Tuesday, May 17, 2011
Champetre: The Sequel to a Love Story
I didn’t always love Marc Aubry and his food. There. I said it.
It may be difficult to imagine that now, especially if you are one of the many who had to endure my constant gushing and drooling over Marc’s country-style French cooking. For many years now, I have acted as his voluntary crusader (one of the many, naturally) in spreading the word about his down-to earth, authentic French dishes, even turning skeptical rice-eaters into die-hard, foie-gras-devouring, escargot-slurping fans. So, to finally admit, after many years of pledging allegiance to the House of Aubry, that there was a moment in time when I did not LOVE Marc’s food, it’s almost impossible to comprehend.
But, yes, my love affair with Marc’s food had a shaky beginning. Like the tried-and-tested plot of a good romantic comedy, the dusky heroine was not immediately smitten with the dashing hero. Admittedly, I was a late bloomer when it came to French cuisine, so on my first visit to Marc’s old resto, Je Suis Gourmand, I ignorantly ordered a plate of pasta. I remember my young, rugged palate was not too fond of the strong Gorgonzola-laced sauce, and I rolled my eyes thinking, “What’s all the fuss about?” Je Suis Gourmand (JSG), after all, was the talk of the town- getting a table without a reservation was impossible, and the clientele was Manila’s posh and polished set. But, when the tall and sleek chef- his eyebrows raised, his perfectly-trimmed mustache framing his pursed lips- approached us and asked about our food, what he got was a lukewarm reception from the group of rowdy college kids. I remember loving the “pate”, which I thought was the best thing I ever spread on Melba toast. (Later on, I would discover that the “pate” is actually Marc’s legendary foie gras terrine.) So, even if I thought the food was “whatever” and the chef was “duh” (and I bet the feeling was mutual), I just had to go back for more.
I no longer remember if it was my second or third visit, but the story takes an interesting turn when I discover the dish that would get me hooked on Marc’s cooking- Braised Veal Cheeks Bourgouignon. The startlingly-soft chunks of veal, bathed in a sauce that is dark, meaty and complex, was a revelation, and it changed the way I saw French food forever. Until then, in my mind, dining on French cuisine was an affectation- something people do when they want to show-off to their in-laws or get themselves laid. Those veal cheeks made me realize that French food is not only celebrated with good reason, but surprisingly familiar- “familiar” in a sense that it is comforting, even reassuring. That unassuming brown sauce told me- in a creepy, Winona-Ryder-crazy way- that in another part of the world, a young girl is eating the very same dish in her Maman’s kitchen.
And, just like that part in the movie when they start playing Journey in the background and the hero is bathed in a magical ray of sunlight- I was suddenly, deeply, madly in love.
Years later, with Je Suis Gourmand gone, this love affair continues with Marc’s new restaurant- Champetre. Meaning “pastoral” or “country”, it captures the true essence of Marc’s style of cooking- hearty, for sure, using the best ingredients, with sauces given the utmost love and attention until the deepest and most fundamental flavors are conjured. The restaurant now includes a boutique where epicures can buy goodies- sauces, preserves, cheeses, wines, among other things- to be enjoyed at home.
Dinner with friends at Champetre had us waxing nostalgic over our Je Suis Gourmand favorites- we began with orders of Steak Tartare (not on the menu, but Marc prepares it when we request for it beforehand), Duck Foie Gras Terrine with Toasts and Salad and Baked Escargots Bourgoignonne with Garlic Bread. We had these starters with glasses of Cremant I purchased from Blue Frog last year and Bott-Geyl Pinot Gris Les Elements 2006. The former’s crisp, yeasty character went famously well with the steak tartare and escargots, while the heady pear and honey aromas of the pinot gris was perfect with the Foie. I’m not a master at wine pairing, but this was practically a no-brainer.
Our two orders of steak tartare were wiped out in minutes. The tender, chopped raw beef was perfectly seasoned and enhanced with onions and capers. Nicely creamy and full of bold flavors.
The Foie Gras Terrine was its usual, beautiful self, with its smooth and rich texture coupled with the sweet, nutty flavors associated with foie. Truly life-changing stuff.
Nothing says French food more than escargots, and Marc’s pretty little snails are a must-try. He serves it baked with an aromatic butter and matched with an addicting slice of garlic bread.
For my main course, I decided on having the Champetre Pork Cassoulet cooked in Duck Fat. The dish is definitely “country”- the baked beans hearty and rich, intermingling with the flavors of the boudin blanc (white pork sausages), slices of pork and duck.
Matt and Cookie Goddess shared the Algerien Style Couscous (good for two)- a dish that Marc used to serve on special days at JSG and is now made part of the regular menu. The couscous is topped with succulent lamb chops and homemade Merguez sausages. It comes with a bowl of broth that you ladle over the couscous. This dish has its own cult following, so I do not need to stress how good this is.
I got to try Sanj’s Roasted Veal Kidney Dijonaise with Fries and Salad- another JSG classic. The mustard sauce nicely-masked any gamey-ness from the offal, leaving you to enjoy the pleasant texture of the kidney with another one of Marc’s famous sauces. I tried to quickly take a picture, although Sanj was already halfway through it just a couple of minutes after the dish got set down. “It’s the best, Chinks”, Sanj helpfully informed me. At the speed you devoured the dish, I kind of figured that out, Sanj.
Cutie ordered the Butter-seared US Black Angus Beef Onglet with Fries and Salad. Any self-respecting meat lover should try this dish at least once. Yes, it is easy to appreciate a good slab of rib-eye, but onglet (or hanger steak) cooked properly proves to be so much more flavorful. The way Marc prepares it imparts a lip-smacking combo of butter and shallots all over the meat, making it a carnivore’s delight. During those days when I am ravenous, this is my sure bet.
With our mains, we had two red wines- Cutie’s 2000 Bourdeaux and Mark’s pinot noir- a 2008 Irancy Vielles Vignes. Both wines were great, but I think the pinot noir- with its pretty berry notes- went really well with the cassoulet. Cutie said that the Bourdeaux paired well with the onglet, and I can imagine that it did with its bolder, more masculine flavors.
Often times, we are too stuffed for dessert, but this time we made sure to make room. We all shared our orders of ice cream, Chocolate mousse, Passionfruit Cheescake, among others. I should make a mental note to have Marc’s desserts more often. They are never too sweet or cloying, which is perfect for me.
And, with that meal, my love story with Marc’s food continues. Like a love-sick puppy, I stare at the menu he e-mailed me and fantasize about the next time I shall be in his restaurant again. Marc’s passion for his food is truly remarkable and you easily spot it: from the flawless cooking techniques to the well-trained staff to Marc’s natural desire to make every dining experience your most pleasurable yet.
Now, that’s love.
Champetre Boutique & Restaurant
G/F Net One Center
Bonifacio Global City, Taguig
Tel. No. 09178838801