In Burgundy’s Joigny, one of the undiscovered corners of France, (yes, there are still many) there is one of only 26 three-star Michelin restaurants in France. It belongs to Jean-Michel Lorain whose father Michel earned the first star in 1971, a second in 1976 and a third, this time with his son, in 1986. It is a hard job keeping three Michelin stars for 25 years. Combined with a superbly sited four-star hotel, staying and eating at the Cote de Saint Jacques has been one of my top experiences in 2012.
What makes a three star though? I asked the maitre d’ , Pascal Bondoux who has been with the restaurant for 25 years himself. We forget that in France catering is a vocation and not something you do to support yourself while studying.
To start with, there is the individual touch. The plates are from raw porcelain built locally in Noyers-sur-Serein and signed by the chef. There are three main rooms, one of which is intimate, one of which faces the open kitchen and the other, the main one, L’Herbier, is decorated with large, painted dry leaves.
Then there is the service. There are 16 staff in two rooms and 20 in the kitchen for a maximum of 70 seats; no single waiter rushing off his or her feet. Although the staff (calling them waiters would be demeaning) wear black ties and are both smiling and attentive, they never overstep the mark and they never, ever ask you whether you liked the food. (Of course you did.)
And they are not condescending either. Being a messy eater, I spilled some sauce on the immaculately white sheets; when one member of staff spotted it, she brought in a towel, laid it over the smudge with gusto, smiled and said ‘C’est ne pas grave‘. After all you are there to enjoy yourself and satisfy your palate.
[As for the clientele: you don’t need to dress up for a three-star Michelin; I saw jeans – but no sneakers or five o’ clock shadows.]
Finally creativity. Nowadays, chefs are like maestros. They create a dish and they teach it to their sous-chefs who actually cook it. Something similar happens in haute-couture or Damien Hirst projects, does it not?
There follows a list of the dishes I had. Do note the dagmar in the bottom. There is a story there.
Now the dagmar was invented by a patissier in Joigny as a chocolate bonbon for some VIP, Mr Dagmar, about 100 years ago. However, when the patissier who kept the recipe to himself died, he took his secret with him. Michel Lorain, the father of the current chef, remembered the sweet he used to eat as a kid and tried to reinvent it. Over a six-month period in 1999, he experimented – aided by the dead patissier’s widow – until she, and all surviving villagers gave their seal of approval to the final recipe. It is effectively a chocolate covered by a thick caramel toffee.
So what about the dishes? The terrine of oysters was astounding; it managed to convey that taste of sea an oyster leaves at the back of your tongue when you swallow it. I have to say this is the first time in my life I have been struck by the taste of a dish.
The main dish of codfish, goose liver and fennel puree was a marvel: a combination of tastes with the same texture; of how many foods can you claim that? And the Napoleon was so light, I had two of them. (I jest; it was so big that it was served in two parts from a table next to me).
Finally, out of all the mignons before and after the main dishes, what impressed me was a mignardise pannacota (on the very right) topped by strawberry sauce and tomato juice in which there was only just a hint of tabasco.
As for the wines: I had a Chablis premier cru, domain JM Brocard 2009, my favourite; a Mersault Les Narvaux domain Vincent Giradain 2009; and a Crozes Hermitage domain Alain Graillot 2006. The bubbly was the chef’s own Lorain Cremant de Bourgogne 2008.