May 12, 2022

“We are products of our past, but we don’t have to be prisoners of it,” Rick Warren famously wrote in The Purpose Driven Life: What on Earth Am I Here for?. And when it comes to revitalising and updating family traditions so deeply rooted in hospitality, there’s no better paradigm than La Grenouillère in La Madelaine sous-Montreuil. Today, La Grenouillère is home to Alexandre Gauthier, who carries the distinction of two Michelin stars, after having converted his father’s family restaurant in 2003. The restaurant sits in the elegantly restored old country inn and is flanked by barely manicured lawns and stone walkways leading to a luxurious enclave of private wooden huts. Modelled after waterfowl hunting lodges, these standalone huts are separated by sheaths of bamboo walls, haystacks and dried sticks, which provide cover from prying eyes.

The nearest train station, Étaples-Le Touquet, is 12km from the restaurant, so arrange transport. Our car meanders through the bucolic countryside, zipping past grassy pastures dotted with grazing cows and wandering streams with graceful swans gliding on the water. You can’t help but feel the stress of life simply slip away. Once you pull up to the ravishing cottage, the experienced staff immediately anticipate your fatigue and ensure that checking in is a breeze. My partner and I are led to my hut, which has elements of a biophilic design.

At 7 p.m., we head to the restaurant after a quick nap and are led into a cosy sitting room, mirroring a large chimney that could have potentially hosted a rotisserie and a cauldron in its heyday. Once we plop down on the upholstered armchairs, we each get a glass of Bérêche and Fils champagne with thought-provoking morsels like moss and a marshmallow charged with the flavours of the sea. 

At La Grenouillère, the theatrics of the experience offer a glimpse into Gauthier’s world of uninhibited cuisine. After wandering through an extremely dark corridor, you’ll emerge at the edge of a cavernous open kitchen, lit by funky light installations and shadowed by hanging chains. The enigmatic chef greets us and guides us to our table situated right on the edge of the ‘dance floor.’ It is from this vantage point that I’ve made numerous candid observations about the other diners: an affluent crowd who came chiefly for Gauthier’s outre antics. 

Despite the arena being glassy and contemporary, chapped wood mixed in with steel and leather-lavished tabletops shout opulence. The waiter removes a candlestick from your table and wanders off to set it alight from the constantly burning central flame, which sets the stage for an edible tale of epic proportions. First, the trail of never-ending snacks seems to get more bodacious than the last; you have water lentils cascading over balls of cucumber mounted on a spoon and another with chunks of cottage cheese.

And instead of being roasted, the hardy turnip is carved meticulously and served raw alongside black mullet with a dash of red cabbage sauce the colour of wild berry tea. Rodolphe Pugnat, a young sommelier, pours a vivacious Chenin Blanc Saumur from Domaine Guiberteau to get libations underway.

Gauthier’s artistic food endeavours are not limited to fixed courses and surprises await. A word of advice is to surrender to his eccentric presentation of courses: sea urchin on brioche cube, butternut planks on raw langoustine with a pickled squash saffron-laced broth. They just keep coming.

Pugnat tilts a 2017 Domaine Vincent Dureuil-Janthial Rully Maizieres into our slender stemware; it’s a blast of citrus underscored with oak, which is a wonderful companion to the warm milk blini. This deserves to be put on a pedestal because the soft dairy suds marry the delicate strands of crab meat perfectly.

There is no palate fatigue here and the following dish of black radish intrigues. It sees two iterations, one as a dainty millefeuille bestrewed in espuma, and the other stacking alternating thin films of scallop and black truffle atop a cushion of stilton cheese. It’s abstract, but the radish still remains the star of the show. In between bites, the rye and sourdough bread is deserving of your attention. Don’t you agonise over the impending food coma, your hut is just a hop and a skip away.

The langoustine is presented very swiftly: claw tempura, langoustine ‘soup,’ a dreamy souffle and an aspic jelly encasing langoustine hearts. One observation: Gauthier is very enamoured with the notion of removing cutlery from the picture. A majority of the courses involve physical interaction with your dishes, so don’t feel squeamish about licking your fingers (case in point: the frog legs) or performing a classier version of the blowjob shot with some of the more delicate snacks.

One of my favourite pairings of the nights unravels with an AOP Languedoc from Prieuré St Jean de Bébian, it nails the lemon treacle resemblance, just in time for the final act of seafood. The scallop mixed in with salsify and cuttlefish juice is great, as are the baby oysters and clams, but it really is the thinly sliced abalone cooked with abalone butter that steals the show.

Just when you think you’re at the climax, the multitude of shells are whisked off the table and in its place, a hodgepodge of offals that have been laboured over. There are veal kidneys perched on a lacquered trifle sauce, sweetbreads under a duvet of vanilla froth and tender tripes slathered in pepper and truffle cream. They are all magnificent to behold, but more importantly, form a collective that speaks of Gauthier’s bold cooking style that shatters diners’ expectations.

Suddenly, brioche snails appear, great for lapping up any stray sauces. Do just that and leave none behind. As the meal comes to an end, you start to think of words to describe this occasion and “amazing” just doesn’t cut it. Gauthier and his team have gone for broke—not only putting the uninitiated at ease but also the food-savvy ones in awe.

I don’t know if you’re like me, jaded after one too many feted Michelin-starred restaurants in France. I believe in the Michelin guide, but for a country that prides itself on famed gastronomy, it falls a little behind in the grand scheme of things. This is demonstrated by the poor representation on a bunch of lists like OAD Top 100, La Liste and more specifically The World’s 50 Best Restaurants.

La Grenouillère is a breath of fresh air, a true luminary amid the dismal pickings of French representatives. (Don’t know how some grand and snobby kitchens still manage to keep their rankings even after their food and fashion have faded.) I’ll say it again, this restaurant deserves to be ranked higher than no.91 on the World’s 50 Best list.