River Runs Through It
Among the revered idols who revolutionized the world’s gastronomy in the ‘70s, there is one who stands alone as the most discreet figure in the formidable pack. His modesty masks his immense talent to the eyes of the public. Therefore, we feel it is only fair to hail here his accomplishments and incite serious eaters to discover, or perhaps rediscover, the great Marc Meneau and his l’Espérance à Vézelay.
Geography has a responsibility for Meneau’s low profile, too, because everything notable in France tends to radiate from Paris. Sitting on the brim of Burgundy, where Meneau has his roots, the UNESCO World Heritage Site town of Vézelay is too close to the capital to be considered exotic but too far for a Parisian dinner. But for the serious diner, a two-hour drive on the Autoroute A6 should not be a deterrent—what an error it would be to bypass a meal at this rare table simply because it’s off the beaten path.
To facilitate guests making the trek and to complement the gastronomic fiesta at l'Espérance, Meneau has renovated, virtually with his own strong hands, the centuries' old constructions that are spread across his six-acre property. They are located at the foot of the hill of medieval Vézelay, on top of which is a ninth-century basilica—an important pilgrimage destination for Christians during the Crusades—that is now part of the UNESCO site. Whether you spend one night, or hopefully more, this bucolic Relais & Chateaux-listed property offers a full Burgundy experience in the tranquility of an estate where the only perceptible sound is the murmur of the river that runs through it.
Rooms are set in three different locations: le Moulin (the mill), le Pré aux Marguerites, (the daisy field) and the main house above the restaurant. We enjoyed best the mill with its landmark feel. There’s nothing grandiose in l’Espérance’s accommodations, which are quite reasonably priced—just good taste and coziness. You feel well and relaxed, seduced by the charm of a visible and genuine past, cosseted of course by all the modern amenities. As for extras, notable is the heated swimming pool in the middle of the daisy field.
Overlooking the gardens through immense bay windows, the dining room is paved with old stones. Its muted and sober tones, and ivy leaves painted on the pillar tiles (adding an extra touch of greenery), put it in sync with the grounds of this bucolic, placid showcase.
With Meneau’s menu you receive a passport to the wonderland of very “haute.” The hors d’oeuvres are both warm and cold, and the cold ones are of a caliber to be found only at l’Espérance. Wrongly named “les petits plats nouveaux” (new little dishes), the four different compositions are great offerings. The first is an essence of crustacés (shellfish) with a lobster toast. Second are sea urchins hot and cold. Then come sardines with the most unexpected and delectable combination of turnips in mousseline with caviar. Finally: quail egg yolks à la neige (treated like egg white) with truffle cream. (Sometimes, the latter is replace with mousserons mushrooms). So exquisite, original and exciting, they cover in small portions a vast palette of tastes in unprecedented sequences. The other highlight in regard to appetizers is huîtres en gelée de mer (oysters in a shellfish consommé), whose unexpected texture delivers in your mouth an oceanic fresh wave in the middle of France.
The vegetables processed by Meneau are likely to convert diehard carnivores to vegetarianism. The turnip chips are incredible, for instance, but the summit is reached with the petits pois (garden peas à la Française). It was Louis XIV’s favorite dish, but Meneau concedes he has made some additions to the 17th-century original recipe, such as adding a chip of bacon and a hint of mint to the lettuce and carrots that traditionally accompany the petits pois.
There are two stars on the meat and poultry register. First is the poularde de bresse rotie stuffed with foie gras and truffles served with pommes soufflés. It requires an hour of preparation to produce this smooth and rich dish. Lighter and more appetizing to gaze upon, the quasi de veau is probably the most popular entry thanks to its exciting sweet and sour caramel sauce.
A unique dish is the Atlantic turbot en pâte à sel with lobster butter. The large turbots are shipped to Meneau from Brittany by an artisan-fisherman who captures them on the high seas. He reserves his best catches for l’Espérance under the condition that Meneau never rejects his supply and does not quibble about their price. They’re not cheap, but on the plate, under Meneau’s care, they’re extraordinary. Although l’Espérance is not a fish restaurant, this firm, moist, tangy turbot is a classic in the realm of fish preparations.
The desserts are crafted around a fruit base such as strawberries, peaches, apricots and apples. They bring a final natural touch that superbly concludes a meal that has been served in style with a great refinement. The sparkling crystal, fine silverware and plates of different shape and color for each dish enhance an experience made also memorable by the most professional and attentive service, which could serve as a model for a waiters’ training class.
As expected, there is an endless list of the most beautiful Burgundies. But you can’t do better, both price and taste-wise, than to pick Marc Meneau’s Vilely, white or red. The thirty acres of vines he planted in the early eighties now yield a Chardonnay with a discreet woodsy touch and honey background and a Pinot Noir with hints of cherries and raspberries.
For those who cannot afford the solid prices of l’Espérance, there’s an alternative called l’Entrevigne, located just across the road. Entrevigne means “between two vineyards.” In this case, those of the Duke of Bourgogne and those of the Bishop of Vézelay. This is the “neo bistro” of Marc Meneau, where a good meal with the great chef’s touch does not cost more than $30. A generous buffet is offered on Sundays.