Starry, starry night: Notes on an edible epiphany in Burgundy

It all began with the carpaccio. I don’t hate carpaccio, but when given another choice on a menu – fermented yak tail, say – I’m likely to choose the alternative. So I wasn’t really expecting much when the tuxedo’d waiter ceremoniously placed the plate with a generous disc of raw beef, sliced mushrooms and a confetti of foie gras before me.

And then I put a forkful in my mouth. And the world moved.

The combination of textures and tastes was astonishing – smooth and rough, salty and sweet, lean-beefy and fat-foie-grasy and smoky-musky-mushroomy. An edible epiphany.

For a moment I simply savored the symphony in my mouth. Then I said to the Splendid Sixsome, “I love it when a dish teaches me something about food.”

And that’s how my recent feast at a three-star Michelin restaurant began.

* * *

The restaurant was Jean-Michel Lorain’s establishment at the soul-soothing Relais et Châteaux property La Côte Saint-Jacques, in Joigny, northwestern Burgundy, France. I was there with four fellow travel writers and two press trip hosts, one from the French national tourism office and one from the Burgundy regional tourism bureau.

We had arrived at Charles de Gaulle airport that morning from the U.S., taken a van to the Gare de Lyon in Paris, then hopped a slow train to Joigny, where another van took us through the tiny-in-population and huge-in-charm town to the hotel.

After a break to freshen up, we’d toured the property, then repaired to a terrace overlooking the placid Yonne River, with the green fields of Burgundy and the century-old stone buildings of Joigny shimmering in the late afternoon sun.

Our celebration began with an aperitif of Rose Champagne that shimmered in its flute like a liquid sunset with bubbles.

Accompanying the Champagne was a little rectangular plate with a quartet of variations on egg: a wonton-like pillow stuffed with quail egg and leek, an anchovy and pepper-tomato-omelette combo, fluffed egg whites with red wine served in an egg shell, and a fruit-dotted flan-like dollop in a shot glass.

We sat on the timeless terrace and sipped and supped and sighed. The air was as soft as the light, the light as rosy as the aperitif, the aperitif as bubbly as the bonhomie. The world oozed tranquility.

* * *

And then we repaired to the elegant and airy dining room.

That room was a beguiling combination of warmth and exquisite taste, but what really took my breath away were the ceramic plate settings and matching bread plates, which reminded me of treasures I’d found in Japan. These asymmetrical pieces were designed with wavy, grainy white frames around a pastel blue-green-purple central square. Each piece, we were told, was individually crafted and fired by François Guéneau, a well-known craftsman from nearby Noyers sur Serein. They were such beautiful works of art that I wanted to take them home. Already I loved the restaurant!

* * *

Our formal feast began with an amuse-bouche: two thumb-sized slices of lobster arranged at the tail end of a purple and yellow wave of pureed potato. The pliant, sweet lobster meat was perfectly complemented by the smooth, settling puree. My bouche was extremely amused.

Then came the “Carpaccio de Bœuf et Foie Gras de Canard aux Cèpes” – and nothing was ever the same again.

A dish that artful, so knowingly concocted as a symphony of sensations and savors, makes you realize that a great chef is as much an artist as a composer or a choreographer. From a menu of almost infinite options, he first chooses the ingredients, then plans and executes the preparation of each ingredient, then sculpts their presentation into a visually and gustatorily harmonious whole. The proof was on the platter: It looked enticing, it smelled seductive, it felt wonderfully yin-and-yangy in the mouth, and it tasted orgasmic. That was the beginning of my education in what makes a three-star chef.

“I love it when a dish teaches me something about food,” I said, and the Splendid Sixsome murmured in assent, each lost in their own version of haute cuisine heaven.

* * *

The wonders continued with the fish course: slow-cooked skate wing served in a broth spiced with coconut milk and kafir lime, tomato confit and sauteed seasonal vegetables. We exclaimed over the presentation: a foamy pool swimming with bits of skate and vegetables, with an actual part of the skate bone rising like a fin out of the pool. And the taste! A touch of the tropics, a swash of the northern sea – transporting.

As the best meals do, the evening took on its own rhythm, the conversation ebbing and flowing, bursts of passionate chatter giving way to languorous stretches of silence as we savored new tastes.

Up to this course, the theatricality of the evening had resided mostly in the plates themselves. But the next course amped up the culinary drama: Two gentlemen in tuxedoes rolled out a sleek black tray on which was perched a casserole wearing what appeared to be a huge overflowing pastry hat. This was the “Poularde de Bresse à la Vapeur de Champagne” – Bresse Chicken Steamed in Champagne. The first thing we learned with this course is that appellations don’t apply only to wines; all manner of foodstuffs can have appellations, including chickens. And this particular bantam hen was from one of the most prized appellations – Bresse. It’s all about the terroir.

Our fabulous fowl had been slow-steamed in Champagne in a casserole that had been hermetically sealed with a dough covering – the aforementioned floppy hat. The waiter in the black bow tie held the tray while the waiter in the red bow tie raised a gleaming knife and fork and ceremonially pierced the dough that had prevented any molecule of Champagne escaping. When the top of the dough hat had been removed, the pot was ceremoniously presented to the table, brought from diner to diner so that we could peer in at the pale, plump, Champage-sotted fowl and ooh and aah.

Then the bird was returned to the tray, and the gent in the red bow tie lifted it out of its redolent pot and placed it on a wooden cutting board, where he proceeded to vigorously saw it into serving-sized pieces. In Act Three of this drama the fowl was whisked away and in Act Four it miraculously reappeared moments later artfully arranged on round platters in a creamy sauce with little pellets of corn, carrot and squash. The fowl was tender and flavorful but what really astonished me was the sauce. It reminded me of the great French Old School sauces in its rich layerings of taste — but without the artery-clogging consistency. This was simply the best sauce I could ever recall eating. Had I not been in such elegant surroundings, I would have picked up my platter and licked it. I almost did. Instead, I used my roll to sop up every last savory soupcon.

By now, the Splendid Sixsome was purring contentedly. And sharing what we’d learned about three-star splendour: that it’s the sum of all its parts and more — the location and setting of the restaurant, the design of the dining room and the plates and the silverware, the choreography of the evening, the attentiveness, precision and warmth of the servers, the harmonious procession and presentation of the courses, and of course the look and feel and taste of the culinary creations themselves. A three-star dining experience is a composite of all these things, we agreed.

* * *

At this point we probably should have gone for a brisk row on the Yonne, but instead the gentlemen in the bow ties reappeared, wheeling in an elaborate sideboard that showcased more than 20 cheeses, most from the region. I sampled a half dozen — soft and hard, goat and cow. All were delicious, but the one I taste most vividly still is the Epoisses, a proud cheese made in the Burgundian village of the same name (a cheese which, Wikipedia has since informed me, Napoleon was particularly fond of, and which the famous epicure Brillat-Savarin classed as the “king of all cheeses”). The Epoisses had a creamy tang that tasted like a sunny summer pasture in the mouth – and that seemed the perfect end to the spectrum of flavors we’d enjoyed.

But no, the true climax was still to come: a delicate dessert of rose-infused ice cream served in a pastry tulip basket with crystallized rose petals. Our colleague Krista characterized eating this dish as “an out-of-body experience.” To me it was like eating pure rose petals that had somehow been transmuted into a sweet cool creamy confection. A midsummer night’s dream.
By the end of dessert the Splendid Sixsome had slipped into a kind of post-coital collective culinary stupor. Had this been a French film, we would all have been smoking cigarettes.
But it wasn’t. So instead we waddled onto the terrace, where the air was still caressingly warm and soft, and where the universe had spread out its own visual feast. We sighed one grand collective sigh. And the stars shone bright in Burgundy.

* * *

Edittor’s note: This trip was hosted by Atout France, the French Tourism Development Agency; Air France; Rail Europe; the Burgundy Tourism Office; and the Champagne-Ardenne Tourism Office. All the ecstasies expressed herein are entirely the author’s.

Fore more information on La Côte Saint-Jacques, including room rates, menus and prices:

[raspberry flickr image via JSmith Photo]