My night in Paris I arrived in the centre of Paris earlier in June about 3pm, and by the time I’d showered, it was slightly too late for Plan A, a visit to the Medieval Museum, which I love (the Lady and the Unicorn tapestries are there). Plan B was a wander – flaner, the French call it, although my walk was more purposeful, since I retrieved my railway ticket to Bordeaux, and checked out how to find the restaurant I’d booked for dinner. It turned out to be a 15 minutes stroll from the hotel.
When I got there at 7.30, there were only two others at L’Assiette, in rue du Chateau. I’d emailed to book with a note to say that if the plane was late, I’d call. “Ah, so the plane wasn’t late,” smiled the man who greeted me. I was seated at a small table – “comfortable for one, in the centre of things” that faced a big marble bench that held a ham, the butter, and the cheese. Everyone got some slices of freshly sliced ham as a complimentary appetiser. Beautiful sweet ham, served with a generous slice of salted Normandy butter, cut from a piece as big as a shin of beef. There were three cheeses, and from where I sat I could smell each of them clearly.
The small restaurant looks a bit like something out of Fitzroy, with timber floors and chairs. Add a tiled ceiling, like the one at Café D’Orsay. The table tops are topped with caramel coloured tiles , each looking like the top of a crème caramel or the top of a dobostorte.
I would like to take a group of Australian restaurateurs to L’Assiette, just so they see how a busy restaurant is run on a Saturday night. This was exemplary. The place seats about 46, I think, was managed by two waiters. No guest was hurried, no one had to wait, people were able to leave after eating, or sit around talking, as they wished. There was another woman on her own, a Canadian, and because we had exchanged a few words, she asked me if I wanted to join her table after main course. At this stage the place was jumping, with tables turning over. We ate another course and kept talking. At some point, while tables were still being reset and people were being turned away, we were offered a complimentary glass of a verveine liqueur from the Auvergne. Apart from anything else, it was a clear signal that we were welcome to stay and talk.
What did I eat? From the blackboard list of specials, a clapoton. That’s a long-cooked lamb shank, boned and finely diced, served with a vinaigrette and finely diced egg white and yolk, on top of toasted bagette, with some mixed salad leaves. Every component of the dish was essential: the soft sticky richness of the lamb needed the toasted bread (in the way butter needs bread), and the salad leaves gave freshness and also seasoning. Then I ordered (from the main menu, handwritten) red mullet with ratatouille. The fish had been cooked and butterflied out, the bones removed, and the ratatouille (very finely diced) was in the centre. A little light buttery sauce surrounded it. It was a very matter-of-fact dish, nothing fancy, no elaborate presentation, and tasted like summer – they’re all flavours of Provence, dependant on warm weather for best flavour. I drank wines by the glass – a Sancerre, then a burgundy (unknown – we discussed the style of wine I wanted, and a glass arrived).
Then there was cheese: I chose the St-Nectaire because it had been matured and looked in perfect condition. The Salers, a big mountain cheese from the Auvergne, didn’t look so nice (the rind a bit damaged, but it often is in Salers) – and I didn’t feel like Roquefort. It was indeed a great cheese – although the serving was massive. Perhaps they thought I would share it with the Canadian woman. But maybe it's just a silly sized portion.
There’s a tea list at L’Assiette. The French take tea very seriously these days, almost everywhere. I had genmaicha, served in a lovely china pot. The bill – for three courses, three glasses of wine, and tea – was 91 Euros. (The cheese accounted for 15 euros of that!) The Canadian woman’s bill – three courses, one glass of wine and coffee) was less than 60 Euros. Both of us thought it was good value (and particularly me, with the strength of the Australian dollar.) I’ve spent a good deal more than that recently in restaurants in Melbourne, and not been so pleased.
L’Assiette, 181 rue du Chateau, 75014. Tel. 01 43 22 64 86. www.restaurant-lassiette.com Open Tuesday-Sunday, lunch and dinner.
BORDEAUX More good hospitality in Bordeaux, which is a great example of the possibilities of urban renewal. They’ve had lots of practice, since it’s been a city since Roman times, was ruled by the English for quite a while, suffered in the wars of religion, and in the 20th century, sat about grubby and grumpy. It was like that when I first visited in the 1970s. There’s been a massive restoration and clean-up of buildings, revealing them in all their 18th century architectural splendour. And in the last few years, with the laying of three tram lines (all solar-powered), there’s been a huge increase in pedestrian zones. This is a VERY good city for walking, including a 4.5 kilometre trail along the Garonne river bank.
Apart from anything else, Bordeaux has turned into a good food town. Its cuisine used to be plain, exemplified by the businessman’s meal of oysters (from Arcachon) and steak with marchard de vin sauce (wine merchant’s sauce). Now? It shows the influence of Aquitaine, its region, much more. Lots of duck and foie gras. Locally grown vegetables. Caviar. Yes, caviar, because sturgeon is happy in the estuary, and there is commercial (and sustainable) production of caviar. Locally grown saffron. And sweet things: there are three superb chocolate shops, and three exceptional patissiers in the centre of town. Paris-based Fauchon thinks so highly of Bordeaux’s gourmet potential that it was just opened a store here, opposite the theatre and right near the new Regent hotel, which has taken over the former Grand Hotel and restored it.
First dinner at La Tupina, which has been around for decades and is everyone’s favourite bistro. Readers of the International Herald Tribune voted it the best bistro in the world. In this case, a pretty reliable guide. It’s warm and crowded and welcoming, with waiters nice to foreigners and clearly pleased by their appreciation. The flavours are of the south-west, and there’s a remarkable collection of Armagnac. Everyone is welcomed with a little plate of things to nibble: slices of the local salami, cherry tomatoes, pink-and-white radishes, and fritons. (That’s crunchy pieces of fried duck skin, very like the gribenes of Jewish cooking.) A huge basket of good country bread.
I had a scallop served on a slice of the local cured ham, so finely sliced and so delicately cooked that the fat was translucent, almost invisible, with cepes cooked with garlic. Then a slice of foie gras cooked as a terrine with local wine, followed by long-cooked shoulder of lamb with sweet garlic cloves still in their skins, a big pot of white beans, and a plate of frites, just for fun. No, of course I didn’t eat it all. Again, wines by the glass. The waiter simply brought me what he thought was going to be best. A local sauvignon blanc as a palate cleanser, then some Medoc with the lamb. They brought me a mixed dessert, including the local cake, cannelé, with its icecream.
Beside me an American couple, she as thin as a whippet, unwound over their meal. He had the lamb, too, and ate it all, and all the beans. They ordered Armagnac, choosing the vintage from the year of their son’s birth, and were startled to find how spirity it was. She took a sip, gasped, and then giggled. Under its benign influence, they turned to me and we started to talk. One of the things I love about travelling is the way we all talk to strangers.
What strikes me is that although the great chateaux are set up for tourism, and there are exceptional wine stores here, it is possible to drink well with very little fuss.
La Tupina, 6 Porte de la Monnaie, Bordeaux. Tel 05 56 91 56 37 www.latupina.com Open daily for lunch an dinner.
Lunch at Gravelier, in the Chartrons district, the old wine merchants’ district. The restaurant looks extremely modern, with a bold use of colour, heavy timber chair and tables, brightly coloured pendant lightshades. It’s been around for 18 years, since Yves Gravellier and his wife established it in a building that had been earlier burnt out. The shell was actually quite useful, they said, since they were able to set it up as they wanted. They renovated 11 years ago, and renovated the kitchen a couple of years ago. He’s from Bordeaux, she’s from Roanne, and they like living in Bordeaux. “On est bien ici,” they said. “We’re good here.”
The little appetiser was rillettes of sardines, served in a small sardine tin, with some toasted baguette. Today’s lunch menu began with turbot and duck on watermelon ‘carpaccio’, followed by lamb (shoulder and cutlet) with asparagus, and apricot feuillete. Turbot and duck? Sounded odd, looked curious, tasted remarkably good. There was a spiral of turbot on a skewer, two tiny pieces of duck on another skewer, and a large thinly sliced round of watermelon, underneath which was very finely diced watermelon with herbs, predominantly mint. It was very good to eat: a few mouthfuls of something solid, the watermelon cleansing and refreshing. What happened was that the edge was taken off my appetite, and then I was made hungry again because the melon was so cleansing.
The lamb dish was a combination of slow cooked shoulder and a lamb cutlet (they cut meat differently here) with the cooking juices, some potato, and asparagus served as tips and also finely sliced. Very nicely done, very good to eat.
We finished with four apricot halves, poached, filled with a crème that seemed lightly flavoured with orange, each half topped with a perfect dark golden square of crisp pastry. These were new season’s apricots, early because it has been warm and dry here since March, and everything is early.
It’s very assured cooking, imaginative and confident, a fine blend of modern and traditional. Yves Gravlier understands how cooking and eating go together, how to cook so food is a pleasure to eat.
I noted that lunch took not much longer than an hour. This is a very well organised kitchen.
All that for 24 euros per person. Lunch is that price, dinner is 28 euros, and the menu changes daily. There’s a small carte (what we call a menu), and the possibility of eating more grandly.
Coffee was extra, and bless them, they serve good coffee.
Gravelier, 114 Cours Verdun, Bordeaux. Tel. 05 56 48 17 15 www.gravelier.fr
Taking the tour
Take the tour! Take the tour! Those of us who think of ourselves as independent travellers, who do all the research ourselves, rent cars, quarrel over map-reading and navigation, or with the GPS, miss out sometimes. In Bordeaux, the Tourism Office runs a whole range of tours – walking tours through the city, and wine tours that can be a half-day or a full day. So much easier than organising it yourself, and driving around!
I took the full day tour. The day I went, the tour went to Margaux, where we visited four wineries and stopped for lunch. In a very clever piece of planning, each winery visit focussed on a different aspect. At Chateau Prieuré-Lichine, it was the system of appellations and the classifications of 1855. At Chateau Rauzan-Gassies, there was discussion of the terroir. Then came lunch at a small restaurant in Margaux. At Chateau la Tour de Bessan, we looked at grape varieties and blends (including our own little exercise). Finally, at Kirwan, the focus was on wine merchants and family properties. At each chateau, we had a tour of the property. At each place we tasted two wines. And at lunch, we tasted four wines with food. It was an engaging day out, and a trouble-free small education about Bordeaux and its wines. A day well spent.
There were lots of things I didn’t know: the Chartrons district, the winemerchants’ district, was so-named because it was originally a marsh drained by the Chartreux, the Carthusian monks, who came in the 14th century and stayed for another three. And when the wars of religion finally settled themselves, but there were still severe restrictions on Protestants, the Chartrons district was the compromise. There were so many Protestant merchants from northern Europe – from English, Ireland, Holland, Scotland, Germany – that trade would have been severely damaged has they been excluded. The Protestant work ethic might have begun here: in the 18th century, the area was noticeably more prosperous than other parts of the city.
By the end of the day, I had a much better handle on the complexities of appelations, classifications, subclassifications, and chateaux. They abound in the Medoc because it is the closest area to Bordeaux: rich wine merchants wanted to copy the nobility and built grand houses like chateaux. There’s one modelled on the chateau at Azay le Rideau in the Loire.
We tasted good wines, thoughtfully selected. At Chateau Prieuré-Lichine, we tasted the white wine (an engaging blend of sauvignon blanc and semillon, aged for six months in one-year-old Burgundy barrels), as well as the 2006. The chosen wines were of good quality, and blessedly free of brettanomyces.
That was my day’s tour, along with about 20 others. The commentary was in French and English. Tours are limited to about 24, and each day is different. I could have gone the following day to St Emilion for half a day (lunch included) with one winery visit and a tour of the medieval city itself.
Coming up: A week in the Dordogne, in south-west France. I'll be hosting a week-long stay - actually, two weeks - in Villa Ste Therese is a small town called Monpazier. It's a old fortified town built by the English in the Hundred Years War, and it's still in great medieval condition, but with better plumbing. It's listed as one of the most beautiful villages in France. The villa, with its large gardens, has been converted by owner Rosemary Vine to provide five bedrooms with ensuite bathrooms, and it will be the base for exploring a small part of the region. We're not going to move far, and we're going to visit markets, a goat's cheese maker, a chestnut orchard and mill, Chateau de Monbazillac. We're going truffling hunting, and to a Michelin-starred restaurant. We're going to be cooking up a storm on a couple of evenings, usiing the produce bought at the market. A maximum of 10 people, and choose from October 3-9, or October 10-16. For more information, www.dordogne-country-house.com
Next year, we will build optional stays in Bordeaux (before or after).
Burgundy I love Burgundy-style bacon and eggs. The eggs are poached in red wine, the bacon is diced and fried. The poached eggs sit on rounds of toasted bread, the bacon scattered over, the poaching liquid reduced to a sauce. It’s known as oeufs en meurette, and it’s a first course. It sounds extremely rich. It is. But not rich enough to stop me (or anyone else) eating a main course and even a dessert afterwards. Perhaps someone here could make it a Sunday brunch special.
USEFUL ADDRESSES IN BURGUNDY
In Beaune, I’m very fond of Ma Cuisine and a little restaurant called Ciboulette. We didn’t get to either of them this year, because neither is open five or even six days a week. But we did find the following food and wine stores:
Denis Perret – Place Carnot. Excellent wine store, with good knowledge of what they sell. English spoken.
Patisserie Jean Ourvois, 8 rue Carnot. Stop for a coffee, or tea, or simply take things away. Very good chocolates as well as cakes. The amandine aux cassis is an essential.
Le Tast’Fromages, 7 place Carnot. Very fine cheese store, notably good for regional cheeses, of which there are an astonishing number. Soft cheeses include Vougeot, and the Delice de Pommard, a soft cheese encased in grain mustard.
Beaune has a big market on Saturday mornings. Do not even think of trying to park a car within the old city. There are good car parking areas on the rim of the old city.
Restaurants in the area showed that you can still eat very nicely in regional France for modest prices. The cooking is assured, the flavours well balanced, the ingredients of high quality. Prices are kept low by minimising choice, and having quite strict hours for mealtimes. Do not expect to find lunch at 3pm.
At Ladoix-Serrigny, a few kilometres north of Beaune, there are quite a few. We went to Les Terasses de Corton twice because it’s such a pleasant (and modestly priced) place. There are three menus: traditional, du terroir, and du chef. We had the traditional (24 Euros for 3 courses) first time – oeufs en meurette, followed by fillet of duck with a modest sweet-sour sauce, a cheeses. Second time, I had the menu du chef, starting with a kind of pastie, Burgundy-style – puff pastry with snails and garlic cream – followed by fillet of beef with blackcurrants, and local cheeses (vougeot, brillat-savarin, and epoisses). We drank a bottle of 2003 Domaine Cornu Aloxe Corton premier cru, a lovely wine with flavours of berries, cherries, herbs and toasted hazelnuts, and fine tannins. Les Terasses de Corton is part of a small hotel.
L’Alambic at Nuits Saint Georges was a lovely find, a basement restaurant in a small hotel. We were there for lunch, which has a limited menu that changes weekly. Alex began with a terrine of chicken and prawns, I had oeufs en meurette cooked with cremant rather than red wine (rather elegant, but I prefer the red wine version), followed by omble, a freshwater fish, with girolle mushrooms, a watercress sauce, and Belgian endive. We finished with cheese selected from the giant trolley. Five portions of cheese are regarded as a serving . The bread here is unusually good, country-style, almost like rye. The menu is about 20 Euros.
Restaurant Chez Guy in Gevrey Chamertin is more modern, looking well designed, with lots of red accents (the aprons, the roses, one red-painted wall, and even the toilet seats). The menu terroir (29 euros) for us began with jambon persilleé (parsleyed ham), followed by beef cheek cooked for 12 hours, served with carrots, with crème brulee with pain d’epices (local spiced cake, like bread) and a chocolate sauce. I found the beef cheek uncomfortably salty. But we loved the 2007 Dominique Gallois Gevrey Chambertin.
Liquid Amber Bistro and Grill,
MT Brewery, 165-185 Long Rd, Eagle Heights. (07) 5545 2032 www.witcheschasecheese.com.au
It’s part of a complex that includes a brewery and a cheese making facility (Witches Chase Cheese Co.). There’s a restaurant area and a more casual bar, each with their own menus. The bar menu includes a wagyu burger and fish and chips, and at weekends, there’s loud live music. The restaurant has outdoor tables, shaded by umbrellas. Waiters are friendly, and rather eager (we were asked lots of times if we were ready to order.)
We went for lunch late in October with a 93-year old local.
What we ate: sourdough bread with cheese curd and olive oil. Stuffed zucchini flowers. Scallops and swordfish with eggplant puree, tomato and olives . Potato gnocchi with mushrooms and asparagus. Grilled Moreton Bay bugs with a salad. Crumbed lamb cutlets with mint, green beans, peas, tomato chutney. A Spanish crème caramel.
What we drank: brewery beers (Czech Mate pils and Sonenberg), and a bottle of Australis Caledonia pinot noir (they had run out of the Tamar Ridge pinot).
What we liked: the atmosphere, the freshness and quality of the ingredients, the good humour of the waiting staff, an enterprising menu, a reasonable wine list, generous portions, the dessert, and the coffee.
What we liked less: the sour dough bread didn’t taste like sour dough, just white breadstick. Generally, the ingredients were good, but the flavour balances didn’t seem quite right. The gnocchi had been fried, there were a number of different mushrooms, white and green asparagus, and grated pecorino. Too many flavours, I thought. The 93-year old found two of the crumbed lamb cutlets a bit tough, and the third perfectly tender.
Would we go back? Certainly. It’s the best place on the mountain for our money (although that’s not hard to do).
Open: Wed-Sun for lunch, Fri-Sat for dinner.