A little pomp, a little pretense, but mostly lots of good old-fashioned French country fare
By Julia Sexton
Food writers love to invent disparaging names for restaurant styles; it makes us feel witty and powerful. We’re the ones who brought you “Haute Barnyard” for farm-to-table restaurants like Blue Hill at Stone Barns. We’re also responsible for “Frog Pond,” a snarky term reserved for the traditional, tie-and-jacket French restaurants that your parents loved (and that you endured). If we were to accept the phrase, La Crémaillère would certainly fit into that category.
Why? It’s a French restaurant in Bedford (one of the toniest corners of the county). And yes, its clientele is fairly mature and certainly (given La Crémaillère’s prices) well-heeled. But there’s something else that’s hinted at in the restaurant’s colorful wall murals. These pastoral images don’t depict Paris or the court at Versaille; they depict the traditional regional dress of French peasants. And La Crémaillère is in a rustic 18th-century building with exposed beams and, in winter, a freezing flagstone floor. The name
La Crémaillère comes from an archaic pot-crane, a sort of iron hanger fitted into the hearth for cooking in cauldrons. The message here is that La Crémaillère serves rustic French food, a cuisine from an old farm-to-table tradition.
At its best, the food at La Crémaillère reminds me of those Michelin Guide “Bib Gourmand” places that you can find all over France. These are good country restaurants, without pretension, serving lovingly prepared regional foods. La Crémaillère’s lunch appetizer of earthy house terrines reminded me of a dish I’d have there; this lusty, chunky country pâté is paired with a silken terrine of foie gras and pistachios. Best of all, the pâtés were accompanied by a tangy celeriac slaw, a perfectly crisp and refreshing foil.
Yet this is no country restaurant. Jackets are required in the dining room, waiters wear formal “monkey jackets,” and the food is brought under domes, or, in the case of the lobster bisque, in soup tureens. The elegant effect of the tureen was spoiled during our lunch when a waiter ladled too speedily and I was splashed with soup. The bisque was worth the dry cleaning, though, this velvety infusion was heady with lobster essence.
Foie gras is an excellent choice at La Crémaillère. At dinner, two of our party opted for the sinful treat, with one version of the Hudson Valley foie gras served cold with goat cheese and the other, seared hot with prune armagnac compote. In the cold dish, the cool liver melted in the mouth like a meaty, grassy pat of butter, while the hot version’s firm and perfectly seared skin yielded to a nearly liquid interior. Both were ideal for foie fiends.
Traditional meat and poultry dishes are the wisest options at La Crémaillère. We loved our organic chicken, whose impossibly crisp, brown skin yielded to succulent and moist flesh. Served with truffled house-made egg noodles and asparagus, the meal was well executed and delicious. My only quibble was that the truffles were completely flavorless—a phenomenon that also occurred in the otherwise delicious foie gras terrine.
We also loved our richly spiced lamb loin with a subtly sweet Banyuls sauce, mashed potatoes, and asparagus. Only a dull veal roulade disappointed with stewy wild mushrooms.
There is a problem at La Crémaillère that became apparent during our dinner: the kitchen consistently overcooks its fish. It started with an appetizer of rubbery shrimp-wrapped bay scallops and continued to a special grouper, whose already firm flesh had become seriously tough with overcooking. Our lobster tail was positively vulcanized. Could it be that this is more policy than mistake? La Crémaillère’s current proprietors have owned the restaurant since the 1960s; I’m betting that they know their customers by now. This mature and somewhat conservative crowd might prefer their fish well done—though no one would have liked the tough grouper or hard lobster.
Our hearts were won back with dessert. La Crémaillère’s ice creams are justifiably famous, available in the restaurant as a “flight” of miniature cones. The other standout was a simple but perfectly executed dish: the best crème brûlée I’ve ever had. It tasted as though a thousand yolks had gone into it, along with the richest, most super-fatted cream (plus the plumpest vanilla beans). The thin but bittersweet crust shattered sharply—this was definitely a dish scraper.
The faults at La Crémaillère are frustrating, because this is a cozy and well-loved restaurant, serving (for the most part) faithful versions of a beautiful cuisine. I’d never call La Crémaillère a “Frog Pond.” The phrase smacks of backlash against literally centuries of French domination in the top echelons of American (and European) cuisine.
Those waspish young foodies should taste French cuisine without all of its attending age, class, and status baggage. Look at it as a trendy ethnic cuisine—like Basque, only more northern.
46 Bedford-Banksville Rd, Bedford
(914) 234-9647; www.creamaillere.com
Hours: lunch Thurs to Fri 12 -2:30 pm; dinner
Tues to Sat 6 -9:30 pm, Sun 1-8 pm
Appetizers: $9.50-$29; entrees: $34-$44; desserts: $10-$12
â˜…â˜…â˜…â˜…—Outstanding â˜…â˜…â˜…—Very Good