A project from the architects and designers Patrick Jouin and Sanjit Manku, Fontevraud Le Restaurant is one of the finest restaurants in the West.
In Fontevraud, near Saumur (Maine-et-Loire region), visitors are treated to a visual experience as soon as they enter the buildings of the village’s former royal abbey, with statues still on display of Eleanor of Aquitaine and her son King Richard the Lionheart at rest. The hotel is situated in the heart of the priory, set back a little. It has been here since the 1980s and was renovated in 2014 by the architects and interior designers Patrick Jouin and Sanjit Manku. Following its transformation, the hotel now accommodates 54 rooms with an understated, slightly austere feel that is perfectly in keeping with the surroundings. Just next door, the priory cloister now acts as the main eating area for the abbey’s restaurant, which is headed up by young chef Thibaut Ruggeri. The architects have played on the theme of transparency with an arrangement of free-standing glass walls, while a herb garden resides in the centre of the former cloisters and provides the main focal point for guests, both in the evening over dinner and in the morning at breakfast. This means that half of the cloister has rediscovered its original vocation, a place to wander around, while the other half is taken up by the restaurant.
Spread over two areas, the 88-cover restaurant extends into the chapter house. The understated, contemporary furniture is for the most-part custom-made in keeping with Patrick Jouin’s term “monk technology”, i.e. local savoir-faire, natural raw materials, and a collaboration between joiners, carpenters and ceramists. In the image of the monks who inhabited this abbey, the sophisticated sobriety and asceticism of the place bring reflection and spirituality to the forefront of the mind. The fabric and leather seats atop the stone benches of the chapter house attest to this. Highly contemporary wooden lights hang from the ceiling to correct the somewhat wayward acoustics in a place marked by the fact that its role was once to cultivate resonance by its very definition.
Thibaut Ruggeri, with a Bocuse d’Or and one Michelin star to his name, offers dishes in perfect keeping with the site – refined, graphic in their presentation, unadorned, and stripped of the superfluous. There is a choice of four set menus and a ‘Pierrot’ menu designed for children. On arrival guests receive a welcome drink of sparkling wine from the Loire, a special cuvée from the abbey itself. It’s a promising start. Next comes the first surprise for guests, as they find themselves face to face with an upturned bowl, testimony of a time when Fontevraud’s abbesses and nuns would start their frugal meals with a piece of hard bread dipped in clear soup. Now guests are served a beetroot velouté accompanied by a crusty biscuit or cracker, reminiscent of monastic bread. The bowl has been sculpted by ceramist Charles Hair (Thizay, Indre-et-Loire region). All of the tableware by this local artist from Fontevraud shows the same willingness for a pared back finish. It is a joy to behold, as is the presentation of the dishes, which is always very understated. In the peaceful setting of the cloister, which does away with the sometimes rather excessive display of Michelin stars, we are very impressed by the dishes on offer here, with their clean lines and pastel tones, sometimes embellished by an extra detail (a flower, a touch of gravy…). Thibaut Ruggeri works on the local land (poultry from Racan, pigeon from Anjou, etc.) and has a vegetable garden at his disposal within the abbey walls, of which he uses almost all the produce as well as the herbs.
Among its offerings, which change with every ‘new moon’, include an amuse-bouche of madeleines with honey from the abbey, seasoned with sage – a ‘herb’ from the garden – as well as fine toast sprinkled with fennel seeds on a consommé of Jerusalem artichokes, flavoured with helianthus, a pea mousse and butternut squash. On occasion guests at Fontevraud can also find his signature dish, Paris mushrooms, on the menu, a duxelle of mushrooms sourced from the local troglodyte caves; wrapped in a fine stuffing of guinea fowl and fois gras, a coffee sabayon, and a few more mushrooms, this time served in vinegar and rose. The entire dish comes melted, eliminating the spongy texture that both white and grey mushrooms can sometimes have if they are badly cooked. The Maine d’Anjou pigeon is cooked in two stages, using two different methods; first, at a low temperature for creaminess, then grilled for crispiness. Delightful textures that tantalise the taste buds. The purée of carrots from the vegetable garden is seasoned with rosemary, the spatchcock pigeon wrapped in a leaf of spinach. We also enjoy the saddle of wild boar, with the strong flavour of butternut squash and chestnut cream, accompanied by a meat jus that is both concentrated and refined, pre-dating the “vegetable garden revolution” as a dish which pays tribute to the abbey’s crops. This beautifully prepared saddle of wild boar will stay in our memories for a long time. The only disappointment was the dessert (apple, sage and almond ice cream), which was a bit bland and lacked length on the palate. At nightfall, after dinner, guests staying in adjoining rooms have a rare privilege: until late into the night, they are free to wander around most of the abbey’s rooms on their own, among the works of Claude Lévêque and the temporary installations. A truly unforgettable experience, as is Thibaut Ruggeri’s restaurant.