Nestled among flowering fields, old stone, chateau-like outbuildings and a small lake with water lilies, Restaurant Thierry Drapeau in the Vendee region of Pays de la Loire in France, is a fine-dining cuisine retreat.
Boasting whitewashed walls, bare, unvarnished rafters and plain wood windowpanes that contrast with tall, gleaming silver chrome lamps overlooking every table, the interior ambiance combines elegant contemporaneity with appealing rusticity. Designed by Sylvain Proyart, the restaurant retains elements reminiscent of the former horse stables that were housed here such as the leather-colors used and materials hanging from the ceiling reminiscent of saddles. Wonderful ceramic sculptures by Cath Cousseau of women with bodies shaped like vegetables that decorate each table impart a sense of surrealism. Each table setting is furnished with a crimson anthurium flower set obliquely inside a tiny glass vase that makes one think of inkpots with writing quills in them.
Thierry Drapeau, two-star Michelin chef and owner of one of the very few Relais & Chateaux restaurants physically separate from its companion hotel, makes sure the exquisite allure doesn’t end there. It ends on the plate.
Not only is the food to die for, its presentation is nothing less than superb, a delightful characteristic being the sheer diversity of dinnerware upon which courses are served, ranging from one plate reflecting the ocean in motion in it’s rippling curvatures, to one whose shape and svelte, smooth surface resembled a seashore stone.
While à la carte is offered, we opted for the ‘Carte Blanche’ tasting menu, with even the breadsticks and Parmesan crackers being foretastes of what was to come – baked as they were with warm sepia ink and served with rosemary and garlic suffused olive oil. Two types of Normandy butter, one with lemon, the other sea-salt, soon followed, and 10 different breads including seaweed, tapenade brioche, quinoa and buckwheat, all homemade and ceremoniously presented on a cart wheeled right to the table.
A chef from age 26, Drapeau is dedicated to bringing to plate the fragrances he discovers in his own garden and the natural tastes of local produce. “What captivated me first was the simplicity of trawlers coming back in the evening followed by the seagulls, the touch of prawns and fish still alive, the challenge of recreating au natural.”
While Chef Drapeau’s creations are complex, the titles of the eleven courses, including the amuse bouche, are a lesson in pure simplicity, with Spartan titles names such as ‘asparagus,’ ‘egg,’ ‘scallops,’ ‘salmon,’ ‘guinea fowl’ and ‘duck.’
One of the culinary techniques he uses is ‘siphon emulsion,’ by which he creates airy foams such as the galangal for pan-fried scallops served on an oyster shell with Kombu (an edible kelp) confit and borage flower; or caramel and tonka foam set in a small glass which is part of a pre-dessert tray that includes other delicacies such as confit citrus crisp, a horn filled with lime cream, lemon and coconut “vacherine” (tiny cream cheese coconut balls), orange tapioca verbena cream lime and caramel macaroon balanced delicately on an exotic ‘choux’ (a profiterole ball).
Another characteristic of Drapeau’s style is ‘herbal cuisine,’ the use of old or unusual traditional herbs to emphasize flavors. Examples are sida corfifolia leaves (heart-leaf milkweed) in his amuse bouche of marinated sardine of Saint Gilles Croix de Vie, red pepper and cucumber; the rosemary flower and Mouron des oiseaux (stitchwort) in the green asparagus of Senas browned with marrow and ham of Vendee, truffle jelly and savory croquettes; or the broom petals impersonating the pips of the cherries accompanying the duck breast from Maison Burgaud served pink with cherry marmalade, and pistachio; or even more interesting, fennel leaf in a dessert entitled simply “Apricot,” which combines confit of fennel, orange slices, cardamom, carrot, poached apricot, apricot and carrot foam and licorice crumble.
In terms of skill, it’s hard not to be impressed by the dish termed simply ‘Egg’ – a hen’s egg stuffed with morel and wild asparagus, surrounded by meringue, morel, spinach leaves, draped in vin jaune (white wine from the Jura region in eastern France, similar to dry sherry) sabayon, all served with thin strips of morel bread.
And if that wasn’t enough to satisfy even the most sophisticated of palates, a plethora of after-dinner goat, sheep and cow cheeses came rolling towards us across the room on a hefty wooden cart, ranging from Bleu du bocage made at Maison Beillevaire, a small, nearby farm, to Corsican, French mainland and even English Stilton. Each menu item was paired with wine, including Chardonnay and Chenin Blanc from the Loire Atlantique region.
Taking inspiration from the surrounding bucolic countryside of Vendee and varied produce from his own garden plots, Thierry Drapeau qualifies as an avant-garde chef whose chief aim is creating contemporary complex dishes out of natural, organic ingredients. To use his own words, he is indeed a “provocateur de plaisirs.”