From the Garden To the Plate
“la Dune aux Escargots” garden designed by Max Sauze. Photo © Paris Update
The good news for regular visitors to the annual International Garden Festival at the Château Chaumont in the Loire Valley is that its outdoor restaurant-in-a-tent, Le Grand Velum, once a beloved part of the yearly ritual of a trip to the garden show, is once again fréquentable.
On our last visit, two years ago, we were so disappointed by the culinary creations of Gilles Choukroun (surprisingly, since we were just as thrilled by this chef-du-moment’s offerings at his Paris restaurant, Angl’Opéra) that we hadn’t returned to the Chaumont restaurant since. When we heard that a new chef, Gilles Hémart, had wrested control of the stove, however, we weren’t long in making a reservation.
While Hémart is no François-Xavier Bogard – the original Grand Velum chef who set the tone with his wild, brilliant creations inspired by the garden festival’s theme each year – this young chef has made a valiant and partially successful effort to match the fantasy and originality of Bogard’s dishes.
The garden festival’s theme this year is “movement,” a concept difficult to interpret in the kitchen unless you are willing to accept living creatures crawling across your plate, so Hémart has wisely looked to the landscape architects who create the festival’s gardens for his inspiration.
In one garden, for example, by Sandrine Feutry, some 50 varieties of tomatoes illustrate the many forms this humble fruit has taken as it spread throughout the world over the centuries. In the restaurant, Hémart offers an appetizer with tomatoes interpreted in five different ways, among them a delightful tomato crème brûlée with poppy seeds and an edible tomato-flavored spoon. The latter was one of Hémart’s more successful sweet/salty combinations, an approach he has unfortunately overused on the menu. Sweetness often dominated and sometimes overwhelmed other flavors. As one of our party pointed out, the combination needs a touch of acid (provided by the tomatoes in the crème brûlée) to link the sweetness and saltiness and brighten the flavors.
That said, however, Hémart sent out one colorful delight for the eye after another. For one first course, he put figs and foie gras together inside a chocolate coating (a combination that works but was also too sweet) and served it with a carrot sorbet with violet foam and a nicely piquant “milkshake” of beets and berries. Monkfish flambéed with tomato and anise came with a pretty palette of ice creams with unusual flavors: peas and mint, chorizo, sweet potato and eggplant. The first two were intense representations of their respective flavors, but the others were simply cloyingly sweet.
The first courses and desserts were the main attractions (this seems to be the case in many restaurants these days). The low point of the meal was a main course of dry, overcooked pork filet mignon, a dish that should have been tender and succulent. The agneau piqué à la cannelle turned out to be a tasty lamb meatball, with a nicely crunchy crust and moist center, served with layered “virtual” vegetables, which seemed to have been puréed and reconstituted with gelatin, a trick that received mixed reviews at our table.
Desserts were full of fun, with the star attraction being a bright blue stick figure (echoing the blue painted “trees” in one of the gardens) made of white chocolate standing in an intensely flavored pool of licorice soup. Another consisted of sorbet-filled macaroni sticks, to be dipped into a palette of jewel-colored fruit sauces. This dish was finished off with a white powder (crushed candy mint), meant to be sucked up through a short black straw, which might remind some diners of an activity other than eating.
A coil of green-banana “spaghetti” came with fruit coulis served in escargot shells, echoing the “Dune aux Escargots” garden by Max Sauze. Naturally, the cheese course was not served in any recognizable form, but as Roquefort foam, “effervescent” Saint Moret, goat cheese whipped cream, and reblochon millefeuilles with parmesan cream.
As you may have guessed from the above descriptions, the festival is not your ordinary garden show full of pretty flowers, but a series of 26 highly conceptual gardens. This year’s “movement” theme doesn’t seem to have inspired the participating landscape architects to wild fantasies as much as previous themes like “chaos” and “eroticism” did. The idea of seeds traveling through time and space recurred in many of them.
Aside from those mentioned above, some of the most successful are the Jardin Volcanique by Ye Li, which in spite of its name creates a peaceful world with floating gardens, black rock and a Chinese gong; the “Jardin Echo,” by a French, English and Swedish team, with slanted poles creating a path leading to a giant resonating seed in the center; and “1001 Paysages” by Laureline Salisch and Seung-Yong Song, with 500 plant-filled tricolor pots offering visitors changing perspectives and colors as they move around it.
Energetic visitors might also want to take a walk through the Experimental Garden and the beautiful Vallon des Brumes (Valley of Mists), with a trail leading past the fascinating rusty-iron creations of artist Jean Lautrey. The fairytale castle can also be visited.
Le Grand Velum: 02 54 20 99 79. Fixed-price menus: €30 (two dishes), €34 (three dishes), €38 (three dishes plus cheese).
Getting there: By car: A10 Autoroute, Blois or Amboise exit. By train: from the Gare d’Austerlitz in Paris to Onzain (a 20-minute walk from Chaumont or by taxi: 02 54 20 94 87 or 06 07 36 76 07).
© 2007 Paris Update
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