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Classic French Food in a Country Setting at La Maison

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La Maison  1470 Old Ridge Road, Coventryville, (484) 680-1193, www.martinskitchen.com.  cuisine: Classic French table d’hôte (preset menu).  cost: Thursday three-course dinner $38, Friday and Saturday multicourse supper $65 (cash only). attire: Respectably casual or comfortably dressy.  atmosphere: A quaint, convivial circa-1717 home.  hours: One 7 p.m. seating Thursday-Saturday.  extras: BYOB, no corkage fee.

Picture leaving thick tangles of development and glaring traffic lights behind as you make your way to the far reaches of the western suburbs. A few miles later, you’re in the quiet village of Coventryville, pulling up to the charming stucco-and-stone abode of chef Martin Gagné and his wife, Janet. 

A candle flickers in a brass lantern near a wooden sign that announces your destination: La Maison, Un Resto des Amis.
It translates to: The Home, A Restaurant of Friends.

Founded in 1717 and listed on the National Register of Historic Places, Coventryville seems centuries removed from today’s world, with its beacon-like church steeple, welcoming porches, and rustic stone walls. You’d be hard-pressed to find another local community so utterly (dare I say) Vermont-like in its picture-postcard peacefulness.

Homemade shortbread and cookies.

Upon entering La Maison, we were enveloped in the competing aromas of baking pastry shells and smoke from the fireplace. Resident canines Hercules and Sadie were the first to greet us. Then Janet approached, smiling, and an aproned Gagné sidled over, looking a little like Doobie Brothers vocalist Michael McDonald with his shag of white hair.

After years of working for others at the Loews Philadelphia Hotel and later at the Inn at Saint Peter’s Village, the classically trained chef soon found himself seeking fulfillment—and a job—during the throes of the recession. One supper served at home for a group of friends quickly turned into another, then another and another. Thus, La Maison was born.

And this really is home. The three down stairs rooms of the Gagnés’ almost-300-year-old residence have been converted into intimate dining spaces. The library has two tables and seating for 12 amid shelves stocked with old cookbooks, and the dining room offers one table for four nestled comfortably by the fireplace. A cozy nook for four in the corner of the kitchen near Gagné’s shiny collection of hanging copper pots, the keeping room provides the perfect vantage point for watching the chef as he readies the night’s meal.

From left: La Maison’ house salad, the cozy dining room, chef Martin Gagné at work, as wife Janet (left) and staffer Cassie Skonieczny look on.

Gagné’s seasonally inspired French-provincial cuisine is served family style. Our starters included a chilled pea soup with fresh mint, accompanied by a Niçoise salad with poached tuna. As for entrées, we enjoyed a delicate halibut fillet topped with salmon mousseline and dill, and creamy risotto studded with asparagus. On a previous visit, it was pork confit with a Périgord sauce and an aromatic salt-cod brandade. Desserts are a well-deserved specialty of the house. How else would you explain Gagné’s decadent pot de crème and scrumptious apricot torte?

Gagne with a feathered friend; La Maison’s charming, low-key sign becons.

As the good word about La Maison spreads further, those 20 seats will continue to be harder to come by, so book well in advance. And lightweights take note: Be prepared for a lot of food and quite a few surprises, as Gagné won’t know what he’s cooking until he sees what the local markets are offering, often on that very day. Provide any dietary restrictions when making reservations. Gagné can easily accommodate vegetarians, but not vegans. 

THE SKINNY: La Maison offers a rare gastronomic experience: a classically prepared, home-cooked French meal in a cozy country setting just close enough for most of us to enjoy.