Going to the source of Julia’s 1948 inspiration
Sole meuniere is still ‘a morsel of perfection’
ROUEN, France - Dining at the restaurant that introduced the late Julia Child to French cuisine feels a little like striking a match on the site where humans discovered fire. I only feared that the flame might fizzle. After all, it had been more than 60 years (Wednesday, Nov. 3, 1948) since Julia dined at La Couronne as she and her husband, Paul, drove from the ferry landing in Le Havre to his posting at the American embassy in Paris. In “My Life in France,’’ she describes the experience as “the most exciting meal of my life.’’ You can see Meryl Streep and Stanley Tucci, playing the Childs, savoring this lunch in the movie “Julie & Julia.’’
That’s a lot to live up to.
La Couronne sits on Old Market Square in Rouen, a stone’s throw from the spot where Joan of Arc was burned at the stake in 1431. Founded in 1345 as an inn, it is billed by the current owners as the oldest auberge in France. Maybe I shouldn’t have worried whether a dining room well into its seventh century could have somehow gone downhill in the last six decades. It certainly looks timeless: a quarter-timbered building holding a clutch of small dining rooms where Art Nouveau touches lighten the Norman country decor.
The food is equally timeless northern French cooking. Just as Julia let her more worldly husband order for them in 1948, I let Paul order for me in 2009. The same dishes they ate in 1948 are still available; in September the restaurant even offered them as a “Menu Julia Child’’ ($95 plus wine) to celebrate the opening of “Julie & Julia’’ at the American Film Festival in nearby Deauville. I place my order for six oysters, sole meuniere, green salad, fromage blanc with berries, and coffee, accompanied by a half bottle of Pouilly Fume. My waiter nods. “Le Menu Julia Child,’’ he says with apparent approval. “Merci.’’
Minutes later he returns with Brittany oysters: six perfect, large, plump specimens presented on a bed of ice with a plate of rye bread and a small pitcher of onion-steeped vinegar. As I pause between oysters to savor the clean salinity, the proprietor, Madame Darwin Cauvin, comes over to ask if I am from England. Cambridge, Massachusetts, I tell her. “Ah! Like Julia Child!’’ she exclaims. Since the movie was released, she says, a stream of Americans and Brits have come looking to replicate The French Chef’s gastronomic epiphany.
The test is Dover sole, a fish we rarely see on this side of the Atlantic. The waiter brings the whole fish on a presentation platter, perfectly browned, its butter sauce still sputtering. I approve and he whisks it to a side table to bone it, presenting me with four perfect fillets in less than a minute. As he wishes me “Bon appetit!’’ I can almost hear Julia’s signature falsetto.
Something about La Couronne’s sole must bring out the same response in every diner. Like Julia, I first close my eyes to savor the aromas, then open them to take a tentative bite, chewing slowly, and enjoying the mild salty fish and lemony sauce. It’s a little like eating hot buttered ocean, one small, toothy bite at a time. In her book, Julia calls it “a morsel of perfection.’’ I wouldn’t argue.
After the sole, the green salad with a lightly acidic vinaigrette is almost anticlimactic, though it does clear the palate for the subtle fromage blanc (like a cross between tangy yogurt and sour cream) with fall berries. Black coffee and crisp little tuiles are a perfect finish.
One great lunch in 1948 inspired a grand career. You can see how.
La Couronne, 31 Place du Vieux Marche, Rouen, France, 011-33-02-3571-4090, www.lacourronne.com.fr.