After jostling with the crowds in the Louvre (the majority of whom wanted to take photographs of their wives, husbands, lovers or friends right in front of the art they had supposedly come to see) and to a lesser extent the Musée d’Orsay, I fled the bustle of Paris for the countryside at Ville d’Avray, near Versailles. So picturesque is the forested hamlet of Les Etangs de Corot that it has been the subject of many a landscape painting. The best known of these are by Jean-Baptise Camille Corot, the 19th-century artist of the Barbizon School, whose parents had a house near the water, where he often gathered with his artist friends.
Today, Les Etangs de Corot is a heritage site and, if the 21st-century landscape is compared with the 19th-century canvas renditions, little seems to have changed. Hidden between the trees stands a hotel – a cluster of old timbered buildings roofed with thatch, some facing the lake (first picture), others further back, set between fountains and rambling roses. Bucolic and charming, the hotel is the work of Alice and Jérôme Tourbier, who cut their teeth on the development of Les Sources de Caudalie hotel on the Château Smith Haut Lafitte estate in Bordeaux.
Into this idyll stepped 29-year-old Rémi Chambard, arriving late last year to take over as head chef of the restaurant Le Corot (third picture), as well as overseeing the Café des Artistes and the outdoor hotspot Les Paillotes. Having toiled in the great and good of France’s kitchens, including the Grand Hôtel du Cap-Ferrat, he worked his way up the culinary hierarchy, and his last position was as sous chef of Les Sources de Caudalie before he took this, his first chef’s role.
Chambard is both talented and passionate. His menus brim with zesty exuberance, and even the way he moves indicates that he is a man on a mission. His dishes are confident, and while the selection may be limited, the presentation and taste hit exactly the right notes, straight from the amuse-bouche of fresh pea soup topped with a goat’s cheese froth. I chose his signature dish: smoked salmon and caviar of Aquitaine (second picture), which arrived as moist cubes of salmon supporting quails’ egg yolks and caviar. The flavours were sensational and intense (compliments that do not come easily – me being half Polish and dubious of the French ability to make either caviar or vodka). Next up was a fillet of John Dory, pan fried, crisp and partnered with earthy artichokes and creamy potatoes. It was excellent, as was the Larredya Jurançon Sec that the sommelier paired it with.
With the warm night breeze from the flower-filled garden coming in through the open doors, large reproductions of Corot paintings hanging around us on the walls, and food and wine of such magnificence, I really understood how Les Etangs de Corot inspired those 19th-century artists. Its charm most definitely remains for the 21st-century visitor.