Young, hopeful and totally carefree is how we felt as we zipped down the A6 towards the vineyards of the Côte-d’Or in our Burgundy-red Fiat 500. A cherished friend I had not seen for 3 years at the wheel, cool and at ease, and surprisingly so for a person who had not driven stick for nearly a decade. As we sliced through the heartland of France, blasting Bonnie Tyler and Lana, we excitedly spoke of what was to come ahead: the wines, the food, the food and wines at Ma Cuisine. That evening, after a day spent visiting the most famous vineyards on the planet, we found ourselves walking the streets of Beaune, freshly showered and more than ready for dinner at this Burgundy landmark.
“Ma Cuisine” had been the unanimous answer to our queries to wine-loving colleagues and friends about where to eat in Beaune. “Quelle belle adresse!” came the exclamations from the locals we had met along the way each time we brought up our reservation. Having both started following their Instagram account weeks before our trip, we ogled their obscene bottle shots, buxom Grands Crus lined up alongside some of the best wines from across France. Their stories made us dream. But as we approached the restaurant, tucked away in the quiet cobbled alley Passage Ste-Hélène (just off Place Carnot), the place looked calm, modest and unassuming, with none of the outright extravagance we had expected.
It was only a while after, as we peeked up from their gigantesque wine bible to watch other guests gradually trickling in, that we began to pick up what this place was putting down. The vibes. A most discreet decadence, a confidence wrapped in modesty, which begins to peel back as bottles are opened. The no-decor decor is humble enough. Seven or eight undressed tables, dim lighting, a cash register hidden behind wine crates and large bottles of Chartreuse. Empty bottles arranged in pyramids here and there, a few vintage Larousse-type lithographs of wine and wine posters hung up on the wall. A chalk menu, which looks harmless enough but which, upon closer inspection, reveals the prices of a serious establishment. But the food, the wines, the people and their overheard conversations make clear that humble does not equal ordinary.
We were the first to arrive at and the last to leave at Ma Cuisine that evening. During the 4 hours we spent there, we took selfies with an American wine influencer and tried Marc de Bourgogne with a friendly Chinese DipSet and her husband. We shared a glass of our Cécile Tremblay with an Italian sommelier (65K followers), had our nationalities guessed by a table of Norwegian gentlemen on their university reunion trip, and got ourselves invited on a tour of Meursault by a local wine buyer. We had our desperate appeals to see his 20,000 bottle wine cave firmly rejected by the restaurant’s charismatic owner Pierre Escoffier (no relation to Auguste). Pierre is a man with a kind of presence that is reserved only for those who can say they have fed some of the most important people in the world of wine. All roads to Burgundy lead to Ma Cuisine, after all. He is also a man with particular taste. He has no Chablis on the menu, but he has a vertical of Yquem stretching back to the 1924 vintage. He insists that ris de veau should not be soaked in milk but cooked immediately and “just once,” whatever that means. He does not appreciate last minute cancellations or tardiness.
That meal at Ma Cuisine turned out to be one of the most memorable experiences of our Burgundy trip, as formative for our impression of the region as our drive down the Route des Grands Crus. What we drank was a bottle of 2018 Alain Hudelot Noellat Chambolle-Musigny, followed by a bottle of 2015 La Croix Blanche from Cecile Tremblay (at least those were the bottles we ordered). And here is what we ate.
First, a half-dozen escargots, drowned in a butter flavored with plenty of garlic, parsley and shallot. The de-shelled little clumps of snail meat were plump and tender, easy to scoop out of the porcelain wells, with a very delicate mushroomy earthiness blending with all that garlic in the sauce. Plenty of leftover parsley butter to soak up with the fresh bread on the side, though we made an effort to resist and leave space for what was to come.
Next came a rustic compote de lapin (rabbit) flavored with tarragon and served with toasted bread and a well-dressed salad garnish. The succulent slivers of meat were perfectly cooked and bound together, flavored just enough to make the mild natural flavor of the rabbit pop.
Ah oeufs en meurette… If there is one quintessentially Burgundian dish that I would happily accept to eat every day it would be these buxom beauties, these eggs poached to perfection in red wine and served in a voluptuous meurette sauce made with the same red wine, some bacon, some onion and mushrooms. I stumbled across a description of this dish in a Burgundy guide years ago when I first moved to France to study wine and had been patiently waiting for an opportunity to try it, but only in this part of the country. It turned out to be everything I had wanted and more.
This version at Ma Cuisine was a refreshingly rustic yet expertly executed classic version of a dish that can range from super simple to quite elaborate in its preparation and presentation. The eggs were absolutely perfect, the frothy cloud of wine-stained whites yielding so easily to my knife, pouring forth a plush wave of golden yolk which mixed lazily with the surrounding sauce, thickening it even further, adding even more richesse to an already very rich base. The salty, porcine zest of the bacon contrasted beautifully with the feint sweetness of the reduced wine, adding bits of chewy, solid texture here and there, along with the gummy mushroom. And as always with this dish, some crunchy bread on the side to sop up all that delicious sauce.
It would be a grave mistake to dine at Ma Cuisine and not order the ris de veau (veal sweetbreads). These decadent globs of gland meat sport an enviably tan, caramelized crust, while the inside is creamy yet firm with a very mild offal flavor. Three generously sized ris were served with a creamy potato purée, some sliced scallions and a foam whose delicate vanilla (?) flavor was a bit overpowered by the smoky charred exterior of the sweetbreads. Divine, though I was missing a touch of acidity to curb the richness of the ‘breads. Maybe that’s just because I first learned to love this dish in Argentina, where it is always sprinkled with fresh lemon juice.
And finally, the pigeon entier rôti, a whole partially deboned squab pigeon which is roasted to a perfectly pink rare and served in its own unctuous red wine jus, some roasted potatoes and wilted spinach. The glazed, caramelized skin stuck to my fingers as I picked up one of the legs and to my lips as I pulled the deliciously chewy yet tender meat off the bone. A pigeon dish so deceptively simple in its presentation but, again, perfectly executed.