just show the photos of each course and describe them. (Keep in mind the menu changes seasonally.)
The meal commenced in the lounge area next to the dining room, where the amuse-bouches were served with aperitifs. First there was thin strip of raw tuna, seasoned with coarse salt and pepper, and a thin disk of ham or something on the end, which I obviously barely remember now. The tuna was meltingly delcious; there was a trifle too much pepper, if I were nitpicking.
The second amuse-bouche was a vegetable fritter arrangement. This was one a bit disappointing; flavor-wise it was like a fairly run of the mill tempura, and the Jetson-esque arrangement reminded me of a stack of fried onion rings I'd once had at Quark's, the Star Trek DS9-themed restaurant at the Las Vegas Hilton.
After a while we were ushered to the main dining area, which is like a conservatory overlooking the beautiful garden. A family of ducks waddling around there was our entertainment. The first course was poached langoustines in a consommé, with a spoonful of cream and caviar floated on top. The dish was assembled by the waiter in front of us; first the plate with the langoustines, then a spoonful of the soup, then the cream. This assembly-at-table continued for the rest of the meal. This is sort of standard procedure nowadays in certain 'top' restaurants, but I am not too fond of it, because having people fiddle with the food in front of me makes me a bit nervous.
It was very nice, if a trifle bland. I could barely taste the caviar in the cloud of cream. The langustines were sort of just sitting there. Yet the soup was delicate and delicious.
Incidentally, one thing I liked was that there was a dish of real local salted butter on the table. Burgundy is about butter, not trendy olive oil. The bread was terrific, but then it's pretty much impossible not to get great bread in a topnotch restaurant in France.
Next up there was sea urchin served two ways; baked with a creamy sort of sauce in the shell, and cold in an aspic.
The warm version in the shell was gorgeous. The cold one in aspic was way too salty - almost inedibly so, and I usually love salty foods. We should have said something about it but I think we were a bit too awed, or shy, or something.
The next course was the first really high note; seared rare fois gras in a pool of sweet creamed corn, with a drizzle of reduced vinegars (4 kinds mixed together). The drizzling was done by the waiter with a paper tube. The slight sourness of the fois gras and the vinegar with the creamy sweetness of the corn was just sublime. I had to restrain myself from licking the plate.
Next was perhaps the highlight of the whole meal for me; an egg dish called oeuf de Poule à la 'Florentine', Coulis de Truffe. The white was spread over the whole plate, on which a strip of sautéed spinach was placed. The yolk was cooked very thin, then rolled up and placed on top of the spinach. The finishing touch was a thin line of truffle purée. This was perhaps the most amazing egg dish I have ever had in my life.
It took a while to calm down after the egg dish. The next course was grilled langoustines, served with petit pois with tiny bits of bacon in a beautiful buttery froth. The most interesting part of this course though was the little bowl of white vegetable mousse. It was like the essence of vegetable flavor, captured in a fluffy cloud.
After that came the meat course. The roasted pigeon on a bed of sweet vegetables (leek was the dominant flavor) and jus was very nice, but the star here was again the accompaniment: a small dish of raw oysters in a purée of sorrel. That sour-salty combination was absolutely unreal, especially in conjunction with the sweet and meaty pigeon.
This was followed by a single, glazed carrot, stuffed with other vegetables, flavored with cumin. It was sweet and spicy and delicious, though not mind-blowing like the previous two courses.
Finally we reached the last act of the show. The cheeses were brought out; I had a tiny slice of the aged Comte. By this time it was four hours since we'd first arrived at the restaurant, and I was not only stuffed but getting very sleepy. But we weren't going to get off that lightly. Out came the desserts; first, a large, gilded footed dish of nougat and handmade bonbons. Then, our table was covered with an array of sweets so beautiful that it looked like something out of a fantasy for fairies. I wrote about the plate of berries earlier. Besides the berries, there were soft meringues, and a dish with small containers of nuts, dried fruit and melon balls.
But I barely touched the berries or the meringues, because all of my attention was captured by the star dessert, something called Fraises Gariguette 'Marie-Antoinette - Sofia Coppola'. In bald terms, it would be called a sorbet I guess...
I don't know how to describe this thing except that it was sour, sweet, frothy, fruity, flowery, and ethereally delicious.
The coda to the meal was the plate of petit-fours. There was nothing petit about them though; those were full sized tarts and cakes. The dark, dense chocolate tarts were decorated with silver leaf. Amazingly I was able to eat one of the tarts and a little cake too.
Then finally, five hours after we had first entered the restaurant, we staggered out in a daze.
Most restaurants are easy to understand, even if they have high reputations. I have been to other three-star Michelins which are much less complicated. I am not sure if I love L'Espérance. It challenged my senses, astonished me and also disappointed me a little. The Dining Partner and I have been discussing it on and off ever since that afternoon.
Would I recommend it? Only if you are serious about food and love a challenge. Check around online for reviews of this place; it's definitely not for everyone. Would I go there again myself? Of course.
L'Espérance à Vézelay
Marc Meneau, Chef
St. Père-sous-Vézelay, France
Footnote: Since the Dining Partner was driving, and I don't like to drink more than other people I'm eating with, we just had two glasses each of the house wines, a white and red - an excellent deal since they own their own vineyards.