With its magnificent cathedral, charming markets, and intriguing hortillonnages – small vegetable farms on the banks of the Somme River, from which farmers bring produce to town in flat-bottomed punts, Amiens isn’t only a perfect place to break a car journey between northern Europe and sunnier points south, but also a charming overnight weekend destination from Paris.
If the best place to stay is the delightful Hôtel Marotte, then the restaurant not to miss is chef Frédéric Barette’s excellent new place in the heart of town, Les Orfèvres, sited just steps from the cathedral. Barette, a native of northern France, most recently worked at Les Coulisses Vintage in Paris, but decided to return to his native Picardy and open his own restaurant, because “the produce in northern France is really excellent, and there’s such a good quality of life in this region.”
The amiable Barette and his wife, who runs the dining room, freshened up the premises of a spacious restaurant with a white-painted, beamed ceiling near the cathedral, utilising contemporary art and improving the lighting. Les Orfèvres opened to enthusiastic local reviews last September. “As I expected, the Amienois love good food, so it’s been a real pleasure to build my network of local suppliers,” says Barette. “We get superb seafood from Boulogne-sur-Mer, one of the biggest fishing ports in France, and my fowl, most of my vegetables, and my cheeses are almost exclusively from the north of France.
“It’s been interesting to see the reaction of my foreign clientele, too. Since few foreigners know the gastronomy of northern France, they’re happily surprised to discover local dishes like the grilled scallops with asparagus and roasted tomato chutney and wild garlic, which is a starter on the current menu.”
Arriving for dinner on a recent spring night, we chose the ‘Carte Blanche’ tasting menu as the best way of discovering Barette’s cuisine, and enjoyed a superb meal that was indeed full of surprises. The roasted tomato chutney that Barette makes himself was a hauntingly good garnish to plump just-off-the-boat scallops and another starter, langoustines roasted in their shells with a luscious civet of sea urchin ‘tongues’ and baby onions cooked in a langoustine jus. After these first courses, it was immediately apparent to me that Barette, always a powerfully talented chef, had experienced a real transformation now he’s in his own kitchen and that he’s well on the way to becoming a truly great chef.
Next, a dish that was one of the best edible expressions of springtime I’ve ever had, sea bream with a foamy chive sauce and a sauté of asparagus, baby peas and fava beans. Then came a juicy loin of Provençale lamb with a vivid green crust of herbs, including wild garlic, parsley and thyme. Both dishes displayed the chef’s impressive technical skills and his creativity.
After a pungent little serving of runny, raw-milk maroilles, one of my favourite cheeses, a preference I share with a spate of Gallic kings – including Philip II, Louis IX, Charles IV, and Francis I – which is a star of northern French cheese-making, we finished up with a beautifully made soufflé.
Suffice to say, I’ll never find myself anywhere near Amiens again in the near future without having made a reservation at this truly excellent restaurant.
Les Orfèvres, 14 Rue des Orfèvres, Amiens. Tel: +33 3 22 92 36 01. Prix-fixe menus €31-€58.
From France Today magazine