Friday, November 25, 2011

Two Hours and Two Bottles of Wine

There's not a country in the world, perhaps in the universe, in which folks take food as seriously as they do in France. I suppose that the Italians and the Spanish and the Greeks might disagree, and to be sure the cuisines of those countries aren’t the only ones that deserve thorough investigation. But the French are just so gosh darn serious about it. From the epic and definitive (in its day) Larousse Gastronomique to iconic Julia Child and her revival through the efforts of that annoying Julie person, the French and those who treasure the French style have set the standard. It's idiomatic: If you haven't studied in France, if you haven't apprenticed in France, if you haven't cooked in France, you haven't made The Big Show.

For the less sports-minded among you, The Big Show – or just The Show – is how minor leaguers refer to Major League Baseball.

I don't mean to imply that there's no such thing as bad food or fast food in France. The French can be in a hurry and are not above eating on the run. But we're not talking about tuna fish salad stuffed between two slices of white bread. And, although McDonald's and KFC and others have made inroads physically if not culturally, French fast food isn't about drive-thrus. Thank God that abomination hasn’t penetrated into the Languedoc.

So what exactly is French fast food? Particularly in the cities but throughout France, you can see folks hustling down the sidewalk, sandwich in hand…one of those great baguettes, cut in half, sliced lengthwise, and containing a fresh lettuce leaf, a slice of cheese, and a taste of meat, just enough to flavor the loaf but not overwhelm it. Now that’s my idea of fast food.

But this post is about restaurants. Not the Five-Star variety, but the restaurants that you find in the small villages with menus driven by chefs with enough skill and enough capital to cook what they want to cook when they want to cook it. This can be a good thing or this can go wrong. Two examples:

The Hotel Residence in Nissan lez Enserune is owned and operated by Bernadette and Philippe SANS. It’s a perfect match. Philippe is an accomplished chef and Bernadette loves to decorate. Between them they are transforming the hotel from a working-class village’s commercial traveler stop to a destination location with rooms either filled with country French ‘antiques’ or rooms fully modern with wi-fi and hot tub. Our preference is a second floor room in the main house facing the pool. (First floor for Brits and Europeans.)

The menu for the restaurant can be found on the hotel’s website: http://www.hotel-residence.com. The fare is diverse, creative, and reasonably priced for the quality. A French –native friend who has spent a lifetime in the high-end food and beverage industry stayed at the hotel for a week at our recommendation as he toured the Languedoc with his American-born wife. He reports that he enjoyed the restaurant so much that they never felt the need to have dinner anywhere else. I can think of no greater recommendation.

Although when we first visited the Hotel Residence several years ago the restaurant was only available to guests for dinner, the restaurant now serves lunch and dinner and is open to the public. If you’re planning to visit the Languedoc and prefer small hotels in the midst of French village life, you really must consider staying with Philippe and Bernadette. At the very least, take a meal with them. If you see Philippe or Bernadette, tell them Monsieur Faro sent you.

Not every chef pulls it off as well as Philippe, though. Take the case of the restaurant in the Hotel Pressoir in Cazouls-les-Beziers. The establishment – both the hotel and the restaurant – are owned by the Furlans and I assume that Monsieur Furlan is the chef, a big balding guy with a moustache. When we first arrived in Cazouls, the restaurant was a simple neighborhood joint, as good as anything of its type in the area, serving a thick, earthy seafood stew, personal pizzas, steak frites, and the like. Then the place changed hands, the restaurant was renamed Les Agapes, and things are definitely not the same. The offerings became more diverse, the prices pushed higher, and the comparison to restaurants at that next level became less flattering. We ate Furlan’s cooking once in a large group several years ago and have not returned since. I’m not saying that the food was inedible; it just didn’t have the flair necessary to justify the price. Clearly, Furlan aspired to culinary heights to which his talents were not capable.

So how do you choose? Take the recommendations of those who know. Here are our favorites:

1.    Le Patio, Nissan-lez-Enserune: Also owned by the SANS, a delightful little place, less expensive than the Hotel Residence, to take lunch or dinner with friends. Fresh ingredients, well-prepared and thoughtfully presented. In good weather, dine on the patio.
2.    Le Provence, Capestang: Another of those local joints with a charming patio. The menu includes an earthy seafood soup for the brave, lots of appetizers and entrees to choose from, and personal pizzas (try the one with foies-gras).
3.    Le Terminus, between Cruzy and Quarante: This is a recent find, recommended to us by a Brit contractor in the area. New young owners have turned this former train station out in the country into a perfect spot to enjoy a couple of hours in the sun sampling authentic country cooking.
4.    Le Mewen, Narbonne: A couple of blocks from Les Halles, Narbonne’s comprehensive covered market, Le Mewen is an old-fashioned creperie without frills serving both sweet and savory concoctions. Try the apple cider instead of wine.
5.    L'Auberge de la Croisade, on the Canal du Midi, near Cruzy: This upscale restaurant is our special place along with the Hotel Residence. Your host is multi-lingual, full of energetic hospitality, and the food is to die for. There are those who say that the menu has grown a bit lazy, but we don’t visit often enough to notice.
6.    Hotel Jalabert, Ouveillan: This place is definitely NOT for everyone. A funky old restaurant in a backwater hotel with exactly zero ambience, the feisty old Madame will serve what she wants, when she wants. She’s got a heart of gold, though, even if she’s missing most of her teeth; she’ll take the time to cut the meat into bite-sized pieces for the ancient villagers who have been her customers since the year the cow had a two-headed calf. We love it. You’re likely to think I’m crazy.

Remember, in most places lunch is served beginning at noon and ending at 2:00 PM. And that doesn’t mean that you can show up at 1:45 and expect service. Dinner may start earlier than 8:00 PM but don’t count on it. CALL FOR RESERVATIONS, particularly for your evening meal. If you just show up, you may not be able to get a table, particularly as the weekend approaches.

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