Intelligent Modern in Burgundy

Chassagne-Montrachet, France --- The idea seems so obvious, it’s amazing that more people don’t pick up on it. Take a group of winemakers without a showcase for their wines or a fine place to entertain clients. Add a young, talented and ambitious chef without deep pockets. Put them together and you have an instant success in the name of Le Chassagne, a lively, up and coming restaurant in the center of a brand name Burgundian village.

This is not the last time you will hear the name Stephane Leger, the extremely smooth, sure-footed chef at Le Chassagne. Photo of Stephane Leger at Le Chassagene restaurantThe 34-year-old native of the Jura grew up in a family that revered food and wine. But thankfully, Leger takes Burgundian cuisine beyond the strangling tradition of snails, coq au vin, and rich red wine sauces. He loves fish and shellfish and honors them beautifully. He considers his good classic French but I’d call it Intelligent Modern. With a menu that is sprinkled with sweet and meaty Brittany langoustines teamed up with crunchy touches of citrus, wild turbot cooked on the bone, a wide array of game specialties, and the irresistible plump Bresse poultry paired with fragrant morel mushrooms, this is food you want to embrace, wrap your arms around, rejoice.

I can still taste his delicious risotto, bathed in a blend of basil oil and a touch of golden, flowery saffron, and fine, fresh Saint Pierre from Brittany’s waters. Equally adept was his pairing plump and rare Belon oysters with my favored langoustines, a dish that shows up his talents: Leger ekes out brilliant, fresh, intense flavors that make us sit up and take notice. Like many other dishes on his menu, this dish makes you aware of flavors that are clean, clear, concise and close to the earth.

The food is copious and varied without being cumbersome, and our lunch included a rich pumpkin soup (just a few sips, to entice you and put you in the mood) as well as a tomato gaspacho laced with rich shellfish essence.

And the wines are, well, about as classy as they come. Chassagne-Montrachet, especially the whites, are among my favorite wines. Burgundy unquestionably produces the world’s best chardonnays, and here the expression of soil, sun, a delicate balance of fruit, acid and gentle tannins make the wines exceptionally food friendly. You almost want to curl up by the fire with their wine list, sipping as you peruse the treasures: There are more than a dozen white Chassagne-Montrachet priced from 49 to 63 euros, representing the best winemakers of the region. We feasted on Bernard Morey’s 1997 Chassagne Montrachet Les Caillerets (55 €), an exquisite, refined, intensely pleasurable wine, one that was beautifully balanced and more than at home with Leger’s carefully constructed cuisine.

We are in cheese land and Le Chassagne does not let cheese lover’s down: Try the ripe, earthy full-flavored Soumaintrain, the rare Aisy Cendre (the only cheese that is coated with true cinders from local vine clippings) and an abundance of light local goat’s cheese. Just as appealing is the warm Epoisses served with a salad of lamb’s lettuce tossed with fragrant walnut oil.

For dessert, don’t pass up the seared, grilled fresh pineapple escorted by a fragrant vanilla sorbet and a tiny glass of coconut milk.

A young, energetic staff that is well-informed and clearly dedicated to their work, and a lively clientele that clearly are having a good time makes the meal that much more pleasurable.

Energy and commitment can also be found not far away in the charming city of Beaune, in the name of the highly successful wine bar and restaurant Ma Cuisine, run by Fabienne and Pierre Escoffier and their son, Photo of the Escoffier's at Ma Cuisine restaurant Romain. You feel instantly at home in the crowded little spot off the beautiful passage in the center of town.

The food here is simple and family-like, with abundant portions of mussels in cream; a delicious version of parsleyed ham (jambon persillé) served with a green salad; meaty skate (raie) teamed up with an abundance of capers; and a fine rendition of ratatouille, served warm and topped with grilled sardines. Burgundian wines, of course, are the foundation of the wine list here, and I can still taste the smooth and elegant, long-lived red Pommard from the hands of Hubert de Montille (Les Pezerolles 1997) as well as the owner’s finely recommended, blackberry-scented Morey Saint Denis 1999 from the trusted Domaine Henri Perrot Minot.

While wandering the streets of Beaune, make sure to stop in at Jean-Luc Girard’s lovely shop offering fine kitchen antiques (everything from canning jars to baskets, old kitchen cutting boards to old work tables) as well as Michel Graglia’s poster shop, Graglia, offering an abundance of vintage posters, many focusing on food and wine.

Le Chassagne
4, impasse de Chenevottes
21190 Chassagne-Montrachet
Telephone: 03 80 21 94 94
Fax: 03 80 21 97 77

All major credit cards. Menus at 28, 39, and 59 €. A la carte, 65 to 135 €, including service but not wine.

Restaurant Cave Ma Cuisine
Cave Sainte Helene
Passage Sainte-Helene
21200 Beaune
Telephone: 03 80 22 30 22
Fax: 03 80 24 99 79

Closed Wednesday, Saturday, Sunday, August, and school holidays. A la carte, 35 to 40 euros, including service but not wine.

Quatre Faubourg
Jean-Luc Girard
4 rue du Faubourg Bretonniere
21200 Beaune
Telephone: 03 80 22 96 18.

Michel Graglia
21 rue Maufoux
21200 Beaune
Telephone/Fax: 03 80 22 23 50.