June 17, 2021

Last week, my partner and I ate dinner at a restaurant. That would not have been a remarkable fact or worth mentioning at all before the pandemic. But strange times have befallen us all. It was my first time dining out in seven months since the countrywide closure of restaurants and bars on October 30 in France. Plus the fact that I had relocated to the Loire Valley—romantically coined la France profonde (“Deep France”) from Singapore. I gave up horrendous Grab fare surges, the lure of the city’s nightlife, in place for the blank beauty of horizons and a sort of spontaneous living that plays into your creativity.

There are no restaurants within a 60km radius that have a menu worthy of a date night or even a casual takeout. But what I’ve realised is that I should not try and replicate my city life. So I rolled with the punches till winter came around—heck, I was ready to pay a princely sum to be served a meal that didn’t involve doing dishes.

When the French government announced the opening of restaurants terraces at the tail end of April, I jumped on the chance to ditch my gym pants. I thrashed out ideas of exploring the coasts and deliberated over Michelin-starred restaurants. With the need to feel the rush of dining out again, about four and a half hours east lay my final choice: Troisgros.

In Singapore and Asia, most gourmands are not familiar with the Troisgros family and their legacy in haute cuisine. Started in 1930, the restaurant was revered as a pioneer in the nouvelle cuisine movement in the 1960s, a title initiated by a single dish of salmon and sorrel (saumon à l’oseille). Michel Troisgros is heir to this legacy and continues to bedazzle with his creative plating that draws inspiration from art and food from around the world. Then, in comes the fourth generation, César and Leo Troisgros who have taken the reins in the family’s new mid-19th century stone villa, situated five miles from Roanne in 2017.

Image credit: Marie-Pierre Morel

I’ve dined at many restaurants around the world, some set against stunning backdrops. Le Bois sans Feuilles (‘the woods without leaves’) is escapism of another order. Here, a U-shaped glass pavilion bolstered by modular steel pillars to emulate tree trunks, hem in and preserve the 100-year-old oak tree in the courtyard. Floor-to-ceiling windows combined with a modish light structure above, bathe diners in pools of gold as the long summer sun comes to a rest. The restaurant is a 3-Michelin star institution since 1968. Its hotel, Maison Troisgros is more than the sum of its parts; a tranquil farmhouse greets you as you traverse the compound from the driveway, 15 guests rooms, sprawling verdant grounds, manicured trails circling its very own lake and a charming swimming pool flanked by ‘la botterie’ (a whimsical room replete with Aigle rain boots of all sizes for intrepid guests). It’s been a member of the Relais & Châteaux since 1966, for those who care about such luxuries.

We are instructed to start early and the journey begins out on the lawn overlooking lush pastures where two gentle horses roam. Basking in the languor of the eternal early evening, we tuck into a round of amuse bouche whilst sipping on our choice of aperitifs, rum. A sizeable tanned tart crust encapsulates a wobbly jelly inspired by pot au feu, the translucent pool perfumed with the poignant scent of Szechuan peppercorns. It’s the opening act to the next two bites of fennel tartlet spiked with lemon followed by a vert nugget of green pea croqueta that does an unexpected rupture of creamy béchamel in your mouth. It’s obscenely good.

You’ll want to linger longer, but the magic unravels the moment you’re led through the corridors into the glorious dining room and (for the lucky few), into the kitchen where chef César is there to greet you in his kitchen that screams no expense spared. Bearing resemblance to its predecessor in Roanne, César explains that the old kitchen was smart and hence it was reproduced here. The only exception being that stations are now arranged in rows, military-style, with dishes commencing at the back and rounding off in the front so “runners wouldn’t have to walk in and around the kitchen so much.”

Inspired by the gardens and nature for which the restaurant resides, the menu is highly seasonal. The first dish is a groaning mix of root vegetables wrapped in the most ornate packages of thinly sliced cured artichoke. Each cannelloni is a revelation of earthy flavours smacked with the reassuringly bright flavour pairings—anchovies with artichoke, saffron with fennel, Paris mushroom with hazelnut and sorrel, tomato with yuzu. In the same vein, a dish of fairy ring mushrooms is sprawled over a bed of hay-curdled milk, capturing life’s transient moments.

It is followed by caviar and potatoes, a meticulously braided grid of potatoes drenched in butter and dashi sauce that shelters a veritable treasure trove of delights, from caviar to spinach and capers. Every mouthful is filled with deep affection—provoking flavour memories.

Crayfish poêle masquerading as ‘sushi’ (much to my abhorrence) is a bit of an annoying misrepresentation. It is kushi curry rice, with panfried crayfish, mussels, rhubarb and tarragon. And so, to the sushi that isn’t, let’s knock back the last drop of that very austere, buttery popcorn-like 2018 Domaine Bernard Moreau et Fils Chassagne Montrachet and move along.

Troisgros’ fixation with Japanese ingredients continues into the next realm with shiso leaf rubbing shoulders with mint and sole fish fillets. It grows on you after its slight bitter first impression; the final flourish of beurre noisette balancing the acidity of the dish. There are other shiny, edible things. The spicy challan duck with bigarade (bitter orange) falls in a more classical vein and yet is at loggerheads with its accompanying organ pipe setup of celery and chard sticks.

Just as I licked off the last bejewelled drop off my plate, my partner insists that we try the infamous salmon and sorrel dish made by César himself. With that much build-up and history, the dish proved to be the kind of lovemaking affair that requires a mini-bar stocked full of electrolyte drinks in your room.

The rest of the night eludes words. This may seem like a complete cop-out, but in all honesty, apart from the cheese trolley that rolled out in the most opulent manner and the cigar we smoked by the open fire where we enjoyed our petit fours, I was three sheets to the wind—thanks to the wine binge. If you were in my shoes, with a room (and a bathtub for two) just a hippety-hop away, you would perhaps loosen all inhibitions too.

We paid S$1,567 for 2 (both of us chose ‘Menu au Jour le Jour’ and had a bottle of 2014 Le Domaine Lafarge-Vial Fleurie Clos Vernay and 6 individual glasses of wine
); the room costs S$869.

Hero Image Credit: Marie-Pierre Morel