Jacques Qualin, with his wife and business partner Leslie Flam, recently opened a restaurant in Stone Ridge called The French Corner. Flam, who manages the restaurant, grew up in New York City. At the age of 28, she gave up a lucrative career in computer science and mathematics to become a Parisian-trained chef. Qualin comes from the Franche-Comté region of southeastern France, in an area known as the Jura Mountains, which lie midway between Burgundy and Switzerland. He has the distinction of being one of the most experienced, highly trained, and accomplished chefs working in the Hudson Valley region. Veteran and highly respected food critic Sheldon Landwehr, writing in Black Tie International, described chef Jacques Qualin as “categorically master of his art.”
Qualin apprenticed at the age of 16 at a cozy auberge in Bussurel. As Qualin's skills developed along with his formal training, Daniel Boulud brought him to New York City on a student visa in 1990 to work as a member of his kitchen staff at Sirio Maccioni’s Le Cirque. Upon his return to France, Qualin worked at such famous three-star Michelin restaurants in Paris as La Tour d’Argent and Taillevent. When working at Taillevent, he met and fell in love with Leslie, who was working nearby in a small Parisian restaurant.
In 1994 they returned to New York City, where Qualin worked at René Pujol, a Theater-District French restaurant. Qualin eventually moved on to cook for two years at Jean-George Vongerichten’s Jo Jo, followed by an additional two years as sous chef at Vongerichten’s flagship restaurant Jean Georges. In 2000, Qualin became the executive chef at Le Périgord, where his revisions of traditional French cooking received rave reviews from New York City’s top food critics. Flam meanwhile found work in some of New York’s top restaurants, including Gramercy Tavern, Café Boulud, and Daniel.
Why did two such individuals, at the top of their profession, working in one of the most status-driven cities in the world and one known for its culinary creativity, give it all up to open a restaurant in Stone Ridge? As they view it, the move allowed them to improve the quality of their lives by having more time to spend with each other and to realize their dream of owning their own restaurant. They wanted to provide high quality French food at moderate prices in a warm, unpretentious atmosphere. They were particularly drawn to the Hudson Valley region, with its dairy herds, fresh farm products, trout streams, rolling hills, and Catskill-size mountain ranges, because it resembled Qualin’s native Jura, a culinary region that inspires his cooking.
Flam and Qaulin purchased a German tavern in Stone Ridge called The Student Prince at the end of April, 2003, began renovations in May, and opened The French Corner on September 25. Upon entering the restaurant on one’s right is a bar accented with white birch logs. Across from the bar the newly designed dining room, which seats 60, has been divided into two softly lit rooms ringed at ceiling level with colorful pottery and cookware from the Alsace and Jura regions of France. The overall space has an uncluttered, restrained, and inviting ambience.
Chef Qualin’s approach to French cooking features his contemporary interpretation of dishes derived from his native Franche-Comté supplemented with local ingredients from Hudson Valley farmers. He transforms classic regional French recipes into lighter, cleaner versions without sacrificing flavor intensity. While he has an aesthetic interest in food presentation, his primary interest, as he put it, “is in the taste on the plate.” According to the chef, his technique and care of preparation remain true to the quality of cooking he did in the city. Only the choice of ingredients has been adjusted to keep the cost of the food down. “We would love to serve caviar, fresh white truffles in the risotto, and other such expensive delicacies. However, we don’t want to be clubby and exclude people.”
His standard appetizers include an array of strikingly colored soups made from purées that use no stock but instead are slightly diluted with water. There is a flaming orange butternut squash soup with wild mushrooms, a lush, piney green watercress soup garnished with a dollop of whipped cream, and a Jerusalem artichoke soup with black truffles which utilizes the creaminess of the root vegetable, full of its own starches and sugars, to provide deep, intense flavor.
One of the chef’s winning appetizers is a grilled shrimp risotto with red beets. The shrimp, moist and succulent, arrayed on the top of the rice, firm to the bite but tender and buttery in texture, was punctuated with diced red beets that serve to complement the natural sweetness of the shrimp and provide a colorful contrast to the bright green parsley oil that ringed the outside of this attractive dish.
An appetizer offered as a special on one of the four nights I dined at the restaurant is an earthy dish composed of escargot, roasted hazelnuts, diced potatoes, lovage, parsley, garlic, and chanterelle mushrooms. The ingredients are prepared separately, then added individually to create proper texture and depth of flavor. Those who enjoy escargot will find this a highly unusual preparation that leaves a lingering nutty taste on one’s palate.
Chef Qualin’s signature fish dish illustrates his originality as well as the inspiration he derives from his native Jura mountains where the famous Comté cheese used in the dish originates. A tender turbot filet is ever-so-lightly encrusted with the Comté and bread crumbs and accompanied by a delicate champagne sauce. The Comté, a member of the Gruyère family, has a smoky-nutty tang that enhances the flaky turbot in a manner that gives the fish new personality.
The chef’s signature chicken entrée consists of a roasted free-range chicken served with a Vin Jaune sauce and a Bleu de Gex potato gratin. Vin Jaune, the so-called “yellow” Jura wine produced in a small village to the south of Arbois, is a white wine characterized by a greater richness of color and flavor than other whites.
It has a deep, nectar-like taste and is akin to a light Spanish sherry. The delicious sauce, drizzled over the moist chicken’s golden-roasted crispy skin, goes wonderfully with the mild blue cheese potato gratin. The Bleu de Gex cheese, soft, ivory in color, with pale green mold, evokes the cow’s milk from which the cheese is made along with the mountain grass and flowers of the Jura.
Other entrées, featuring salmon, sea bass, pork, beef, lamb, duck, and venison, are prepared with an array of interesting sauces and side dishes inspired by French classics but creatively reconfigured to satisfy a modern, discerning palate.
The French Corner’s delectable food extends to its breads and desserts, all made by Chef Qualin on the premises. Among his array of chocolate desserts, I found particularly scrumptious the unusual combination of a roasted Bartlett pear with Indian spices and chocolate ice cream. The chef’s butternut squash–and-citrus take on the traditional creme brulée provides remarkable contrast between its crisp, caramelized sugar crust and the cold, silky-smooth custard interior.
Appetizers range from $6 to $14, entrées from $15 to $27, and desserts from $5 to $8. The wine list, overwhelmingly French, contains numerous bargains of carefully selected wines priced in the $20 to $30 range, with a good selection of wines by the glass falling between $5 to $7.
THE FRENCH CORNER
3407 COOPER STREET. STONE RIDGE, NY. (845) 687-0810.
OPEN TUESDAY TO SUNDAY FOR DINNER, 5PM TO CLOSING.
WEEKEND BRUNCH FROM 11:30AM TO 3PM.