La Couronne, Rouen
June 24, 2014
A little more than thirty years ago, Linda and I dined at La Couronne, which claims to be the oldest inn in France, dating back to 1345. We sat by an upstairs window looking out on the Place du Vieux Marché, where Joan of Arc had been burned in 1431. We had the specialty of the house, pressed duck, or canard à la rouennaise. It was served with light fresh pommes de terres soufflées and was excellent.
We were not the only ones to have fond memories of La Couronne; in 1948 Julia Child had her first meal in France there; she said of it: “The whole experience was an opening up of the soul and spirit for me. I was hooked, and for life, as it turned out.” Her meal was not the duck, but oysters and sole meunière, which one can still order today as the “Menu Julia Child.”
Pressed duck is not unfamiliar to me. My father, who loved duck hunting, had a duck press and enjoyed preparing it. My brother has the press now and continues the tradition. So when Linda and I returned to Rouen on June 5, 2014, we naturally wanted to try to repeat our experience.
We stayed at the Hôtel Mercure Cathédral, perfectly located next to the cathedral which Claude Monet painted in many different lights.
Its front is undergoing renovation. You can see in the lower left the area hit in the bombing just before D-Day in 1944. It is a miracle that the cathedral was spared as the whole area just south of it towards the river was completely destroyed.
We walked from our hotel past the cathedral down the Rue du Gros-Horloge, under its big clock and reached the Place du Vieux Marché.
But it was not as before. A big, inappropriate modern church had been built in the middle of the square in honor of Joan of Arc. La Couronne’s old facade seemed charmless now, gussied up with flags and signs for tourists.
In the three upper floors there are six rooms for private events. They were all busy that night. We were seated in the ground floor dining room. Things started to look better when we were served glasses of Champagne from the cold magnums of Moët et Chandon in the aperitif cart.
Little feuilletés arrived for munching.
We looked at the menu, but we already knew what we would order, Le veritable canard à la rouennaise à la presse. We selected a bottle of Volnay “Vielles Vignes” from Domaine Rossignol-Février, which was very good.
The amuse-gueule was a little glass of green gazpacho with a beignet on top.
A serving table was brought up next to us. The duck press and serving dishes were put on it.
We may have been the only ones to order the duck that evening. The restaurant doesn’t feature it as it used to. It is a lot of work for the maître d’hôtel, but we did provide some historic culinary theater to the others in our room.
These parts also go into the duck press. The marrow and blood are squeezed out of the carcass. The resulting sauce is enhanced with the cognac marinade and some wine. It is reduced slowly over a burner on the serving table. The breast pieces are reheated in it before serving.
Our first course was
Escalope de Foie Gras de Canard Poêlée
Sauce Pain d’Epices
Sautéed duck foie gras was served with a thick sauce with gingerbread flavors.
And so we were finally served the first half of
Le veritable canard à la rouennaise à la presse
There were no fresh pommes soufflées this time, just potato croquettes and green beans which had been prepared in advance and sat on our plates for a while until the sauced duck was finally served to us. The breast pieces had somewhat congealed during their wait. The flavor of the sauce was okay, although somewhat oversalted.
The second serving of the duck was the grilled legs.
They had been coated in something granular, which did not seem right to us. The little spring roll in the middle was the liver and other innards of the duck in brick and was excellent.
I guess we should have known that La Couronne would not be at all like we remembered it. Of course, it would have been better to have ordered something simpler, like the Julia Child Menu, on this busy night, but that wasn’t why we came, and we didn’t know at the start how overloaded the restaurant would be that night. But I suspect that, even on a quiet night, the duck would not have been as it used to be. Oh, well.