Entrées around €10-15, Mains around €20, Set menu at €34 (3-courses + amuse bouche) or €40 (same menu + cheese, 1 glass of wine & 1 coffee)
A weekend in Normandy
After hosting my wife’s nephew for a week in London, it was time to return him to his parents in Normandy. We decided to take the ferry from Portsmouth to Caen as this is the most direct route to their home, and left on the mid-afternoon boat two Fridays ago.
On the Saturday night, Mrs. LF’s brother and his wife had invited us out to a meal nearby their home in the suburbs of Caen. We were very much looking forward to the meal as the chef, Pascal Angenard, is well known to my wife and her family. Mrs. LF used to look after his daughter when she was younger and has very fond memories of hanging out in Pascal’s former restaurant in Deauville, which was called Le Spinnaker and carried a Michelin star for many years, as she got to eat many of the leftovers from the kitchen.
Pascal has recently opened up a new restaurant called L’Esperance which is situated on the inlet that connects the port of Ouistreham (where the cross-channel ferries dock) to the interior of Caen.
The restaurant was formerly a hotel and Pascal and his partner Claudine have completely renovated the building inside and out to create a very pleasant and modern space. They live on the large top floor of the building and the restaurant is situated on the raised ground floor with great views of the water. There are also plans to build a terrace and create an outdoor dining area.
The restaurant is quite sizeable, bright and has an attractive bar to your right upon entering. A nice feature is that the upstairs kitchen is visible to diners through a large glass window. As we peered into the kitchen, Pascal saw us and came out to greet us. Apparently he rarely if ever does this as he is quite a reserved man and a perfectionist in the kitchen. Everyone was introduced and he explained that the part of the kitchen we could see was only where the dishes get ‘finished’ and that the main kitchen was on the lower floor.
Menus, menus – but just choose what you like
We were soon seated at our table and began looking through the menus. There is an à la carte menu which does not change much and also two set menus (‘Le Menu du Canal’ or ‘Le Plats Canaille’) both of which have three choices each for the starter, main and dessert but are priced slightly differently. In addition, Claudine told us about the daily specials, a few of which sounded particularly appetizing. My brother in-law said that we should just order what we wanted regardless of what menu it happened to be on and they would sort it out later. He also explained that in most restaurants in France (unless they are very high-end), you usually can’t do this because restaurateurs tend to want to stick strictly to their already prepared menus, but that since we knew them it would be okay. That sounded like a good plan :).
The canapés of salmon mousse and pepperoni were both nice and the little puff pastry well cooked and light. To me, they were like very good quality homemade canapés you would have at someone’s house in France before dinner to go with your mandatory glass(es) of champagne.
This was chilled, rather thick and infused with the flavor of cauliflower. I am not the biggest lover of cauliflower in the world (wouldn’t eat it up until 4-5 years ago), but it was well seasoned, flavorful and made a good first impression. 5/10.
I loved this starter, which I found to be quite original. The fresh crab meat was delightfully sweet, and had been mixed with ripe tomatoes. On its own it would have just been some good crab with a little dressing, but the foundation of the dish was a homemade sable biscuit, which gave it a solid structure and held everything together. The biscuit was slightly sweet and blended surprisingly well with the delicate flavors of the sea. This was a simple yet original dish that was well conceived and well executed. 7/10.
Mrs. LF explained to me that Pascal has always made his own foie gras, which is a nice thing to see, especially in this day and age. This particular version was the special of the day and came served with red onion chutney on the side, along with two thin, toasted slices of bread (the best type of toast for foie gras – oftentimes it is way too thick). It looked like it had been de-veined and was truly excellent. 8/10.
We had ordered a Chablis 1er Cru upon sitting down, which obviously went much better with my first course of crab then the foie gras. It was a nice example, being close to bone dry and with a nice mineral core. It had good fruit on the palate and quite a bit of length on the finish. Nothing out of the ordinary, but solid Chablis. 6.5/10.
The sole was another accomplished dish. Again, nothing fancy, just a perfectly cooked fish (look at how well browned it was on the outside), with a rich cream sauce – what else do you expect in Normandy?! – that had a bit of bite to it. 7.5/10.
My mother in-law had the bar (which I understand to translate as either sea bass or grouper – it looked like sea bass to me) and said it was excellent. I noticed it had what appeared to be another sable biscuit, although Mrs. LF informed me that it was a ‘feuillete’ (or savory ‘puff pastry’ in English), and wondered whether it was as successful in this dish as the pastry element had been in mine. As my mother in-law is even more, shall we say ‘direct’, than my wife is, we would have known very quickly if something had been amiss.
To go with the main courses (which were mainly fish dishes), we had ordered a bottle of Sancerre Rouge, which I had never had before. It was served slightly chilled, much like young Beaujolais, but tasted more like a Pinot Noir and was really nice. It had soft notes of red fruit and a refreshing acidity which performed a good balancing act. It was a great, light red wine to accompany the seafood flavors. 7.5/10.
Most of the table opted for one of the special desserts of the day, which I believe was an apricot tart of some kind with frangipane. Pascal’s father was a pâtissier, and that helped to explain the high quality of the pastry in this dessert, as well as that present in some of the other dishes we’d had. It was well cooked with just the right texture and thickness. It wasn’t what Mrs. LF had been expecting (she had thought it was a dessert she had fond memories of from Le Spinnaker), but she liked it nonetheless. 6/10.
I was the rebel of the bunch and opted for the caramel apple dessert which was on the menu (how can that combination ever be bad?!). The apples certainly tasted much better than they looked on the plate. They had retained their shape but very were soft and full of toffee flavor. The gingerbread ice cream cut through this Halloween sweetness and the little crispy chip had a nice burnt, bittersweet caramel taste to it, with little accents of pistachio. A satisfying finish to the meal. 7/10.
A strong glass of calvados later
After the meal, we were one of the last tables left, and Pascal and Claudine came over to our table to say hello. They offered us a glass of whatever champagne or spirit we wanted on the house, so I figured I’d opt for the local speciality they had first offered, calvados. Now, I fully admit that I am a bit of an amateur and lightweight when it comes to full-on spirits, but I can confidently say this was one strong glass of calvados…I sipped it very slowly for a period of half an hour or so.
Although I couldn’t understand most of what was being said (can you believe I haven’t learned French even though I’m married to a French woman – shame on me!), I did pick up some of it, and got some translation here and there. Pascal seems like a shy but extremely sweet man, and we did manage to communicate regarding the world of restaurants and cooking, to some degree. I was fascinated to learn that his favourite chef is currently Jamie Oliver – he has seen all of his programs (even the school dinner ones) and is a real fan of his approach to food and of what he is trying to do through all of his various projects. I didn’t know they showed his programs with translations in France. He also said that, in his opinion, the UK (London particularly) was currently the center of world gastronomy. He feels there are so many talented chefs in the capital city right now that it is probably one of the most exciting dining cities to be in food-wise. In some ways I agreed, and said we’d be happy to host him and Claudine anytime they wanted to visit. So hopefully I can update you on that if such a visit ever transpires.
After this relaxing chat, we piled back into my brother in-laws car, and slowly zig-zagged our way back to their house down the deserted country back roads. A lovely evening, and I was ready for bed.
The nitty gritty
The food had been very good overall: simple but confidently and precisely cooked. Keeping in mind that it is located in a small town outside of Caen, and that its patrons are not the same as you would find in Paris or even Deauville, it is a high standard of food for the area which I think represents very good value for money (at €34 for the 3-course menu). Pascal had been a consistent 1 Star Michelin chef at his previous restaurant, and you definitely see flares of his skill and attention to detail in some of the dishes. The restaurant was full and had a nice but quiet buzz to it. The service was okay, although there were only a couple of waiters handling the whole restaurant, which meant we sometimes poured our own wine, but it was no big deal. If you ever happen to be in the area, it would definitely be a nice place to have a lazy lunch or a leisurely summer evening meal.
Wine List: 6/10 (not a long list, but well selected producers)
Wine Selected: 7/10 (the Sancerre Rouge was new for me and fit the bill)
For more about my rating scale, click here.
*Note: I have only dined at L’Espérance once, though Mrs. LF has dined there twice and knows the chef.*