There were chickens clucking in the backyard of La Maison when I arrived at this 300-year-old stone auberge in bucolic Coventryville. A woman on her way to dinner paused outside the front door to inhale the aroma of a pot of herbs.
"Mmmm . . . love lavender!" she said before turning to head inside, where maîtresse d'hotel Janet Gagné welcomed guests with a familial embrace, and her husband, chef Martin Gagné, was busy amid the copper pots and fresh-baked gougères in his converted home kitchen, preparing the evening's multicourse dinner.
"Not dinner!" the chef clarified, peering at me over the tiny round spectacles framed by his mop of silver hair. "We're having a little supper tonight."
Ah, yes, just five courses for Thursday's lighter, soup-centric repast instead of the heartier seven courses of his weekend feasts, beginning promptly for one seating at 7 p.m. I was already hungrily eyeing the flaky leek-and-goat-cheese tarts that were cooling behind him on the kitchen's butcher-block island.
It feels like an idyllic country village getaway, this charming and unusual 24-seat restaurant in northern Chester County, perched on the sloping edge of Old Ridge Road not far from the fishermen casting for trout at dusk in the meandering French Creek and the handful of farms on rolling hills just down the road that, once the season warms, will be supplying Gagné with heirloom vegetables, artisan dairy, and pasture-fed meats.
In many ways, La Maison really is a genuine romantic haven, especially in the colder months, when the fireplaces blaze, bluegrass and classical music float past the hutches filled with glass jars of preserved lemons, and la cuisine du marché - the menus Gagné spontaneously creates each week depending on the weather and his moods - flows forth family-style in terrines to tables of friends and date-night couples in the three cozy dining rooms.
But La Maison is as much an old chef's salvation - and his home - as it is a unique restaurant. Gagné was down to his last $350 in 2011, and not long recovered from a heart attack, when he and Janet decided to try a pop-up feast for neighbors at their home in this historic colonial-era ironworks village.
"Nobody was going to hire a chef in his late 50s," says the Chicago-born Gagné, now 64, who says he has opened 37 restaurants (many of them hotels) over his half-century career. "But selling food for money, that is something I know how to do."
That first meal - at $25 a head - went well. "People just started calling and calling, and suddenly we were booked three months out."
Six thriving years later, with a zoning change to make the BYOB restaurant official and a devoted clientele that keeps him busy the three nights a week he cooks, I can understand why Gagné was reticent (actually downright grumpy) over the news that I'd been for two meals and was planning a review. Didn't I see the proviso tucked at the bottom of La Maison's website that journalists, along with "credit/debit cards or checks" are not accepted? No, actually, I hadn't. Either way, I'm not in the habit of asking for permission to review a restaurant that's open to the paying public.
Plus, Gagné is a chef I've followed since reviewing him at Sole Food in the Loews Philadelphia Hotel, and then at the Inn at St. Peter's Village. This project was considerably different from, and far more personal than, those more corporate and formal settings. And I'd enjoyed my meals, even with the occasional off dish, so it was worthwhile to share the details in this column.
Eating at La Maison is not like going to a normal restaurant. Neither is it for timid or inflexible eaters, given the spontaneous menus. It's more like visiting the home of an eccentric uncle with a fondness for rustic French braising who also likes to blowtorch meringues.
I wish I had lucked out for one of his hearty bourride fish stews brimming with scallops and monkfish. The soups I encountered at my two visits were the least-impressive courses of my meals, as both were essentially variations on thin green cream (one with a few asparagus tips; the other with zucchini and leek) that needed their gougères cheese puffs to add a little substance.
What followed those terrines of soup, however, impressed. At the lighter Thursday meal, a fair value at $42 (including tax), we devoured that flaky tart filled with rounds of leeks that still tasted like onions. A fresh seasonal salad hid real treasure at the bottom of the plate: some sweet peas and chunky potatoes tossed in grain mustard vinaigrette around big chunks of house-cured lardons, the pork-belly cubes still sizzling hot from their buttery pan-crisping.
Golden beets, tart bits of preserved lemon, and Belgian endive bolstered the weekend dinner salad. But the flavors got really serious when a platter arrived with meaty hunks of memorably moist halibut blanketed green with scallions, chives, and the sparks of pink peppercorns over purple mashed potatoes and hollandaise infused with green onions.
And then came a clay pot filled with an ode to early spring: a whole chicken on the bone braised in wine to sublime tenderness, tossed with fistfuls of locally foraged morels, black trumpets, and sweet pearl onions. This is the kind of French home-cooking with soul and good ingredients I would pay for.
For dessert, however, Gagné stepped it up with more restaurant-style drama, blowtorching the fluted peaks of strawberry-flecked meringue that towered over individual lemon tarts, and, better yet, serving a veritable cumulus cloud of vanilla Chantilly beside warm wedges of apricot-pine nut tarts soaked in Cognac and buttercream.
There were little sweets for the finale (pink nougat cubes scented with rosewater and strawberry; chocolate-glazed orange peels), parting hugs from Janet, and - no bill to finish the meal. Just an understanding among guests to leave $90 in cash (plus tip) on the table.
"We're a 'resto des amis,' a restaurant of friends," says Gagné. "And, you know, it's been fun."
Next week, Craig LaBan reviews Dubu in Elkins Park.