If one thinks of Honfleur, good food is perhaps not the first thing that comes to mind. After all, the entire region is devoid of highly acclaimed fine dining restaurants (give or take a couple), and the city itself is more often than not filled with tour groups. The latter tend to admire the little shops and harbour more than they do the produce of the North Sea that are landed here by local fishermen. Thus, Sa.Qua.Na, despite its location in the historic centre, is at times virtually empty for lunch services during the week. This seems bewildering as the friendly-looking restaurant offers some of the most sensible and fascinating cuisines of the sea in Europe.
As one can guess there are two reasons for this, first of all the quality of the produce used and the techniques that Alexandre Bourdas’ little brigade cooks with. At Sa.Qua.Na one has the rare case that both come together. That should not be too surprising, given that Bourdas has worked with Michel Bras for years, and even ran the latter’s Japanese restaurant in Toya. Upon returning to Old Europe, he decided to set up this little restaurant, in which he now serves a cuisine that is certainly inspired by an Asian sensibility and sense of refinement, but is also deeply rooted in France’s products and classical techniques.
Eating at Sa.Qua.Na is simple, one sits down, chooses the full or shorter menu and off it goes. The menu will most likely begin with one of the most arresting dishes we have tasted in a very long time: A poached fillet of monkfish with a broth of lemongrass, coriander and citrus. It sets the scene like a dramatic ouverture, and that with so little on the plate. What makes this so special is first and foremost the monkfish and the way it is cooked. The slice of fish is of such high quality that it alone would already make for a virtually perfect dish. Yet, the texture and flavour of the fish are perfectly combined with the broth that makes everything come together and extremely vivid. The seasoning of this broth is such that it seems daring, and yet it works so beautifully. What makes it even more special is the way that, not unlike some Asian cuisines, this dish wakes up the palate and body, making the wait until the next dish arrives nearly painful.
That feeling never disappears at Sa.Qua.Na, for every single dish holds this level. A second dish that showcases the dazzlingly good quality of fish here is a ‘humble’ Pollack. Steamed and served with pork jus and leeks, this piece of fish completely redefines this often-disregarded fish. It is not only of the highest quality, but cooked equally well. Thus, you have a piece of fish that is slightly gelatinous in texture, with good bite to it, but a supple feeling to it that is simply hard to describe. Not an inch is over or undercooked, which is so rarely the case. Combine the relatively delicate fish with a powerful pork jus and the gently cooked leeks and leek ravioli and you have a dish that just hits the sweet spot.
That Bourdas can combine land and sea in a manner that would make even Catalans envious can best be demonstrated by a plate of poularde with spicy crab. This dish, even purer than most others he serves, only features a bit of chicken breast and a chicken jus to which crab meat and several condiments have been added. On the plate this is a composition that appears minimalistic, but at the same time exudes the same degree of confidence that the monkfish does. That is for a reason, as the chicken is cooked as perfectly as every single piece of fish one gets during the course of the menu. The combination of the meat with the gently spiced crab/chicken jus reminds you of dishes on finds in certain Asian cuisines, and simply works.
Sa.Qua.Na offers an experience that is unlike another in Europe, if not the world. On top of that, the food it serves is so compelling and unique that Bourdas’ future evolution will be a real joy to watch. He seems to be a chef who has already come so far, but is nowhere near being ready to stop there.