One of my favourite things to do in the lead up to a holiday is to scour the internet for tips and leads on interesting dining experiences, and then getting all the leads together and creating a schedule of places to check out. For the Busselton to Margaret River leg of our holiday through the South West, many of our meals were planned and booked months ahead, however as Alissa and I were staying with her parents for a whole week in Denmark, we decided to keep our schedule a bit more loose and adaptable. Using Denmark as our base, Alissa and I headed out to Albany for a day trip to visit the National Anzac Centre, have dinner at Joop Thai and try out Gourmandise and Co - a 'place for a good coffee and a simple lunch' recommended to us by Chris Zalokar after our excellent dinner at Foragers in Pemberton.
Gourmandise and Co are a French produce delicatessen, wood fire bakery and cafe run by Normandy born chef Xavier Poupel and his wife Janette Judge-Poupel, serving up casual but authentic French breakfasts, lunches and baked goods. A friend of ours who lives in Albany referred to Poupel as 'the chef of kings'. As a baker herself, I took this to be simply ecstatic hyperbole. But no - the Escoffier-trained Poupel has literally been a chef of kings, having cooked for the King of Saudi Arabia, the King and Queen of Jordan, the Sultan of Brunei and Prince Charles! It might seem odd that a chef with as impressive a resume would be running a relatively simple cafe, however given Poupel's stated passion for 'Provincial-style cuisine or Peasant Food', the shifting of gears is not all that surprising.
A long communal table seemingly made from a single piece of wood serves as the centrepiece of the cafe's main dining space. It works to emphasise the down to earth nature of the food served, with some bar stools along the edges and outdoor tables for additional options at peak times. This place can get quite busy; Alissa and I arrived just as lunch service was beginning at 11:30am and some of the lunch options were sold out within the half hour!
With a rotating Plat du Jour menu, it a bit of a luck of the draw as to what is on offer when you visit. I've seen photos online of Nettle Soup, Cassoulet and Beef Daube that look absolutely tantalising, however none of these were available on the day we visited. One of the dishes that was on offer was Normandie-style Escargot with Garlic, Herbs and Butter. The waitress informed us that the snails used in the dish were the 'proper, large French ones', by which I believe she meant they were the larger Helix Pomatia rather than Helix Aspersa - the more common garden snail variety more often seen in Australia. Lucky for us then, as these snail were incredible succulent, tender and juicy, bathed in pools of garlic and herb butter. Using the fresh bread to scoop out the snail and the butter, this was a simple but extraordinarily decadent dish, and one that brought back fond memories of eating Butter Pepper Garlic Prawns at Trishna in Mumbai. Given the usual squeamishness people have when you mention Escargot, it was surprising to see how popular this dish was with customers.
Not on the Plat du Jour menu but available from the display cabinet was a Salmon and Broad Bean Tart. Prebaked earlier in the day, tarts can sometimes be highly unforgiving when reheated. Not so in this instance; the lovely, crumbly texture of short crust was perfectly executed, and we loved the meaty flavour of Broad Beans in combination with the fishy, salty flavour of the Salmon.
Our other Plat du Jour order was Croque Monsieur - the classic French grilled ham and cheese sandwich. I'm a tough critic of sandwiches as there is usually very little skill involved in making them, however this was a truly artisanal sandwich - easily the best non banh mi sandwich we've had since the addictive ham and cheese sandwiches Alissa and I ate at the Metropole Hotel in Hanoi.
The bread was made in house, and had been obviously buttered on the outside, with what seemed like parmesan grilled into the outside for an intensely flavoured crust. The gruyere and ham within were of an excellent quality, and the ratios of these fillings to bread was spot on for an unctuous, crunchy and umami-rich experience. Drizzled with a bit of reduced balsamic for a treacly hit of sweet acidity, this was a toasted sandwich done the right way - not a healthy way, mind you, but definitely the right way.
Accompanying the sandwich were an Olive Tapenade, Side Salad and pickled Cornichons. The Tapenade was really good, and its salty, bitter flavour was nice to dip into, while the cornichons provided a nice sour crunch. The Tomato, Lettuce and Radicchio Side Salad was simple but effective, providing some fresh, leafy healthiness to contrast against the highly caloric Croque Monsieur.
Although she ordered it for herself, Alissa graciously shared her Escargot Scroll with me as our dessert. I'm glad that she did, as this was the best Escargot that I've had. Having never been to Europe, my threshold for pastry excellence is probably not has high as Alissa's, however she went as far as to say; 'I ate some pretty great things in Paris, but this was just as good'. Made with imported French Flour so that the dough act as exactly as it would in France, the pastry was just incredible; it was not overly sweet but not bland either, and had a lovely flaky exterior accompanied by an impossibly soft, fluffy and buttery interior.
Before settling the bill, we thanked Xavier Poupel for the delicious meal, and bought a selection of mini pastries to take back to share with Alissa's parents. While still nice, these were simply not as good to eat the next day, and I would suggest getting them hot and fresh out the Gourmandise kitchen is the best way to enjoy these sweet treats.
The Verdict: Excellent
Needless to say, Alissa and I were thoroughly satisfied with our lunch at Gourmandise & Co. Although Chris Zalokar was right when he referred to Gourmandise as a 'place for a good coffee and a simple lunch' it was also a bit of an undersell. What we ate could hardly be mistaken for Haute Cuisine of course, but there was an attention to detail and a concerted effort to do things the right way that you so rarely see in casual cafe-level establishments. This is what made what could have been a lowly ham and cheese toastie a great Croque Monsieur, an Escargot Scroll as good as something you'd find in France and the Normandie-style Escargot so delicious that I can still vividly remember how it tasted weeks after our meal. Albany has been a bit of a culinary black hole for us during previous visits, but we are glad to say we found a real gem in Gourmandise & Co. Definitely worth repeated visits.