For more than six years, serious foodies have been making their way along the windy country roads of Chester County, PA to Coventryville, a tiny hamlet in this rural area rich in early Americana. Rather than coming to explore historical sites and memorabilia, however, these travelers come to dine at La Maison, the charming 1717 stone and stucco home of Janet and Martin Gagné, where each Friday and Saturday night chef Gagné prepares a stellar seven-course country French dinner. His genial wife, as maîtress d’, greets guests and oversees the family-style service at each table. On Thursdays, a lighter five-course supper is served.
A lantern-lit wooden sign at the entrance reads La Maison, Un Resto des Amis — The Home, a Restaurant of Friends. It is a harbinger of what awaits guests inside: a countrified auberge reminiscent of the best of such welcoming places in France. La Maison offers only one seating at 7 p.m. with a fixed menu. The price is $115, including tax, plus tip, for the full menu. With a total seating capacity of 20 to 24; reservations are a must, as places fill quickly.
Besides offering guests a unique gastronomic experience, La Maison is an uplifting testament to how the Gagnés turned those proverbial lemons into mouthwatering lemonade.
Janet and Martin relocated to Pennsylvania from Atlanta in 2006. Prior to the move, the Chicago-born Gagné had been the opening chef in 37 prestigious restaurants and small luxury hotels in the United States and around the world. Additionally, he was an advisor to Spain’s Minister of Agriculture at the University of Salamanca, in the province of Castile y Léon, and the executive chef at Atlanta’s fabled Hedgerose restaurant that was included on Food and Wine Magazine’s “Best New Restaurant List” in 1998. Other accolades read like a Who’s Who in the world of restaurant reviews, including Café Gamay, a relaxed eatery in the Swissötel-Atlanta, being named the Atlanta Journal Constitution’s “Best Restaurant in Any Class,” in 1991. He is also a member of the prestigious James Beard Foundation and is a sought-after kitchen design consultant.
A Bit Of Background
Soon after arriving up north in 2006, Martin was hired to supervise the meticulous renovation of the dilapidated Inn at Saint Peter’s Village. He became the executive chef and director of operations, and went on to garner many awards for both the food and interiors.
While the chef was clearly well qualified, six years ago he was also out of work, down to his last $350, middle aged, and recovering from a heart attack. He was doubtful of being hired by anyone when providence, in the form of a friend, stepped in and suggested he and Janet create pop up dinners served table d’hôte style in their home to showcase Martin’s talents. Making money from food was something Martin Gagné knew how to do very well.
The idea quickly caught on. People loved feeling as though they were magically transported to a place of elegance and refinement with impeccably-prepared foods coupled with the relaxed intimacy of an inviting private home, and all in under an hour from Philadelphia.
On the first floor of the Gagnés home, there are three intimate dining rooms around the expansive kitchen area. In the corner of the kitchen is an intimate nook in the keeping room with a table for four that offers a ringside view of Gagné’s shining batterie de la cuisine, including an impressive row of shining copper pots hung on a rack above the island, and the activities in finishing and serving each course. A second dining room in front of a Colonial fireplace also has a table for four. Just beyond the kitchen, the library has two tables with a seating capacity for a dozen guests. The shelves are lined with old cookbooks. The atmosphere throughout is embellished by crackling fires in the fireplaces and gentle background music ranging from classical to bluegrass.
The cooking at La Maison is based on the best of what Martin finds in the marketplace each week according to the seasons. Most ingredients are locally-sourced and organically-grown.
According to Martin, “Some of mine and our guests’ favorites include Rabbit Braised in White Burgundy with Wild Mushrooms and Pearl Onions; Porc en Daube with Roasted Peppers and Niçoise Olives; Rack of Lamb Roasted in the Fireplace with a Madagascar Green Peppercorn Sauce; or Cassoulet with Confits of Goose, Duck, Pork and homemade Truffle and Pistachio Sausages with Flageolets and Winter Root Vegetables.” He adds, “They all seem to have developed their own cult following. And, yes, our regular clients do make their special requests.”
Seasonality is central. Summer with her bevy of produce from the nearby fields will bring a velvety smooth Gazpacho Andaluz, an icy cool Cucumber-Dill Soup with a rich, locally-produced Greek yogurt or a Leek (from Kneehigh Farm across the road) Tarte with Valley Milkhouse’s Witchgrass (a creamy, lactic bloom rind cheese dusted with vegetable ash).
Each Wednesday and Friday, the menu is emailed to subscribers from their website (MartinsKitchen.com). You can sign up there to receive the weekly offerings. However, some loyal followers book weeks in advance, or even reserve the entire space, certain they will enjoy whatever the chef chooses to prepare. The evening I was there, a couple had driven 88 miles from New Jersey. They left deliriously happy.
With most of the prep done ahead of time, Martin — with his thatch of shaggy white hair and round professorial glasses — seems well in his element in this kitchen with its rows of gleaming copper pots hanging overhead and multiple platters nearby. A born raconteur, he chats amiably with his guests about cooking techniques or specific ingredients, as he adds finishing touches to platters. There is a lot of oohing and aahing, as each course is presented and tasted.
Creamy saffron-scented mussel soup with garlicky croutons was served to each table in colorful rustic tureens with matching soup bowls. For the velvety risotto, shrimp and watercress were added just at the point when the short-grained rice had finished absorbing the liquid; the heat of the rice then cooked the shellfish until perfectly done. A warm pâté of local duck with Savoy cabbage in the center was encased in pastry and served with Madeira sauce and glazed summer vegetables.
Here again, the chef suggested professional advice about how to prepare the delicious vegetables: cook them in a large sauté pan with a shallow layer of water, seasoned with salt and a generous nob of butter over high heat until they are just cooked through, shaking the pan often then draining off the liquid and adding a generous helping of freshly-chopped herbs.
The trio of local cheeses, including one from Amazing Acres, was complemented by a sliced pear and shaved shallot compote dressed with lemon juice and truffle oil. Dessert lovers were impressed with the classic peach and almond frangipane tart that was seductive but not overly sweet. It was followed by les mignardises (petits fours), those divine little sweets often served at the end of fine French meals, including my personal favorites: nougat and pâte de fruits.
As with all of the courses, portions were overly generous. Guests are encouraged to indulge in whatever size serving they want, with the inevitable leftovers always carefully packed up to take home.
La Maison is BYOB and all payments are in cash. One leaves feeling truly sated after dining in such a gracious environment.