Southwest France: Pont de L'Ouysse, Hostellerie Plaisance, etc.
Dordogne is one of my favorite places on earth: calm/serene/scenic/authentic. All clichés are warranted.
There is also good food to be had.
This time we chose Roque Gageac as our place to stay. Hotel LA BELLE ETOILE has a great location, prices don’t hurt, and the owners are friendly.
The surprising thing was the food. Perfectly poached oysters in a truffle foam, very fresh foie gras au torchon three ways, a high quality limousine beef fillet, and very good local Quercy lamb which puts all lamb I had in Michelin two and three star restaurants in the States to shame.
Desserts were fine. The 2000 Pomerol Chateau Valois was silky and a good match with lamb. Especially for the price, this is what I would call “good modern bistro” food.
It was a lovely welcome to France
The next day we awoke up with a lovely sunny and blue sky. The riverfront at Roque Gageac is a lovely place for a stroll.
A simple lunch in the city of Sarlat
The same night we made a trip to a farmhouse in Salignac-Evignac with some expectations. Unfortunately, the restaurant LA MEYNARDIE did not deliver. The rouget tasted iodized, and the pigeon in the crust had clearly been precooked and re-heated (despite assurances in the menu to the contrary). The grilled limousine filet was not on par with the previous day’s version. On the other hand, the hazelnut soufflé was memorable, and 2000 Clos Triquedena—Prine Probus was a sturdy, well structured wine which made an impression. It was a good buy in a restaurant for 59 Euro. This restaurant needed better main courses.
We then basically skipped lunch the next day and headed to PONT DE L’OUYSSE in LACAVE for dinner. My expectations were modest, and I was wrong. The chef, Monsieur Chambon, is truly passionate about ingredients, and his cooking is both rustic and refined. Spicing was optimum, the use of herbs clever, vegetables crunchy-fresh, combinations well thought out, and the cooking time was precise. In short, this was a memorable restaurant.
We started with a “fricassee of ecrevisses”, one of my favorite kinds of shellfish. They were almost sweet, plump, and juicy, and they were perfumed with a clever tomato-herbs-garlic sauce. The chef is clearly a very accomplished saucier.
The next dish was equally memorable: “queues de langoustines roties, pomme de terre charlotte ecrasee a la fourchette, emince de truffe melano, jus de deglacage truffe”. Granted that even the best preserved truffles leave a lot to be desired, it was the quality of the potatoes that stole the show. This dish reminded me of the famous “turbot with potatoes and truffle” at LEDOYEN, and it was as zesty. Ingredients compliment and bring out the best in one another.
We finished with a course for two: “foie gras bonne maman”. After eating this dish I came to think that I would no longer order fresh foie gras in any restaurant unless they cook the whole liver and cut it into pieces after cooking it. Slowly cooked, this was the best foie gras dish in recent memory. It was rich, but not overly cloying, decadent, but not greasy.
We were then offered the famous Rocamadour cheese of the region, but I was not expecting it to be that good. Partially because it was made by the brother of Monsieur Chambon for the restaurant, it was of impeccable quality. But it was also so good because it was combined with fresh “mascarpone” and the synergy worked.
The chocolate soufflé was as good as it gets.
The 2003 Mont-Redon Chateauneuf white was surprisingly viscous and “ample”, and it was a good match with the first two dishes.
The next morning, a Monday, on the way to ARCACHON where there was the conference I would attend, we make a stop at a Michelin one star restaurant near Brantome, called MOULIN DU ROC. The dining hall was small and intimate. The cooking was traditional and had ups and downs, but mostly ups. The cauliflower soup was like what one may have found in a private house that cares about cooking, but the cepe tart was mushy and did not quite taste as it was supposed to taste. On the other hand, a “chausson” filled with preserved truffles and foie gras was surprisingly good, and it was clearly baked after the order. The chef’s fettucine featuring the same truffles was also properly al dente.
One of the two main courses was also memorable: “pigeonneau”
or baby pigeon with vegetables from the garden. The quality of the pigeon and
the marriage with the vegetables made me wish that my gastroville partner
Mikael were here as he is so determined not to eat low quality pigeon that he
is now taking his own across the border when he goes to Italy
We also had an order of lamb, but it is quite a
disappointment after pigeon. Apparently they can not get Quercy lamb from the Lot Valley
On the other hand, the desserts were old fashioned and very good, including good fruit tarts and a perfect bitter chocolate tart that reminds me of old JAMIN-ROBUCHON.
The best part though is to sit in the garden for coffee and bas-armagnac and then stroll in the garden which is like what one envisions heaven to be.
The wine, 2000 Chateau Tiregand—Cuvee Speciale (Pecharmant) was still tight, but as it started to open up, displayed mineral depth. It was an intriguing wine that should have been left in the cellar for a few more years.
ARCACHON is a good place for oysters, and we toke full advantage of it. To the best of my knowledge there is no memorable restaurant there, so we made two trips outside: one, on October 9, to HOSTELLERIE PLAISANCE in SAINT EMILION, and the other, on October 10, which happens to be my birthday, to CHEZ RUFFET in JURANCON.
I AM SURE that Michelin will award a second star to Hostellerie Plaisance and not to Pont de l’Ouysse because the place is much more in line with the new creed at Michelin which emphasizes molecular biology and showmanship in plating at the expense of ingredient quality and thoroughness.
This is not to say that Plaisance is not a good place. The chef Etchebest is gifted and has some good concepts even though he still seems not to have found his true style and is very much under the influence of Thierry Marx in Pauillac in CORDEILLAN BAGES.
The main problem with Etchebest is that he cannot choose between his good ideas, and he wants to do too much. Take his “ormeau poelee au soja, noodles aux algues, flan de bonite, brouillade d’oursin, mouillette caviar d’Aquitane”. Different elements in the dish sat awry with one another; they don’t communicate and complement one another. I liked the razor clams which sat atop cucumber and herbs for textural and savory contrast. I actually liked all elements SEPARATELY, but the problem is that taken all together the dish was fussy and lacked clarity.
The same theme of “sophisticated fussyness” carried throughout the other courses. The chef has also a tendency to experiment with some spices or oils, such as ginger or soja or coriander which are not too easy to translate into successful concoctions in Western cooking. But clearly, especially thanks to food critics and GUIDE MICHELIN, “fusion” is the name of the game now at the upper echelons, especially for new restaurants. So I have nothing against the Basque Etchebest playing with his own set of neutral gelatins to add intensity of flavor to a cepe puree (which had an artificial aftertaste because of the injection) or to concoct red-yellow-purple gelatin sticks flavored by pepper essences (with a bitter aftertaste). I just don’t see the point. I especially think of this when the same chef can grill a perfect lobe of veal sweetbread on a lemongrass skewer and tops it with shaved raw “tart” apples. Here the complementariness of tastes is so perfect and the main ingredient is so flavorful that one wonders why Etchebest is not doing less complicated but more focused dishes.
The cheese tray was quite above average at Hostellerie de Plaisance, and desserts were a strong point, especially the “deconstructed” tarte tatin. I think the classical desserts lended themselves more easily to experimentation and improvement than classical regional dishes.
The wine list was overpriced and very weak on non-Bordeaux wines. We had 2005 Cuilleron “les Chaillets” Condrieu—a tad better than 2004, but I prefer 2003, and a glass of 2001 Saint Emilion Les Gaffelieres to match the lamb.
On my birthday we had lunch in Jurancon at CHEZ RUFFET. I have already reviewed it for the Turkish newspaper Milliyet, and I hope to write a separate review for Gastroville.
The following day we returned to Dordogne
The rest of the meal was again memorable. We repeated the “fricassee d’ecrevisses”. The “Homard bleu vivement sauté, artichauts poivrades. Ecume de jus de tomate et saffron de Quercy” showed that the chef can prepare a very successful lobster dish, and he is a great saucier. He concocts very balanced and intense sauces, neither under nor over-reduced. The quality of the lobster and artichokes were tops, and the tomato added just the right touch of acidity.
We finished with a specialty of the house, a rustic dish elevated to superlative standards: “daube de pied de porc truffee, crème de pomme de terre”. The potato puree was to die for, the slow cooked pork feet retains just the right amount of gelatinous texture, and the skin was crisp.
We washed all of this down with a (49 Euro) 2005 Lafon Macon-Milly Lamarime which had more depth than Kistler or Marcassin Chardonnays which sell for several hundred dollars in the States and garner ridiculous scores from American wine writers like Robert Parker and the Wine Spectator.
We then tried a very interesting Cahors upon the advice of Monsieur Chambon’s younger son who is also the sommelier: 2005 Domaine le Clos d’un Jour: Un Jour sur terre.
I found this wine to be very interesting. It was aged in terra cotta amphora pottery for eight months, and it had an elegant texture, noteworthy balance, and some intriguing depth. This wine was be an ideal match with perigourdine sauce and truffles. I tried to purchase a bottle at the property, but they did not have any. The owners are Veronique et Stephane Azemar: Ph: 05 65 36 56 01. I am suspicious about ageability, but if a wine importer learns about it from Gastroville and brings this wine to the States, please let me (Vedat Milor) know.
It is so relaxing to sip some vielle prune, and then sleep upstairs at this property, in one of their tastely decorated rooms. They also have a beautiful garden where the next morning we relaxed and sipped our coffee. (I guess nobody will be hungry for breakfast!)
We sure did not have breakfast and shared a panini for
lunch. Then, we went to see the beautiful town of Cahors
Near Cahors we dined at LE GINDREAU. Chef Pelissou, with his long moustache, looks like a character from Dumas pere, and Madame Pelissoou is a gracious host.
The cepes were coming into season, and chef Pelissou prepared a zesty combination of veloute and fricassee of cepes. His homemade foie gras terrine was silky and was served with nice fruit chutneys and mesclun salad. But one should go there to savor the very best example of Quercy Lamb. (His version is above the level designated as label rouge.) We ordered the “demi-selle d’agneau fermier de Quercy cuite a l’os. Jus d’ail en chemise (pour 2 personnes). This was about three months old lamb, perfectly tender and flavorful, and served with a side dish of white tarbais beans and lamb feet.
Upon recommendation we ordered the Souffle dessert: Alliance de la Truffe et du Marasquin (wild cherry eau de vie). I had qualms about it as I don’t like eggy soufflés, but one should taste this one to believe how light and airy it can get.
The tuxedoed and bearded hefty gentleman helping in the preparation of the soufflé is a great sommelier. We had a very informative conversation, and I really appreciated the fact that he steered me towards a 98 Cahors, Chateau Lamartine Cuvee Particuliere, which was a good match with the lamb. The wine was at the optimum point for drinkability; it was very elegant (apparently 10% Merlot was added to the customary Malbec), had a perfumed nose; and it had an earthy backbone and exotic spicy finish. Maybe Cahors wines have in general a good price/quality ratio. (This one was 46 Euro.)
We were offered some Maury-Perpignan (I thought it was Banyuls—but it too was all Grenache), and a not bad 2004 Moelleux du Clos Triguedena (Chenin and Semillon) to finish. This was a nice gesture.
Our last day, upon a friend’s recommendation who writes as
Marcus in some forums, we headed to the eery town of Tremolat
When I say bistro, I mean it. This is not a place to eat sous vided salmon slices infused with ginger and soja and served with agar-agar taglietelle in squid ink. It is indeed an old fashioned bistro where the only concession to tourists (especially British) is to de-shell the escargots and serve them is a special platter. Besides, you can have perfectly coarse pates, very good ox-tail with celery root, and the best andouillette in recent memory (consistiting of veal tripe, veal cheek and pork cheek) served with thick potato fries cooked in duck fat.
The one dessert we shared, “ baba au rhum” was as tasty as the famous one in Ducasse, but not as elaborately presented.
It was also interesting that the wine list contained a fine Mercurey red 2005 from Juillot, which was indeed cheap and juicy.
RANKINGS: (Specialty restaurants or bistros are ranked in the range from 1 to 5 stars, and the rest are ranked according to the Gastroville scale.)
Bistrot d’en Cote
La Belle Etoile: 14/20
La Meynardie: 10/20
Moulin du Roc: 15/20
Hostellerie de Plaisance: 15/20
Le Gindreau: 16/20
Pont de L’Ouysse: 17.5/20
Dec. 16, 2007