On my first trip to France over 13 years ago, the first French meal I had was actually in a modern art museum in St. Etienne - Le Restaurant du Musée. When we were over in France visiting one of our factories earlier this year, we were treated to a return visit at Le Restaurant du Musée. It brought back a lot of memories of my first trip to France and I was happy that we were going back on this visit.
Le Musée d'Art Moderne et Contemporain - the Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art - opened in St. Etienne in 1987. Initially, it was part of an industrial museum that also had a wing devoted to museum artifacts from the mining industry in the St. Etienne region. St. Etienne is a highly industrialized city - there are over 400 manufacturing facilities in the city of 175,000 people - and it was the center of French arms and ammunition industries that date back to the 16th century, mainly due to its close proximity to metal mines in the mountainous region surround the city to the south and west. (As an aside, St. Etienne is also an international "sister city" to Des Moines, IA.)
The museum houses over 19,000 pieces of art, many of them contemporary pieces, but they also have some ancient pieces of art, as well. There are works of art from Claude Monet, Pablo Picasso and surrealist Victor Brauner. Many of the more well-known works of art are regularly loaned out to other museums. I've been to the restaurant twice now without going into the museum, itself.
Le Restaurant du Musée features an ever changing menu of fresh and seasonal items. Chef Stepháne Laurier mirrors the spirit of the museum by offering a contemporary mix of farm fresh items, fresh baked breads, and light lunch meals. (Le Restaurant du Musée is open only for lunch to the public with evening dining for groups by appointment only.)
The entrance to the restaurant is to the right as you walk into the main entrance to the museum. As you can see from the picture at the top of the post, the entrance to the restaurant is pretty subdued. There's a couple doors with portal windows and a small sign with the restaurant's name on the wall.
Inside the restaurant, the lunch time crowd was in full force with the restaurant nearly full. Our hosts had made previous arrangements and we were seated in a smaller room off to the side where tables were set up for larger groups. The main dining room featured a small bar with contemporary tables and chairs throughout the room. Contemporary paintings hung on the walls throughout the main dining area. This was as close as I got to looking at any of the works of art at the museum.
After we were seated, a waiter brought over a chalkboard with the day's menu on it. Our hosts - and my colleague Francôis - were able to translate the menu for us. I was able to pick out "poulet" (chicken), "boeuf" (beef), and "poisson" (fish), as well as "fromage" (cheese), "avocat" (avocado) and "champignons" (mushrooms), but didn't know the accompanying words describing the dishes.
The three course lunch consisted of a salad for starters, a main entree and dessert for a fixed price. Starting out there were two salads - an avocado salad with shrimp and mango slices with greens on the side, and a fresh greens salad with a mushroom purée on the side topped with a cream dressing with bacon bits.
I went out of my comfort zone on the salads and I got the avocado salad. It was cool and creamy with the great avocado taste. It had the consistency of guacamole, but didn't have the guacamole taste. The mangos were fresh, sweet and citrusy. Coupled with the small shrimp on the plate, the avocado and mangos went well with them.
My colleague Matt got the salad with the mushroom purée and the way he raved about it, I was sort of unhappy I didn't get that salad instead. But I liked what I got and that was that.
For my main entree, I took the chicken. It was a chicken breast that was cut and rolled around a filling of prosciutto and Fontana cheese. The chicken was on a bed of stewed mixed vegetables. The chicken was fine - it was a good hearty meal for a lunch.
The other entrees included torbet - a flat fish that is found in the Mediterranean Sea just three hours south of St. Etienne. I don't think anyone got the torbet, but the other entree was a locally raised chunk of beef that was resting on a bed of mashed potatoes and the same stewed mixed vegetables that I had with my chicken. More than half the table got the beef entree and all seemed to like it.
For dessert, the choices were a pomegranate puree with a side of sorbet, a cheese plate or a strawberry cake. I went with the pomegranate and sorbet - and I'm glad I did. The taste was simply outstanding. This, alone, was worth the whole price of admission. The puree was sweet, tart and refreshing. Taking a small bite of the sorbet after a spoonful of the pomegranate puree helped cleanse the palate for the next bite. The taste just exploded on the tongue. The avocado salad was refreshing in taste, the chicken was more neutral and comforting, but the pomegranate puree was a "wowzer!" I'm big on creme brulée when I go to France, but this beat any creme brulée I've ever had in all my travels to France.
It's sort of interesting to eat in a museum and Le Restaurant du Musée is a special place for me as it was the place for my first French meal on my first trip to the country nearly 14 years go. While I don't remember much about the first meal I had, this meal will be long remembered for the pomegranate purée dessert. The chicken entree I had was fine and interesting, while the avocado salad was a nice start to the meal. Maybe on one of my future trips to the factory in St. Etienne we'll be able to have lunch here again and then linger in the museum to see some works of art and to walk off the hearty meals they serve in the restaurant.