Two Charming Meals in Le Lot

August 15, 2009

Just back in Paris on a sweltering August night, I’m slightly stunned to have exchanged the cool, mossy smelling nights of Salviac in the Lot, one of my very favorite regions of France, for the metallic scents of baked Parisian asphalt, but even this heat can’t wilt my high spirits at having eaten so well for two weeks. To be sure, we grilled (fabulous meat from Jean-Pierre Cabanel, the local butcher–homemade sausage, Quercy lamb, incredible veal, etc.) and cooked most of the time–many Mark Bittman salads, at our little honey-colored stone cottage on a hillside, but the few times we went out, we ate wonderfully well in a type of restaurant I’d almost given up as lost in France, which is to say serious, unselfconscious no-nonsense places with a skilled, hard-working cook in the kitchen and a courteous well-drilled staff in the dining room. You could almost call them plain-vanilla restaurants, since they’re not trying to win Michelin stars, be fashionable, or break new gastronomic ground. Instead, they exist to offer a delicious and fairly priced meal of well-sourced and lovingly cooked local produce.

Two meals in particular remain deliciously memorable. The first was dinner at La Recreation, a truly charming restaurant occupying at old school house in Les Arques. It was founded some fifteen years ago by chef Jacques Ratier and his wife, Noëlle, “with no market research or any of the things that young chefs are doing today. We just jumped in, because after years of working in the Caribbean, the South Pacific and on cruise ships, we wanted to come home.” (They’re from Toulouse). I knew none of this back story when we sat down at an old-fashioned steel table on folding chairs in the skirts of a giant Tilleul (lime) tree and opened the menu, but we despite a fair number of GB (Great Britain) license plates in the parking lot, which led me to fear the place might be sort of flute-y and Surrey in southwestern France, service was warm, prompt and friendly. We ordered an excellent bottle of Cahors, and ate, and ate. Ratier’s five-course meal began with a superb fresh tomato soup, and then I had some sublime foie gras and Bruno a salad of plump white coco beans with a surprising amount of lobster meat, a lovely summer appetizer. Next, Limousin beef in Cahors sauce for me and Quercy lamb for Bruno (correctly served rare and very tender), both garnished with an excellent gratin of potatoes, stuffed zucchini blossoms, haricots vert, and a roasted tomato. I was so surprised by the precision, talent and hard-work in this 32 Euro menu that I finally fell into conversation with Noelle Ratier, who told me the couples’ story. Our meal continued with perfectly aged Rocamadour cheese and salad and dessert, a fondant au chocolat for Bruno and a terrific clafoutis aux abricots for me. At a dinner party in Cahors a few days later, it wasn’t at all surprised when the delightful Ken Hom, who has a house in nearby Catus, told me that La Recreation is one of his favorite local tables.

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A Perfect Lunch in the Loire

August 7, 2009

It’s probably one of the best lessons that a summer in France has to offer: anyone who loves the good food of Gaul should get out of town and travel on les departementales, or little country roads, in the hopes of finding someplace like Le Chat in Cosne-Cours-sur-Loire.

Determined to avoid the numbing dullness of the autoroute on our way to a little stone cottage in a quiet valley in the Lot, we decided to leave the main road as often as we could. Breaking free of Paris traffic, we sped to the Loire, with the idea of stocking up on some good summer drinking in Sancerre and Menetou-Salon. After visiting a couple of caves in Sancerre, we were hungry and so asked a friendly caviste for an idea for a good, cheap, fast lunch. “Le Chat—it’s about fifteen kilometers from here, but the food’s delicious.” And so we backtracked, and after a series of rond-points, we finally escaped the dreary suburban landscape of shopping centers, muffler franchises, etc. that now sadly surround most French towns of any size and ended up in a sleepy little village that seemed stunned by the heat.

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A Great Seafood Feast on the Ile de Re

July 29, 2009

Chatting with a suave French hotelier over dinner on the Ile de Re, the lovely Atlantic island thirty minutes from the train station in La Rochelle that’s sort of a French version of Nantucket, the other night, we lamented the fact that Blackberries, email, etc., mean that it’s harder and harder to have a real vacation. By this I mean a week or two during which you just plain stop working. Unfortunately technology has so blurred the boundaries between work and leisure that even on vacation most of us are required to keep up with our email, which, depending on your work, involves a constant blizzard of questions, requests and invitations to meetings.

On the eve of leaving for two weeks in a rented farmhouse in the southwestern French region of Le Lot, I found myself musing over vacations of yore, or those intensely anticipated two-week sojourns when we loaded up the Country Squire (later, the Vista Cruiser) and drove through the night to get to the dock in Hyannis to take the earliest ferry to Nantucket, a place that was then all about rusty bicycles, rusty bed stands with lumpy mattresses and soggy but tasty sandwiches wrapped in waxed paper. Dad, an executive with a major textile company in New York, never called the office, but instead ratched down for a first few days until he became smiling and playful. Food was never particularly important on these holidays, although the grown-ups would go out once or twice for a lobster feast, leaving the kids at home and happy with barbecued hamburgers, corn on the cob, and Howard Johnson’s mint chocolate chip ice cream.

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Les Paillotes at Les Etangs de Corot: A- ; Laperouse, Paris: C; And Shame on Lactalis!

July 24, 2009

Lunch with my friend Alain on Wednesday, and what a pleasure it was to hop in his car and head for the country just long enough for some bird song and fresh air to unknot a morning’s tensions. Our destination was Les Paillotes, the summer restaurant at Les Etangs de Corot, a charming country hotel that’s recently been renovated by the family who own and run the Caudalie line of spas and skin products, and they’ve done a beautiful job of creating a bower of bliss on the door steps of Paris. Once a getaway for the painter Corot, who loved the bucolic atmosphere of what was then a country village outside of Paris, Ville d’Avray today is one of the rare Parisian suburbs to have retained a palpable sense of its original rural identity, much of which comes from the etangs, or ponds, Corot once made a subject.

What makes this place especially pleasant during the summer is that they have a raised, thatched roof terrace–Les Paillotes–overlooking the pond behind the hotel where they serve during the summer. Having been to the hotel to sample the cooking of their talented chef Benoit Bordier during the winter, I was curious to see how he’d settled in. Though I enjoyed my last meal, I found the service over-groomed and Bordier’s cooking much too cerebral and self-regarding for this new setting.

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Le Passage 53, Paris: C+/B- ; Le Jardin, Reims: B+

July 14, 2009

Sometimes when I have mixed feelings about a restaurant, I like to submit it to a time test. To wit, will I remember what I ate a week later? Over a week after my meal there, the much lauded Le Passage 53 in the hip Passage des Panoramas didn’t stand up very well. To be sure, I have a huge admiration for Hugo Desnoyers, the superb butcher who is one of the main backers and who furnishes the restaurant’s sublime meat, but overall, I found the service mannered and the cooking pleasant but timid and rather self-conscious. A perfect example was an amuse bouche of broccoli creame garnished with a crunchy hail of raw broccoli buds. Tasty enough and not a bad idea, but if the point of an amuse bouche is to tantalize you for what’s to come, this little cameo was underwhelming.

To be fair, I was more than distracted by my friend La Mime’s enchanting conversation and also from the fact that my long legs couldn’t find a comfort zone on the low, metallic chairs in this over-lit, under-decorated and very badly ventilated space (the “side walk” smokers from Le Passage 53 and several other restaurants stepped outside as required by law, but the draughts in the passage meant that their second hand smoke was sucked right back in the door). The first half-memorable dish of the evening was a tartare of cameo pink veal tartare with chopped razor shell clams and Granny Smith apples, a sensual but deja vu meeting between mer and terre, with the veal struggling to be anything more than a sweet mineral-rich foil to the potent iodine of the clams. A twiddly portion of turbot was good enough, and a thin strip of guineau hen was beautifully cooked and full of flavor, but overall our six or seven course tasting menu lacked real passion and was way overpriced at 65 Euros. So would I go again? Probably not.

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“Thoroughly Modern Milkshakes” by Adam Ried; Au Boeuf Couronne, Paris , B+

July 7, 2009

Cover-Throughly-Modern-Milkshakes

If you work at home like I do, going downstairs to get the mail is a highlight of the day–what welcome distractions from my keyboard will I find when I open the mailbox? Yesterday there was a bubble-wrap mailer from W.H. Norton in New York, and I ripped the package open in the cobbled hallway of my building in eagerness to see what it contained.

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