Though it’s still sort of an under-the-radar destination for food lovers, Lille is coming on strong as a prosperous, innovative city that’s squarely at the heart of the London-Brussels-Paris triangle and a terrific weekend destination or stop-over for anyone driving from the UK to other European destinations.
Just ten minutes from both of the city’s train stations, the well-heeled Lillois suburb of Lambersart has become the talk of the region ever since Calais native chef Ismaël Guerre-Genton, 30, opened his restaurant Empreinte here in a 1930s-vintage villa a little over a year ago. Having heard a lot about this place, I recently broke a trip from Paris to London for lunch here, and suffice it to say that I made a very wise decision: this was one of the best meals I’ve eaten in France for some time.
Stepping inside the sunlight-flooded dining room with metal shoe-box-sized lights overhead in leather cradles, wooden tables with custom-made wrought-iron legs, and big picture windows, the welcome was warm from the young staff and Guerre-Genton’s wife, Inès. The couple met in Megève in the French Alps. Ismaël was working at the superb restaurant Les Flocons de Sel, one of those rare Michelin three-star restaurants that are actually worth the serious wound to your wallet. After a stint in Lyon, they came to the département of Nord, because they thought there would be more opportunity here for an ambitious young chef striking out on his own, and also because the area has exceptionally good produce.
During the course of the €54 lunch menu, Guerre-Genton’s intriguing style revealed itself. He’s fascinated by contrasting tastes and textures, loves the bitter spectrum of the palate and the taste of smoke, and designs his menus like a jazz player, so that a brutal-looking dish like roasted, unpeeled salsify with a grainy garnish of dark-beer-spiked praline and squares of smoked eel is followed by gentler ones, like an exquisitely delicate rolled soufflé of fillet of sole and then a plump langoustine in a pool of ruddy bouillon made from langoustine heads, with garnishes of turmeric-braised potato and seared onion with trout eggs. The last savoury dish was a tartare of wild duck in a deeply reduced meat sauce under a thatch of finely grated beets; a superbly earthy but delicate dish.
Service throughout the meal was charming, and they also pour an excellent selection of wines by the glass. Empreinte is a restaurant that’s supremely worth going out of your way for during a visit to Lille, and also if you’re passing through the region. I expect it will win a Michelin star in the very near future.
170 avenue de l’Hippodrome, Lambersart. Tel. +33 (0)3 20 44 00 21. Lunch menus: 2 courses €26, 3 courses €31, 5 courses €54, 7 courses €69. Dinner menus: 3 courses €39, 5 courses €54, 7 courses €69. www.empreinterestaurant.com
From France Today magazine