RESTAURANTS IN FRANCE: COST OF LIVING - PART 3

One of the great joys of living in France is the simple fact that the French take their food so seriously. I'm not talking only about the highbrow, structured craziness of the Michelin Guide and its star system. There's no doubt that folks looking for a Michelin star or two are serious about food. I'm talking about the local pub that serves lunch to workmen on a weekday as well, the neighborhood restaurant that families visit for a dinner out on a Saturday night. The one thing that they have in common is that, if they don't serve quality ingredients, well-prepared and well-presented, they simply won't last. I don't know if the statistics on the survival of new restaurants are as dire as they are in the USofA. But the restaurants that I enjoy and have enjoyed during my ten-year residence in the region have exhibited remarkable staying power. And those that have left me meh, haven't.

Let's start at the bottom and work our way up.

FAST FOOD

In less than a half hour, I can have me a Big Mac or a Whopper right here in France. Seriously. They look like and they taste like they do in the States. They might actually cost a bit less given the current strength of the dollar against the euro. Not that I'm a regular visitor. We stop at BK maybe once a year if we're out shopping and hungry. I can't abide Mickey D's except for the fries. I've had maybe two batches in ten years. There’s a KFC not far away, too. But I have to say that, having tried a bucket once, I’m not going back. I’m particular about my fried chicken, I can abide KFC in the States, but the French version just didn’t cut it.

Of course the French have their own version of fast food. There's a thing that the French call a taco. It's never seen a tortilla, though. A panini, really. Bread with stuffing. But they call it a taco. I may try one out of desperation if the opportunity presents, but I won't go out of my way. And there are cafeterias and buffets and burger joints in shopping centers and malls and on the highways and they are what they are. 

I've actually visited a couple of burger joints that are worth a second shot. A good burger is, after all, a good burger. Count yourself lucky if you've fond one. The problem is usually the bun. The French don't generally do soft, squishy, white bread buns. Most often, you get a sort of brioche bun that falls apart as soon as you put pressure on it.

Lots of pizza places, mostly inedible. The thin, crispy crusts amount to what I call crackers with toppings. On the other hand, Pizze di Rosa on St. Chinian serves pizza with interesting toppings, with Italian beer, and with a chewy crust to die for. We visit every month or so.

BAR FOOD

Most villages that are more than hamlets support some sort of watering hole, a place to go to at the very least enjoy a pastis after work...or first thing in the morning. It's 5pm somewhere. The best of them serve food, and we are fortunate to have two pretty good exemplars close by, one right in town.

Our Bar 40 serves lunch Monday through Friday and dinner Friday and Saturday night. The lunch menu changes every day and features a starter, a main dish and dessert. Add a glass of wine and pay a total of 20USD more or less. Starters are usually a salad that's a plateful and interestingly constructed or a charcuterie plate. Recent mains have included stir-fried duck, slow cooked lamb, beef stew, chicken stew, and beef tartare. Seafood every Friday. Ice cream or a cheese plate or a dessert of the day to finish. The wine comes from just down the road. What's not to like? 

Dinner on Friday and Saturday nights can be ordered from a menu that includes specialty burgers,  steaks, grilled and fried bits and bobs, and a special or two. Those sorts of menus in that sort of place can run from 18USD to 25USD per person for lunch and 20 to 30USD for dinner including a bottle of local wine. The quality and variety does vary from shockingly good to just average. Never inedible. Well, almost never. Once or twice in ten years.

HIGHWAY/NEIGHBORHOOD RESTAURANTS

Highway rest stops aside, there's a class of French restaurant called a relais. Recently, it seems to have become chic to name an upscale restaurant a relais, but that's not the original meaning. They were and are truck stops on back roads, roads that used to be main roads before the expressway. Mostly in smaller roadside villages, they are known for serving simple, inexpensive meals. Le Relais Bleu in Capestang, the next village over, is a bar/hotel/restaurant on the main road that runs through the south side of town. The website features two-course specials as low as 15USD. And for some reason, the sign out front makes certain that you know when couscous is on the menu.

At the same time, within several blocks of that main road back into town, you can find a dozen restaurants in Capestang, some new, some around when we arrived ten years ago. A restaurant featuring, but not limited to, wood-fire pizza. A restaurant advertising home cooking that folks say really isn't. Seafood and grilled meat and a place for dinner that you really should dress up for. All with distinct personalities and peculiarities.

In other words, in a small village of 3,500 souls, you can find a restaurant serving pretty much whatever you are in the mood to be eating. Keep in mind though, Capestang is on the Canal du Midi and is a popular vacation-home spot and tourist destination for boaters. That creates a little extra choice...and a little extra price. Still, an enjoyable, multi-course lunch generally comes in under 30 - 35USD per person with a glass of wine. Dinner, including a bottle, more like 40 - 50USD and up.

A STEP UP

We always have a restaurant or two that we save for special occasions, not necessarily a favorite or the most creative, but the one that can guarantee a satisfactory, relatively upscale dining experience at a reasonable price. In our neck of the woods, that could mean Auberge de la Croisade. With views over the Canal du Midi and an outdoor terrace, a glass-enclosed sun porch, and a well-appointed interior dining room, many friends celebrate birthdays and anniversaries there. Quality slipped a while back, but a new chef redeemed the restaurant's reputation. A three-course dinner menu starts at about 40USD per person plus drinks. More extensive tasting formulas and choosing from the menu is also possible.

Another favorite, Le Chat Qui Peche features a dinner menu composed mostly of hefty tapas, plates that feature interesting tastes meant to be combined to form a meal or shared around the table. With drinks, it's easy to spend 50USD per person. Always satisfactory mouth-tingling tidbits.

EXPERIENCES

And then there are the special places, not meant for everyone, even some of your friends. Our special place is the Auberge de Madale, about an hour's drive north up in the hills. Chef/Owner Stefan puts out a fixed price, fixed menu, five course lunch and dinner with wine included for about 50USD per person. Worth twice as much and indeed, you will pay twice that much for a similar meal in many places. Reservations only. The menu changes every two weeks and is posted on the internet. We're headed there next week. All of the below and more during three amazing hours of culinary delight:

Pork consomme with fresh herbs and asparagus tempura,
Pea and shallot tart with wild garlic sorbet,
Trout cannelloni,
Roasted duck breast,
Black Forest chocolate with cherries and kirsch,
Coffee and a homemade marshmallow,
 
Not everyone finds a medley like that attractive. Too fussy, one table mate said.  We don't find it so. Tasting menus are just that, diverse tastes and textures presented together, sometimes on the same plate. And did you notice? Wild garlic sorbet? You find it hard to believe that would work? Let me tell you. I thought the same about cauliflower sorbet. It worked.

THE REST

Asian Indian restaurants and Thai food trucks and and a place where servers wearing Levis and lumberjack flannels weave around statues of cowboys and Indians. Crepes can be filled with whatever you can imagine - savory and sweet. Chinese buffet? Check. Kebab joints? Check. Farms that raise the chickens that they roast on a spit in the fireplace, ten at a time? Check.

Mediterranean seafood deserves its own page if that's your sweet spot. Oysters and shrimp and mussels and clams and all sorts of little shelled creatures unfortunate enough to taste good to those willing to dig them out. Not my thing, though. My thing is grilled meat, Spain is just down the road, and the lamb chops are perfection, time after time..  

IN SUM

If eating is your thing, France is your place.



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