Once one of France’s top restaurants, the Lorain’s establishment not far from Chablis has become a bit of a forgotten jewel. The reasons for this are hard to understand, as the cooking here is very much worthy of the three Michelin stars Jean-Michel Lorain used to hold.
The glorious days of restaurants such as La Cote St Jacques in Joigny, the Cote d’Or in Saulieu or the Oustau de Baumaniere were those when people travelled with more time on their hands. The journey was very much part of the holiday, and one did one’s best to make it as enjoyable as possible. In some ways the history of such restaurants is linked to that of the Michelin guide itself: Having been set-up to give drivers ideas as to where one can eat well, the North-South axis was dotted with establishments over which several stars shined.
Nowadays, Jean-Michel Lorain holds 3*, just like Anne-Sophie Pic does in Valence or Michel Troisgros further down south. All of them have one thing in common too: They had parents who held three stars during a considerable period of time and thus had to make themselves a name in their own right. Whilst all three restaurants serve the classics of the older generation they do not fear to introduce their own ideas. In the case of the Cote St Jacques, this is done with one thing always present: Flavour. If one were to describe Jean-Michel Lorain’s cuisine, nothing characterises it better than the intense flavours he puts on the plate.
A scallop carpaccio with oscietra caviar, blinis and traditional garnishes for instance is such a dish. Apart from the impeccable product quality, what impresses are the balance of flavours and the intensity of the dish. Whilst seeming very light and fresh, this is something that is packed full with flavour. It is one of those classical dishes that are gently modernised and served in such a compelling way that one will most likely never forget them. In the end, it are ‘simple’ combinations and dishes such as this one that are memorable, not the complex creations that often create a stronger immediate effect.
Along the same lines is a carpaccio of lobster. Served with tapioca, some jellified lobster stock and heart of palm, this is another one of those fresh and yet boldly flavoured dishes that Lorain is so capable of producing. The textures and flavours are matched in a way that it simply appears impossible to better the dish. What a spoonful of this starter brings are both contrasting textures, and highly complex flavours, making it a beautiful creation. Wash this down with the very modestly priced wines of Vincent Dauvissat or Jean-Marie Raveneau and you experience an impressive moment.
When it comes to masterful renditions of classical dishes, a braised piece of veal with a truffled puree of cauliflower and truffle jus bears testimony to Lorain’s technical skills. A jus such as this alone could suffice with its massive concentration and complexity. When Lorain mentions truffles on the menu, the guest really gets truffles that taste and smell of something on the plate. That is another one of those reasons why such restaurants are always worth visiting. In the end even the puree of cauliflower with truffle has more flavour of the said two products than most fancy dishes one can find all over the world. It is always a humbling experience, eating such simple, but utterly beautiful dishes. Especially if they seem so effortless as they do here.
A slightly more daring approach to change things a bit is the inclination to let Asian influences appear on the menu at the Cote St Jacques. Whilst this is done with great success in the case of the aforementioned lobster, another dish of skate is a little less captivating. Here, the coco-nut emulsion seems a little pedestrian, if compared to the extremely impressive cooking that this kitchen is clearly capable. The fish itself is perfectly timed and of beautiful quality, but this is an example where the Asian touch appears in a less convincing manner than it does in other dishes of Lorain.
That should not diminish this restaurant’s incredible pedigree. It is one of those places that simply feels right, where you have a service brigade that is both charming and competent, thus making your dining experience a complete one. Even if one approaches this kind of restaurant like we did, with a bit of an idea of it being dated, a meal here will demonstrate that the cuisine of Jean-Michel Lorain is more than contemporary and plays an important role in the current gastronomic scene.