Thursday, June 22, 2017

LE GRENIER DE PEPE, TOULOUSE: RESTAURANT REVIEW

Walking into the little space that Le Grenier de Pepe occupies just outside of the old town in Toulouse, you can believe that the dodads and gimcracks that make up the decor came down from someone's attic. Old tools, advertising plaques or plaques with humorous sayings, rusty lamps and broken clocks, all make for the type of atmosphere that some roadside restaurant chains in the US aim for but fail to pull off. In Pepe's Attic, it's genuine and it works.


We arrived at about 7:30 on a weekday evening without a reservation. Naughty children. And since we were a party of three, small two-person tables would have to be pushed together, leaving an empty place in a small room that probably needed to be filled in order to make the single sitting pay. After some thought, we were allowed in. We were fortunate. Within fifteen minutes, at least three other parties without reservations were turned away. 

 Le Grenier de Pepe advertises as a galette and fondue restaurant and those are your choices - an assortment of those fine savory French buckwheat galettes to choose from with crepes for dessert or fondues featuring either cheese or meats. Cathey chose the cheese fondue Normandy - a full pot combining livarot, camembert, Pont l'Eveque, and cider. Hot and tangy and cheesy good. Both Connie and I went for the meat, Connie the duck and beef for me. Connie's hotpot combined herbed cider, mine was white wine based. Connie's full duck breast was sliced quite thin and only required a few moments in the hot broth to cook through. Sweet, sweet duck. My beef was a bit chunky, requiring a bit longer to cook sufficiently, but well worth the wait. We shared from each other and we all agreed that the experience was unique, a fun and rewarding culinary find.

Fun? We were warned by our server that the cheese pot required constant stirring and that I, as the man at the table, was charged with the task. She would keep an eye on me, she said. And she did, pointing to her eye and back at me each time she bustled past our table. She also told us that if we didn't finish our entire meal, we would be required to do go back in the kitchen and do the dishes. Some might have found that sort of server interaction on the familiar side. We didn't and I think that she understood that.

Our dinners came with a choice of a salad or a charcuterie plate. Either made a satisfying start. The mains came with roasted potatoes. I finished with a couple of scoops of ice cream to ease my heated mouth. No other dessert. No coffees or digestifs. Rose en pichet for the girls and a beer for me. 80,50 euros total.

Well worth the price. Recommended.








Monday, June 12, 2017

MUSEE DES AUGUSTINS, TOULOUSE: A FEW PICS

Toulouse is a wonderfully pedestrian-friendly city. We parked the car on Monday afternoon and didn't fire it up again until Thursday morning. In between, we walked everywhere. One easy walk from our hotel in the center of town led us to the Musee des Augustins. Well, actually, two walks led us there. The first time, we discovered that the museum closed on Tuesdays. In any event, we finally made it through the door and spent several thoroughly enjoyable hours. I didn't take many pics. I'm particularly sorry that I didn't document the lovely central courtyard. But here is a sampling of what's in store should you visit. See if you can spot Mitch McConnell...













Tuesday, June 6, 2017

LE COLOMBIER, TOULOUSE: RESTAURANT REVIEW

Opinions are most often formed through first impressions and early experience. That's OK. First impressions can be spot on. The deal that appears at first blush to be too good to be true probably is too good to be true. The trick in reviewing restaurants, which by its very nature is 100% opinion, is to overcome your preconceptions, treat each meal as a unique experience, and review what's on the plate in front of you on its own merits.

Chili, for example, comes in many styles and colors. For most of my life, chili was best defined as bean stew. If you didn't like beans, you didn't like the average dish served up as chili regardless of the amount of beef or fatback or tomatoes were incorporated. I don't particularly like beans.

But then there's Texas chili, a dish that I came to late in life. Simple, almost elegant. Beef and chili powder and not much else. You can add onion or dried chili peppers or cumin. But imagine that you are riding herd out on the range. All that you really need to make chili is a cow, a little leather pouch with your favorite chili blend, a sharp knife, a pot, and a fire.

In other words, after a lifetime of eschewing chili based on that terrible stuff that they served us for lunch in my New Jersey elementary school cafeteria, I learned that at least one form of chili could provide a most satisfactory gastronomical experience. Having made it that far, I could then rate those other faux chilis for what they were...variations on a meritorious theme.

We're in France, though. Southwest France, more precisely. If there's a dish that is as varied in execution as chili, not to mention a dish also featuring beans, cassoulet comes immediately to mind. Some call it the national dish of France. For that reason, there's a wealth of information available in print and online to guide a taste tester. Briefly, there are three general types of cassoulet, divided by region: Toulouse, Carcassonne, and Castelnaudary. I will not go into the details, not only because the rules are as arcane as the rules governing cricket, but also because there are sufficient points of contention even within the borders of each of the Cassoulet Trinity's regions themselves to make simplistic comparisons useless. The beans. The meats. The crust. The moisture. It's all up for grabs.

Yes. An actual restaurant review follows.

My wife Cathey, my sister-in-law Connie, and I recently spent a few days in Toulouse, a brief change of scenery prior to putting Connie on a plane bound for the Colonies. We took daily advantage of the varied local cuisine. One restaurant that Connie had come upon in her reading about French food was Le Colombier, touting signature Castelnaudary cassoulet. We made reservations.

Le Colombier has occupied a pleasant stone and wood space, formerly a stable and a postal relay station, since 1873. There's that white tablecloth, cloth napkin, sparkling silver and crystal feel that comes with age and old school sensibilities. Our server was pleasant and cheerful, practicing her quite good English as we replied in our serviceable French. We felt comfortable, never rushed and never ignored, on a mid-week night in the half-full house.

Since the girls both went for the cassoulet, and since I knew that they would provide an informed, honest opinion, I decided to try something different. I began with a smoked salmon appetizer - good quality salmon sliced thicker than usual, served with a dab of whipped, herbed cheese and assorted greens. Well done. For my main, duck tartare. I enjoy a good beef tartare but this was my first try at duck. Our server pulled a small table over next to ours and proceeded to make a light mayonnaise from scratch, then added shallot and capers and other goodies. The mound of seasoned tartare that resulted was simply wonderful, fresh and sweet and delicious.

Now, the cassoulet.   

Served as it should be, piping hot in their earthenware pots with an empty plate on the side for the actual eating, both girls found the dish to be outstanding. Plenty of meat including pork rind to flavor the beans. Beans well seasoned and not over cooked. Soupier than some. And I should note that several online comments criticized the broth as being too light. Thus my intro to this piece. The light broth is simply one iteration of the dish. Not a failure but a difference.

Cathey found the dressing on the small side salad particularly intriguing. She inquired and was told that the secret was the combination of cider and wine vinegars, the proportions of which would remain secret.

For dessert, an in-house apple tart with a spoon of ice cream. If Cathey liked the salad dressing, she flat out envied the buttery pastry of the tart.

With an appropriately schiste-flavored rose with the meal, the tab for three came to 142 euros. Hefty but not out of line for the quality of the meal. Le Colombier may be a restaurant that we will never visit again but we're very happy to have visited it once.

Visit all of my restaurant reviews HERE.

  







Monday, May 22, 2017

LA COUR PAVEE, PEZENAS CREPERIE: QUICK TAKE

If you can find a place to park, Pezenas is worth a visit on a pleasant Saturday morning. The market is in full swing and the sheer mass of stuff offered for purchase tires out your eyes. The artisans in the old town display all manner of handmade, unique, or just plain interesting goodies. You might come upon a wordworker, jeweler, or weaver plying their craft. And there are restaurants at every turn.

Come noontime on a recent Saturday, four of us lunched at La Cour Pavee, advertising itself as a creperie bretonne. Indeed, we sat in a paved courtyard under a canopy of green with blooming bougainvillea covering a stone wall above us. Pleasant space.

We started by ordering a crisp salad featuring artichoke hearts, bleu cheese, ripe tomato slices, and toasted bread. Plenty to share and the server was happy to provide four plates and sets of utensils. Then came the galettes, savory crepes made from buckwheat flour. I don't know why these are so hard to find in the States. We each ordered our personal favorite and shared around bits that featured all sorts of cheeses, meats, and veggies, nicely spiced, with or without egg. After, we shared two dessert crepes, one with chocolate and almonds, one with crunchy meringue bits and lemon curd. With the meal, one of our party sipped a light white wine. The rest of us shared a pitcher of hard cider. After, coffee.

I can't speak to the bill. Our visiting friend managed to pay the bill during an ostensible trip to the loo. But the prices on the menu were reasonable, the portions generous and filling, the service proper, and the ambience soothing...after we convinced management to change the music from techno to jazz.

Recommended.




Thursday, May 18, 2017

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

L'AUBERGE DE LA CROISADE, CRUZY: RESTAURANT REVIEW

When we first arrived in our little corner of the Languedoc (now Occitanie) over a dozen years ago, L'Auberge de la Croisade was a go-to restaurant for upscale dining and special occasions. No wonder. The rural setting with boats passing almost within arm's length along the Canal du Midi was thoroughly inviting when viewed through the broad windows of the four-season room. Crisp linens, polished glassware, a comprehensive menu, and Bruno (the bubbling multi-lingual maitre d') promised a memorable French dining experience. And La Croisade and Bruno delivered more often than not.

And then, for some reason, years passed without a visit. We drove by frequently. We dined out often. But we just stopped going to La Croisade. Maybe because we were busily exploring new places to dine. Maybe because of rumors that the kitchen had been placing too much reliance on a rather muddy brown sauce. In any event, we had simply taken La Croisade out of our rotation.

A few weeks ago, a fiend whose taste we trust mentioned a satisfying formula lunch at La Croisade - 16.50 plus wine for a start, a main, and dessert. We decided to give it a go. We were not disappointed.

All was as remembered. Still the same effusive greeting from Bruno, although his forehead was a bit higher and his hair a bit greyer. (Forgive me, Bruno.) Still the same view, the same thoughtful appointments.

Only one of our party of six opted for an aperitif. The rest of us worked on a bottle of local rose. We finished two bottles before the afternoon's end. A little bowl of luques accompanied by small, cheesy little biscuits served to whet the appetite. The formula consisted of one menu item and one daily special for both the start and the main. For starters, the menu item featured a leaf of lettuce stuffed with bits of shrimp, sour cream, and rice vermicelli. Slices of smoked salmon stuffed with diced veggies comprised the special. Both were fitting portions, well constructed, although my salmon was not of the highest quality. Acceptable, certainly. Just not the best available. Quibble. The menu main was confit de canard on a bed of penne in cream sauce accompanied by a port reduction (not muddy). The larger bits of confit were a bit dry, as more than one of us noticed, but again...quibble. The sea bass special with a crab-based emulsion (not muddy) was perfect. The dessert assiette gourmand finished things off nicely.

With the one aperitif, the two bottles of rose, and coffees at the finish, the tab came to just under 25 euros per person. A satisfactory meal in a pleasant setting with cheerful and attentive service.

Recommended.


Stuffed Smoked Salmon


Lettuce Leaf Stuffed with Shrimp


Confit de Canard over Penne

Sea Bass



Thursday, May 11, 2017

O VIEUX TONNEAUX, PEYRIAC-DE-MER: RESTAURANT REVIEW

Peyriac-de-Mer is one of those pretty little villages along the Med in the south of France that can be thoroughly enjoyed by folks like us, ex-pats with time on our hands and an interest in the local scenery, for about nine months out of the year. You can find a place to park. You can stroll along the seaside or through tight, quaint little alleyways at your leisure. The vendors in the square on market day have the time to give you their undivided attention, demonstrating both their wares and their charm. But come June, July, and August all bets are off. Peyriac will be packed. All day. Every day.
 
Don't get me wrong, I don't begrudge tourists their right to experience places like Peyriac and I don't begrudge Peyriac the right to make hay while the sun shines. I'm not one of those callous transplants who doesn't understand those truths. I simply bring up the point so that you, dear reader, understand that it's probably not a good idea to visit Peyriac during high season unless that's the only time available to you. If you must, you must. Be forewarned.

Vieux Tonneaux translates to Old Barrels. I didn't notice any old barrels during our recent visit on a gray April day but I wasn't looking. I did see a number of picnic tables in a square in the middle of town giving way to a slightly dark, inviting, pub-like interior divided into a couple of rooms with booths and tables reasonably well separated and reasonably comfortable. Slates announced the day's special and listed available wines. We were a tad early, just before noon, almost the first in. But by the time that we left, the joint was nearly at capacity both inside and out.

Two of our party of five chose the special - an endive salad with lardons; faux filet with a light mushroom sauce, veggies and a baked potato; and a fruit salad for dessert. The starter salad was full and crisp with a typical cream dressing. The beef was French beef, done to order and not as chewy as some. And the fruit salad was fresh, not canned, and interestingly flavored with verveine (verbena) and cinnamon. All good. Three of us went for a regular menu item featuring locally sourced tastes - a nice portion of dried, smoked ham accompanied by a toast smeared with tapanade followed by a stack of perfectly grilled lamb, veggies, creamed potatoes, and onion confit. I just love French lamb.

Service was spot on and the waitress was happy to find out for us how the fruit salad had been spiced. With a liter of rose en pichet and four coffees at the finish, 99 euros.

I may have told this story before but it's worth repeating. A foodie friend once asked me if I preferred one meal at a Michelin Star restaurant or three bar-food meals for the same price. My answer was, "It depends." Some days you want to have your palate challenged. Some days you just want some good grub. This was good grub.





Sunday, May 7, 2017

ABBEY FONTFROIDE: CONTEMPLATING THE NATURE OF NATURE


It's a quiet day at Abbey Fontfroide. No special events. No crowds. I sit on a bench in the rose garden, many varieties in full flower even this early in the season. A gentle breeze whispers through the foliage, surrounding me with the perfume of a thousand blooms. Birdsong erupts, fades, erupts again. I can imagine an acolyte in this very spot a thousand years ago, more isolated from the rest of the world than a modern man can imagine, seeking spiritual guidance.

My head tells me that this confluence of sight, sound, and smell is the result of geological forces, of mutation and evolution, random acts of chemistry. My heart urges me to be thankful. My head asks, "Thankful to whom?" My heart refuses to continue the conversation.

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

LA CAMBUSE DU SAUNIER, GRUISSAN: RESTAURANT REVIEW

Salt has always been a valuable commodity. From preserving meat and fish to enhancing the flavor of cooked foods to enticing wild game out into the open, salt has a permanent place in human history going back millennia. And so wherever the configuration of sea and shore facilitate the large-scale evaporation of sea water over the shallows leaving sea salt behind, humans have taken advantage. One such place is outside of Gruissan along the Mediterranean coast not far from Narbonne. Salt has been harvested there for generations, hundreds if not thousands of years.

There are restaurants at destinations, restaurants that benefit from their location in an area that attracts tourists, and there are destination restaurants, restaurants that are sufficiently interesting in and of themselves to warrant going a bit out of your way to make a special visit. La Cambuse du Saunier on Gruissan's salt flats is a bit of both.

Uniquely situated directly adjacent to the salt flats, the sight of the pink-tinted drying pools and impressive mounds of harvested salt are almost worth the trip in themselves. Add a gift shop that features all sorts of salty stuff, the wines of the region, displays of tools used in the harvest now and in the past, and a tiny theater showing a short video describing the harvesting process and you really don't need to stop by the restaurant to enjoy your visit. La Cambuse is a restaurant at a destination.

But wait. There's more. La Cambuse presents varieties of seafood not always available even in local seafood restaurants. And many of the main dishes are baked in salt, giving both fish and meats unique flavors. For these and other reasons, La Cambuse is a destination restaurant.

As high season approaches, reservations are mandatory. When our party of five arrived, we were directed to one of a series of long picnic tables with benches where five places had been set. Our server greeted us with a very tasty, sweet aperitif, a small taste of rose wine that had been steeped with orange peels and fortified with anisette. We were given menus and a slate of the day's specials. Our orders came from both.

We began by sharing a dozen oysters and a dozen shrimp. The oysters were plump and briny, the shrimp sweet and mild. Four of our group chose the salad with bits of octopus, a full portion and well designed and executed. I had a bowl full of small, steamed clams with lots of butter and garlic. Yum!

Three of us chose main courses baked in salt - two had the sea bass and I had a duck breast. The fish, fully intact, came encrusted with salt. But once the skin had been peeled away, the ladies reported that there was no particular salt taste to the flesh which had survived moist and flavorful. My duck did carry the taste of the salt with it, different and interesting without being overpowering. The other two mains were a cassoulet featuring seche and a seafood assiette with a wide variety of forms and tastes, from razor clams to shrimp and more. All very satisfactory.

We were too full for dessert but three of us went for coffee. With a bottle of rose and a bottle of white en pichet the tab came to just over 200 euros for five. We found that a bit hefty. And there was a mix up with our order. Two mains were served at the same time as the starts and the other three arrived some time later. Apologies but no adjustments.

In sum, our visit to La Cambuse du Saunier was interesting and informative, with new sights and tastes. But given the value for dollar, this restaurant will not go into our regular rotation, either for ourselves or for visiting travelers. True foodies, maybe. But that's about it.