Monday, August 28, 2017

Périgord -- A Special Birthday Treat

We were staying with our good friends Bob and Betsy in Périgord for my birthday, and they gave me a wonderful surprise: dinner at home prepared by Chef Christian Chiron, an accomplished chef who worked for four decades in Périgord and abroad, including stints in Florida. I was able to observe, but not participate because Chef Christian had completed all the prep work before his arrival. Still, it was fun to watch the way he handled a pretty elaborate dinner for six with great economy of movement, patience and quiet dedication to the task at hand. He told me that the main ingredient to being a good chef is passion for the job.

All of this would have been for nought if the meal had not been excellent.

We had champagne and hors d'oeuvres outside on the terrace, with Joan and myself, Bob and Betsy and their good friends -- and our new friends -- Marianna and Nigel. The hors d'oeuvres consisted of melon balls wrapped in duck prosciutto, prunes stuffed with figs and crab meat mousse quenelles, most of the items relating to the region and/or season.

Sylvie, Joan, me, Marianna, Nigel, Betsy and Bob
Hors d'oeuvres by Chef Christian
Then we moved inside for the meal itself, because the weather was a bit iffy for dining al fresco.

The entrée consisted of quick-sauteed scallops with a beet and herb salad with a light cheese (I think) emulsion, as pictured at the top of this post.

The plat was perfectly cooked veal medaillons with girolle sauce, accompanied by a pretty bundle of green beans and a wonderful baked scalloped potato.

And finally, a beautiful raspberry mousse tart with strawberries and raspberry sauce: an ode to the berries at the height of their season.

Raspberry mousse tart with raspberry sauce and strawberries
A great feast, in a great setting with great friends! This would have been a big treat for anyone, but was especially so for your humble author.

Bobby Jay

Sunday, August 27, 2017

France -- Spectacular Dining in the Country

After three days in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, we drove to Valence by way of Vaison-la-Romaine, a gorgeous medieval hill town in the northeast part of Provence.

Valence is known for being home to Maison Pic, where Anne-Sophie Pic is the third generation of  chefs that have earned the restaurant three Michelin starts since 1934. She may have had a leg up due to her lineage, but she fully deserves all three stars and more. We were treated to what was probably the most perfect meal of our lives. As does Mme Pic, I will describe it in detail, although words and even pretty good photos do not do the meal justice.

We stayed at Maison Pic, and upon arrival were greeted with hibiscus tea and "cupcakes" with fillings of yuzu and matcha, the first of many Asian flavors encountered at Maison Pic, although in very subtle ways.

"Cupcakes" and hibiscus tea
The dinner experience starts in the lobby, where one notices a reminder of the three-star lineage, in the form of a long case containing every Michelin red guide to France ever produced and many for other countries as well.

All the Michelin Red Guides
Then the meal starts with assorted amuse-bouches which were gorgeous and tasty: a carrot flower, ethereal vegetable chips and beautiful balls and cubes the contents of which I can't recall.

Various amuse-bouches
A carved wood bread basket containing an assortment of really great house-made breads appears early and requires attention even though you know you are going to eat too much in just a few minutes.

Assorted breads in a carved wood baske
Soon the first course arrives and the real fun begins: a medley of seven varieties of cherry tomatoes, peeled and then immersed in a marinade of Murcott mandarins, Chiloé berries, and sage infused with a tomato, sugar and vinegar-based dressing. All this with an over-mature olive oil ice cream. Huge bursts of flavor, with each tomato subtly different from the others, and dressed with its own herb.

Cherry tomatoes
Then the second starter, berlingots: essentially pasta pyramids stuffed with a mixture of chestnut infused Banon goat's milk cheese, sheep's milk cheese and mascarpone, served over watercress consommé infused with ginger and bergamot.

Berlingots with watercress consommé
There follows the man course, Drôme squab (pigeon), lightly smoked and roasteed breast side down, with a sauce of squab consommé infused with vanilla, roasted barley, scented woodruff and Vietnamese Phu Quoc red pepper. Whew! Enough to surpass the pigeon at l'Oustau de Baumanière, which reigned as the best squab ever for a short two days.

Drôme squab
The "cheese course" consisted of a truly inspired combination of Brie cream, an incredibly thin layer of toast and a tiny disk of unadulterated Brie on top (the whole being kissed with flame for a few seconds). Absolutely heavenly!

 Not quite finally, a pre-dessert that I can no longer identify (no, it's not an egg),

followed by the real desserts, a palette of apricots of various colors and flavors and a honeycomb of bitter. We had one of each, and they were among the best desserts of all time. The apricot dessert featured pieces of apricot of different textures and preparations, but all were cooked in an elderberry and Nikka whisky infusion, which produces strong roasted barley notes.

Palette of apricots
The chocolate dessert, a honeycomb prepared with bitter honey chocolate, created for Mme Pic by Valrhona, with segments of Cubeb-flavored gansche, bitter honey pana cotta and Hojicha tea caramel.

Can food really be this good? Go yourself and find out. The Michelin Green guides classifies a three-star sight as one that "vaut le voyage," or merits the trip, as opposed to a detour if you're nearby. Maison Pic truly vaut le voyage!

Bobby Jay

Thursday, August 24, 2017

France -- Great Dining in the Country

Millefeuille on its side at l'Oustau de Baumanière
While in Périgord, in addition to the meal at Au Fil d'Eau described in my last post, we dined at the renowned le Vieux Logis, a long-standing one-star restaurant in a beautiful Relais and Châteaux Hotel in Trémolat.

For some reason, we did not take pictures but here are some that I took there last year and never posted, which will give the idea even though I can no longer describe the dishes. The food is just as good and as beautifully presented as it was in 2016.

Dishes from le Vieux Logis, July 2016
Upon arriving in Provence, we went to l'Oustau de Baumanière, a two-star restaurant where we had our first three-star meal in the spring of 1979. The dining terrace is splendid, although less so when it is cold and rainy, as it was this time. The food was really great, although a combination of the weather, the dim lighting and the less than gorgeous plating resulted in some pretty boring photos, I'm afraid; the meal was not as brown as it appears from these photos.

In any event, pictures can be deceiving: the dinner was absolutely great. Joan a pigeon from Costières with spinach and a spinach "tetragon," walnuts from Grenoble and a lavender scented jus that she pronounced the best pigeon that she'd ever had, and that's saying a lot, as she eats small birds whenever she gets a chance.

"Tetragon" of spinach at l'Oustau de Baumanière
She followed with the restaurant's traditional millefeuille turned on its side, pictured at the top of this post.

I started with pain de loup (sea bass bread), a cream of sea bass miraculously surrounded by a bread crust, one of the best appetizers I've ever had,

Pain de loup at l'Oustau de Baumanière
followed by the "feuille à feuille" of pork, layers of ham and pork (with potatoes cooked in pork skin) -- not beautiful but rich and giving each layer its due --

and the justly famous crèpes soufflées au Grand Marnier.

Crêpes soufflées at l'Oustau de Baumaniere
 Michelin stars are not lightly bestowed, and generally one-star restaurants are excellent and two-star ones are nearly transcendent. This turned out to be true this trip.

Bobby Jay

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

France -- Good Eating in the Country

Paris-Couze at Au Fil d'Eau
Joan and I spent the first two weeks of August visiting friends in Périgord, followed by a stay in Provence bracketed by nights in Toulouse and Dijon. We had numerous really good meals, one that was great and one that was off the charts. This post will deal with some of the surprises we found, while the sublime, multi-star experiences will be covered in later posts.

Our best meal out in Périgord, apart from le Vieux Logis (to be covered in my next post), was at Au Fil d'Eau, in Couze-et-Saint-Front (population c. 800), which presents updated and artfully presented versions of regional and other classics, including the Paris-Couze (a play on Paris-Brest) pictured above and the  cooked foie gras with lemon ice cream, shrimp with fruits and  foie gras terrine with summer truffles.

Cooked foie gras with lemon ice cream at Au Fil d'Eau
Shrimp and fruit at Au Fil d'Eau
Foie gras with summer truffles at Au Fil d'Eau
While in Périgord, we made day trips to some local villages and towns, and ate well in addition to seeing the local sites.

In Saint-Léon-sur-Vézère, there's a fine Romanesque church and a lovely chateau, among other things.

There is also a restaurant in a garden where I had an extraordinary cassolette de gésiers de canard (duck gizzards): incredibly tender slow-cooked gizzards, a local specialty, baked beneath a very thin cheesebread topping. The best pot pie ever! Sorry, no picture.

From Périgord we traveled to Saint-Rémy-de-Provence by way of Toulouse, where we spent a night. Since it was August, the more illustrious restaurants were closed, but we ate at a stunning brasserie, le Bibent, on the magnificent Place du Capitole.

Place du Capitole, Toulouse
Owned by famed Parisian restaurateur Christian Constant, it is not surprising that tradition meets with modern cuisine at le Bibent. After our starter -- creative oyster, sea bass and salmon tartare with ginger and lime, and crispy sea prawns with basil --

Oyster, sea bass and salmon tartare at le Bibent
Cirspy prawns with basil at le Bibent
I had a wonderfully authentic cassoulet Montalbanaise and Joan a very nice sea bass à la plancha.

We next arrived at one of our favorite hotels, le Châteaux des Alpilles in Saint-Rémy de Provence.

Le Château des Alpilles
We had two perfectly lovely meals there, and enjoyed cocktails and breakfasts in the area in front of the château, but it is not notable for its gastronomy.

During our stay in Saint-Rémy, we went to the famed l"Oustau de Baumanière, which is just 15 minutes away, for a great meal that I will cover in detail in a later post. At the recommendation of the owner, we also went to a little bistro in the amazingly scenic Camargue, near the pink salt flats,

Camargue salt flats
for what proved to be an exciting meal. The tiny restaurant, La Telline, specializes in seafood, and we were served tellines, the tiniest ever clams, and picturesque and delicious sea snails, like bulots but more delicate, followed by fish main courses. This lunch was one of those unexpected experiences that make rural travel so much fun.

Tellines and sea snails at La Trelline
From Saint-Rémy, we went to Valence to spend a night at the famed Maison Pic -- which will get its own post -- and from there to Dijon. We were there on a Sunday, so the famous places were closed, but our concierge recommended le Sauvage, which cooks most everything over a wood grill, including previously slow-cooked lamb and marrow bones, and had a wonderful time. A perfect counterpoint to the extravaganza with Anne Sophie Pic.

Grilled noisettes of slow-cooked lamb at le Sauvage
Grilled marrow bones at le Sauvage
And finally back to Paris, somewhat travel weary but very very content. France is a spectacular place in which to travel: great scenery, wonderful cities and towns and, most of all, interesting and varied cuisine.

Bobby Jay