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.

Even more surprising was lunch at the Auberge du Sombral in St-Cirq-Lapopie, the Saint Paul de Vence of the Lot, a few days later. Because this delightful little village beloved of surrealist writer Andre Breton was like a tourist ant-hill on a beautiful summer day, I had meager expectations of finding a decent meal here. This place was recommended by my lovely friend Martine in Cahors, however, so we’d booked a terrace table for lunch before setting out for a day of touring the Lot. Again, the welcome here was exemplary, and a glass of Bergerac rose was just the ticket for my tourist addled nerves when we settled in on the terrace and looked at the menu. For 28 Euros, I ate a superb feuillete (puff pastry) filled with cepes in Roquefort cream, confit de canard with a garlicky gratin de pommes de terre, baked Rocamadour with salad, and roasted figs with freshly made vanilla ice cream, a meal that Bruno varied only by having a salad garnished with slices of smoked duck breast as his first course. Beautifully cooked quality seasonal produce, sincere hospitality and a lovely setting made this place a wonderful surprise, and these two meals, along with several others on this trip, made in wonderfully clear that middle-of-the-road dining in France is often still remarkably good.

Auberge du Sombral, St-Cirq-Lapopie, Tel. 05-65-31-26-08. 

La Recreation, Les Arques, Tel. 05-65-22-88-08.