One afternoon last year we bought the Michelin Red Guide. We had finally settled in a corner of Normandy and were starting to explore the neighbourhood. As this is Normandy, to know the food is, in no small sense, to know the place.
Still, we wondered about our reasons for getting this particular guide. We’re in the wander-and-discover school of restaurant-finding, with little patience for deciphering the strange codes of the Michelin men. We’re not alone on this. Once the standard by which western restaurants were judged, the Michelin guide appears to have lost some of its resonance. In our casual culture, where food preparation is entertainment and originality counts, all those painstaking courses, tiresome and pricey wine lists, the gaunt-faced anonymous testers, feel a bit pointless. It’s Zagat, without pretentions to anything beyond the here and now, written by you and me and owned by Google, that seems the flavour of our age.
Fair enough, if you’re in Kyoto or Texas or anywhere that has a home-grown food culture. But if you’re in France, why not reconsider? After all, it’s the birthplace of the food culture that Michelin ratings were invented to measure. What good is the Michelin guide if you can’t use it in France?
And so we let the Michelin men tell us where to go. There are four starred restaurants within a 40-minute drive. Best known is Gilles Tournadre’s two-star Gill in Rouen. Also with two stars is Alexandre Bourdas’s fish restaurant Sa. Qua. Na. in Honfleur. Closer to home are business-smart Jean-Luc Tartarin in Le Havre, and Eric Boilay’s Auberge Du Vieux Logis in Conteville, each with one star.
We started with Conteville because it’s the closest, a 20 minute drive from the cottage. A last-minute booking was easy to make on a Wednesday in mid April. The drive through Marais Vernier was bucolic, the trees lacy with apple blossom and calves the size of large dogs trotting around the fields. Conteville is an attractive village close to Honfleur with a church and a few shops. The restaurant is the biggest show in town.
It’s an utterly traditional restaurant, half-timbered outside and all wooden beams, red curtains and upholstered chairs inside. The preparations were traditionally Norman too, apart from one sashimi amuse-bouche. Our waiter was proud to inform us that all the food we would eat was locally sourced. Only one cheese on the generous tray wasn’t local, and this fact was vigorously pointed out.
There were three set menus which seemed reasonably priced, and we both chose the middle priced option, four courses for just under 60 Euros per head. We started with Coquilles St Jacques scallops and and elaborate and generous plate of foie gras, followed by veal and lamb. Between the two came a potent, brandy-laced Punch Normand, and after, a surprising Pont-l’Évêque cheese with a pepper caramel sauce. Normally Pont-l’Évêque has me thinking of laundry hampers, but the caramel offset and transformed the taste and for the first time I appreciated this most local of cheeses. Desert was a moist and deeply delightful tarte tatin crumble.
There were few diners that evening, and the empty tables and formal-rustic setting could have made for overly attentive service, but it didn’t; the service was perfect and just as attentive as it needed to be. The wine list felt expensive, and brought the overall price higher than we would have liked.
I’m happy to have l’Auberge du Vieux Logis as my Michelin-starred local. It’s a restaurant that’s excellent at what it does, cooking Norman ingredients as they’ve been cooked for centuries, with flair and care and a touch of surprise here and there. (You can see chef Eric Boilay at work here.) The food was rich, and there was too much of it, and that’s a fact I’m going to have to live with if we continue down this Michelin route. I’d like to go to Conteville again: I’m thinking a late lunch after a hearty cycle up from Point-Audemer first.