It’s different yet the same. Marc Aubry of the erstwhile Je Suis Gourmand is back in the kitchen, his spectacles perched at the very tip of his not inconsiderable nose, but the restaurant is now called Champêtre, although it’s exactly where Je Suis Gourmand used to be, and a few of the dishes from the former restaurant have reappeared on the new menu.
The difference is that Champêtre is better than the old restaurant, even if it seems that the only thing that has changed is the décor, which I actually like less.
The new facelift is supposed to evoke the countryside that the name, which translates to “countryside,” refers to, but ends up looking, in parts, like a set for a comic proscenium opera. But all this is easily forgotten in the onslaught of good food, which is exactly what it’s advertised to be: hearty French country fare, and a great deal of it.
Manila has always had a problem with its French restaurants; not that there aren’t enough of them, but that none of them has been able to strike the balance between posh and pretentious on one hand, and informal and rambunctious on the other.
The former is the domain of hotel restaurants which are chapels where meals consist of silverware and candlelight and tiny, insipid portions: everything that gives haute cuisine a bad name. The other end of the spectrum, which is not just the bistro, which can be quite metropolitan, but the bistrot campagne, has had problems finding an audience in the city.
Lumière, whose prime location on Makati Avenue is now Sala, had a valiant go at it, but didn’t offer enough thrills to stay solvent.
I have no idea why Je Suis Gourmand closed and re-opened, but Champêtre seems to be getting the mix right, at least judged by the happy buzz of a weekday night crowd. Aubry has covered all bases by producing an improbably lengthy menu, which ranges from cassoulet, which is as rib-sticking country fare as it gets, to an entire sub-menu of dishes featuring foie gras, printed in an iridescent typeface to underscore the luxury of it all.
Needless to say, it worked on me. I’m a sucker for foie gras, even if I know how much it costs wholesale by the lobe and can cook it myself at home. If you say foie gras on the menu, I’ll go price-blind and pay extortionist rates for a tiny sliver. So I was pleasantly surprised, though not daunted, that Aubry’s foie gras was not a sliver but a slab.
We proceeded to make our way methodically through such bistro staples such as soupe à l’oignon and escargots bourguignon, which were excellent. I say this with great surprise and emphasis, because they usually aren’t, in most places here and abroad. French onion soup can be medieval and stodgy, and snails are all too often an assault of garlic that doesn’t let the earthiness through.
But it was the main courses that truly shone. We ate veal kidneys in a sharp caper cream sauce, and braised veal cheeks with roasted vegetables (this was in place of the bayaldi gratin that normally accompanies it): Both were excellent.
Then we had dessert, at which point both we and Aubry seemed to flag a little. Dessert usually comes as a welcome shift from savoury to sweet, at which one’s stomach rearranges it contents a bit to make room for the new taste, but the Grand Marnier ice cream, though nicely flavored, was gloopy and there was far too much of it.
The pear charlotte seemed simplistic and dumpy. Which of course seems to be a churlish assessment, because all of the dishes on the menu work on the premise of being simple, traditional fare that is well-executed, but the desserts somehow failed to be scintillating in the same way that the savoury fare was.
Perhaps we chose badly in following something mushy and rich with something mushy and rich, but at this point a feeling of immobility and lethargy began to set in, when we should have been perked up and ready for mignardises, coffee, armagnac and a roll in the hay.
But don’t let this minor niggle put you off: It’s a very well-executed restaurant, and all that we had (as a table of six) from the ambitiously long menu was good, and I look forward to working my way through it.
There’s enough to satisfy those hankering for slow-cooked peasant fare, flashy luxe dishes for those on a spree, and grilled fish for boring people.
With Cyrille Soenen’s Ciçou having also just opened in Greenhills with a similarly rustic theme, French country cooking might just be making a comeback; and this time I hope it stays.
Champêtre is on the Ground Floor, Net One Bldg., Bonifacio Global City, tel. 8158801.