That time of the year again, with Co. in the driver’s seat having organized my birthday dinner to points unknown. Mercifully, I wasn’t required to wear a blindfold, but until I saw the Marne river, I had no idea we were headed to L’Écu de France, a veritable French institution in Chennevières sur Marne, the town bordering Champigny, another place you’ve probably never heard of. As we pulled up to the door of L’Écu, an old hunting lodge dating back to 1850--the restaurant itself established in 1920 by the Brousse family-- I had the impression we were pulling up to, well, an old hunting lodge. Replete with pastoral charm and rustic authenticity, we rued the fact that the terrace overlooking the Marne was not yet open for the summer.
Actually, we didn’t really pull up to the restaurant’s door at all, because all patrons are directed to a free parking lot just across the street, managed as it was by an old haggard gentleman sitting under a beach umbrella listening to French talk radio (poor guy). I kind of joked about how comforting it was to see this lame excuse for a security guard keeping tabs on our vehicle during our dinner, as he nodded off to the monotonous AM radio show. In this idyllic setting by la Marne, it seemed highly unlikely that bad things could possibly befall our Peugeot. Little did I know that later that evening, about 60 cars were burned during unrest in the Marne region, not exactly in the neighborhood, but humbling nonetheless, even if the total was only a slight bump up from the usual number of weekend car burnings in the greater Paris metropolitan area.
Getting to the business at hand, after an uneventful welcome, we were guided to our table, unfortunately on the side of the room away from the windows overlooking the river. The meal started off on a high note, with an extremely tasty amuse bouche consisting of a small square of carrot mouse with vinegrette. This gave us ample time to peruse the at-first confusing menu. You can check out a previous version of the current menu at the restaurant's website. Essentially, the left hand page of the menu, titled ‘La carte en portion de degustation’ consists of smaller-plate versions of the same items found on the much pricier right hand page, titled ‘La carte’. By selecting entrees from the left and main plates from the right, you can keep the price down; otherwise, count on spending well over 200€, including a bottle of wine. The left/right approach served us well, especially after treating ourselves to some above average bread (nut or cerealed small rolls), accompanied by two slabs of herbed butter, which effectively reduced our appetite. Our choices:
- foie gras with fig, honey, and fruits (left)
- blue turtle with a cauliflower cream (left)
- truffaud de canard, with foie gras (right)
- St. Pierre fish with small vegetables (left)
Much to my initial chagrin, the turtle dish arrived in a glass, but it was pretty interesting--two layers of heavy creams, followed by fresh turtle meat, with plum tomatoes crushed on the bottom. The preparation of all the dishes was above average, with more than a hint of an imaginative flair emanating from chef Jean-Baptiste Debreux's kitchen. An apparently greater degree of care is taken in the preparation of desserts, which fall on the heavy and somewhat ostentatious side. Some excellent small pastries came along with the bill, and by now you know this is a gesture that ranks high on my list of guilty pleasures. I don't have images of our dishes, but here are a few samples from L'Ecu's web site:
Our humble bottle of Bourgueil ’96 held up well, surrounded as it was by a relatively short but well chosen, impressive wine list. Some excellent bottles are available for the true connoisseur – for example, a Château L'Evangile (Pomerol) 1983 can be had for 190€ - but if you ask me, I’d rather buy a bottle like that for my cave, at 90€ online (http://www.chateauclassic.fr). My advice for the budget conscious diner is to select from the more reasonably priced excellent bottles listed under ‘Divers’ on the wine menu, which is where we spotted our Bourgueil at 23€.
As the wait between courses expanded exponentially from one dish to the next—a copy of War and Peace wouldn’t be a bad idea to bide one’s
time waiting for the dessert to arrive—certain realities began to set in during the meal, best summed up by words like ‘aloof' and 'over-priced.’ Ever one to try to look on the bright side of a dinner out, there are two major gripes that must nonetheless be acknowledged. The most galling aspect of the meal was the wait staff’s practice of keeping diners' wine bottles far away from their table at various rest spots along the room’s perimeter. And although this happened behind my back, Co. assured me that at one point, a waiter filled a glass with our bottle at another table! Sacre bloody bleu! That is not a way to endear one’s customers. My second gripe pertains to menu items that are unavailable. That I don’t mind – it’s inevitable – but better to be informed before one makes a choice, rather than after. I was all psyched for a langoustine entrée, only to be told when giving our order that the crustaceans were now out of season and unavailable. It is no small leap for the psychology of the taste buds to handle a langoustine to tourteau expanse.
My recommendation? If you want to splurge for a nice
lunch along the Marne one sunny summer weekend afternoon,
give some thought to visiting L’Ecu. But be prepared to first
wipe off those plastic chairs on the terrace before sitting.
And don’t forget to tip the parking guy – the next smoldering
Peugeot could be yours.
L’ÉCU DE FRANCE
31, rue de Champigny
94430 Chennevières sur Marne
Overall note (out of 10): 7- Food: 7- Ambiance: 8.5 outside (but the chairs really are plastic), 6 inside Price/Quality: 5 (too expensive for the quality) Our visit: 133€ for two, including
wine (3 lefts, 1 right, & 1 dessert) Service: 2.5 (never, ever confuse which wine goes where!)
This is a restaurant that gets some of the little things right, but not the big picture.