LANGUEDOC FOOD AND RESTAURANT REVIEW PAGE

This is where I'll consolidate all of my restaurant reviews and foodie stuff. Content will originate exclusively from my blog, so if you follow France, Food, Scooters and More, you won't be missing anything here. Updated with every new review. Comments? All the way at the bottom of the page. I'll read every one. Enjoy.

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LE COLOMBIER, TOULOUSE

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.








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LA COUR PAVEE, PEZENAS CREPERIE

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.




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 L'AUBERGE DE LA CROISADE, CRUZY

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



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O VIEUX TONNEAUX, PEYRIAC-DE-MER

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.






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LA CAMBUSE DU SAUNIER, GRUISSAN

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.











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AU LAVOIR, COLOMBIERS

We live in a town that doesn't do very much to encourage growth or tourism. The streets are rough and bumpy, the tinted glass has been broken out of the street light nearest our house since we moved in three years ago, and the fountain in the square was activated this week for the first time since we arrived. Oddly enough, many of us like it that way. Quarante is a quiet little village, not on a main road to anywhere, but with a fine baker, two excellent butchers, and a bar that serves edible if not exciting food. We could use an ATM (cash point, money wall...) and a gas (petrol, essence) station but otherwise, most of us are happy that Quarante is a backwater.

Colombiers, on the other hand, seems determined to do everything possible to turn itself into a crowded, overdeveloped, cash hungry example of all that folks like us are looking to avoid when we move to the rural south of France. Ugly apartment blocks? Check. Newly constructed condos with a 'view', meaning you can see a tiny slice of the Canal du Midi from the top floors? Check. And detours lasting months...years...to accommodate construction? Check. I was pleased, therefore, to learn that the restaurant to which a friend invited us in Colombiers was not in town center but along the undeveloped section of the Canal just over the little bridge on the road from Montady.

Au Lavoir occupies a pleasant space. There are a few parking spaces for early arrivals in the courtyard and a few outside tables for when the weather warms. Our party of four were greeted inside by servers who took our coats and led us to the table where three of our friends were already seated. Nice room. Nice table.

And then things started to go downhill.

A small tray of amuse-bouches sat mid table, a cup of lucques (olives) and a little bowl of fish dip with a few chips of toast - enough for three, not for seven, and never replenished to fit the size of the party. Service was slow, positively snail-paced at some points in the meal, and for the most part the food was unremarkable. One could almost excuse the pace of service. We dined on a Saturday night - a night that we usually avoid. And our table mates informed us that a second dining room had just been opened to handle the expected crowds as the tourist season began to liven up. So, growing pains. But let's talk about the food.   

The entire table began with foie-gras, a nicely seared slice snuggled between columns of pineapple and topped with a bit of greens. Foie-gras is easy if you buy well and this was good foie-gras. I chose the lamb for my main, Cathey the sole. Both were acceptable if unremarkable. My simple, slow-cooked shank with a bit of reduction was accompanied by what appeared to be pureed fava, the most inventive bit of the evening. The best that can be said for the lamb is that the chef didn't screw it up. Same goes for Cathey's sole with a pistachio crust. Nice piece of fish properly cooked. Nothing more

Others at the table ordered a veal dish and a beef dish and claimed satisfaction. A lobster tail was sent back to be heated.

For dessert, I had the molten chocolate cake. Again, done properly but without any originality. A friend's plate of little pears looked interesting. And a little digestif at the end was cute, a bit of coconut cream with chipped chocolate and a tiny bite of a sweet bread.

The table shared still and gassed water, a bottle of local rose, a bottle of local red, and a demi of viognier. The tab came to 45 euros per person.

For that price, one expects attentive service and thoughtful, inventive renderings. That's too much for ordinary fare.





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HALLEGRIA IN LES HALLES, BEZIERS 

Years ago when we first visited, Beziers' covered market was a disappointment. They seem to have spent some time in the interim, though, upgrading the quality of the merchants on the inside and there's substantial construction taking place around the exterior to facilitate traffic circulation. I don't think that the end result will rival Les Halles in Narbonne but I'm glad for the improvements. When we were in Beziers for a morning appointment and afternoon shopping recently, Les Halles was along the way. We decided to see what sort of lunch we could find. We found Hallegria. We were not disappointed.

At noon the market was winding down and Hallegria was almost deserted. We needn't have worried. By the time that we finished, a lively crowd had gathered. It turns out that Hallegria has a dedicated entrance from the outside and is therefore not totally dependent on Les Halles traffic and hours. The menu on a large, fold-up chalk board was wheeled over and was quite comprehensive. But we all settled for the formula of the day. Start and main or main and dessert for 14.50 euros, all three for 17.50 euros. The start was rillette of saumon fume, two scoops of shredded smoked salmon held together with creme fraiche and topped by lemon wedges. A small side of greens with a pleasant balsamic dressing accompanied the rillette perfectly. Three grilled lamb chops provided the centerpiece of a main plate that included a mound of creamy mashed potatoes, sauteed trumpets, and a taste of ratatouille. Fine French lamb properly grilled. For dessert, a boule of vanilla ice cream between bits of pastry with red fruit and dollops of chantilly. Very refreshing. Our water bottle was kept full and cold. There was plenty of fresh, grainy, crusty bread. And we finished off a bottle of nice rose.

Service was attentive without being intrusive. (I say that a lot. It's my standard. Be around. Be aware. But don't bug me.) Food came in an orderly, unhurried fashion. And although three of our party of four only ordered two of the three courses, we all left full and satisfied. 77 euros total, a bit more than a three-course featuring steak/frites and jug wine but of superior quality. Well worth the price.

Recommended.

PS: While Hallegria doesn't have the feel of a sports bar, there were two televisions in sight of our table. They were showing Moto GP. As a motorhead, I found that an added bonus. You might not.

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CAFE DES ARTS, BEZIERS - QUICK TAKE

It had been a busy morning. We were tired. We had to wait to do our last little bit of business in central Beziers until after lunch. So we found the Cafe des Arts just off the Allee Paul Piquet and settled in for a quick bite.

Primitive oil paintings of clowns? Really?

The waiter touted the special - a mixed salad, beef bourguignon, and dessert. Not feeling quite that hungry, we ordered off the slate. Two of us went for the bavette, two for confit de canard. French beef is French beef. If you know what to expect, you won't be disappointed. The two who ordered the bavette knew what to expect and were not disappointed. The confit was a proper joint, properly prepared. The frites were fresh, not reconstituted. The bread was grainy and crusty. Service was attentive without being intrusive. And the pink en pichet was quaffable. With two coffees at the finish, 54 euros and change.

As we left, we noticed some nicely presented plates on other tables. The pizza looked interesting and the salad well constructed. If we'd been less tired and more interested in dining, we might have been a bit more adventurous. It's hard to say if we'll return. There are so many choices in the area. But they took care of our hunger and didn't charge too much, so we have no complaints.

Worth a visit. 

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AUBERGE DE REALS: CESSENON-SUR-ORB

One of the pleasures of living in this part of the world is discovering new places to enjoy well-prepared, reasonably priced meals in pleasant surroundings with congenial hosts. Auberge de Reals typifies that pleasure. The restaurant is located near a picturesque bridge over the Orb River off the main road between Cazouls-les-Beziers and Cessenon sur Orb. The view from the terrace must be quite nice in summer but we came in late January and so had to 'settle' for the main dining room with its crackling fire, stone walls, wooden beams, and tile floors. Be aware, in winter the Auberge is closed Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday. We joined a healthy Thursday lunch crowd, very congenial, many of whom seemed to be local regulars.

Service was attentive without being intrusive, pleasant without being overly familiar. Given the nearly full house, our orders arrived surprisingly briskly, not hurried but not as leisurely as some restaurants in the region.

We ordered from the daily formula. Our salads came with a chunk of buttery fresh bread topped with a slice of quality goat cheese broiled just right. Simple greens, small wedges of tomato, slices of mushroom, and a mustardy cream sauce. Cathey ordered the fish casserole, chunks of white-fleshed fish (cod?) in a creamy sauce with carrots and with a lightly breaded crust. Tasty and a proper portion. Her side of rice was delicately flavored, not the typically bland side carb. I had the andouillette, a funky trash-meat sausage grilled properly and accompanied by a mound of crisp fries and another little taste of dressed greens. For dessert, Cathey had a flan-like citrus cream chock full of orange zest and I had the floating island topped with shaved, roasted almonds. Fitting endings.

With a demi of rosé (presented in a bucket of ice) and coffee for me, our total bill came to 33 euros. That's 12,50 each for the three-course formula plus wine and coffee. More than reasonable. We'll bring friends. Often. 






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TRUFFLE MARKET IN PICS - JANUARY, 2017



First, the guy with The Nose checks out what the harvesters bring. They shake hands. They discuss. The aroma when one of the harvesters opened his container and presented his goods to The Nose, plus the fact that very little trimming of his harvested truffles was required, caused Cathey to choose him as our target.
Preparing for inspection...
Each and every truffle is inspected individually. The Nose slices off a small bit. The guy on the right assists.
The Nose takes a sniff.
Sniffing is serious stuff.


Our friend Nicola confirms with The Nose, it's all about the aroma. Little else matters.
Those that pass inspection are weighed and recorded to add to the report of the national harvest. Those that fail are put aside. There is no discussion. The Nose has the final word. Those that pass are put in a sealed sack to prevent hanky-panky.
Meanwhile, elsewhere in the market you can buy a half dozen eggs sealed with a bit of truffle for 13.50 euros.
Or you can buy a jug of quite fine local whiskey for 50 euros. Other items for sale include little treelets that will grow into the type that harbor truffles, truffle infused butter and brie, saffron products, and an importer of beers - including Coors Light.
At the appointed hour, the scales come out and the sealed sacks are opened.
The crowd waits behind a rope line for one of the chevaliers to fire off a blank, the rope line drops, and we all rush to our chosen harvester to get the best ones on offer.
Our truffle, about two-thirds the size of a medium egg, cost 23 euros. In the States it would easily bring four times as much.
Cathey shaved it all. No saving it. Buy it and use it.
I prefer mine with eggs and a bit of Toulouse sausage.
Cathey prefers hers with simple, fresh pasta.
And so it goes in the community hall of the town of Villeneuve Minervois until the next market there in early February. We may choose to go. If not, see you next year.


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L'ARTICA BAKERY AND CAFE: ALQUEZAR, SPAIN

When it's off season and you are visiting a vacation destination early in the week, choices can be limited. The only bakery/cafe that was open at the beginning of our stay in Alquezar was L'Artica. It was enough. We never even walked through the doors of the others after they opened.

The bread display case was filled with enticing goodies. Both the main and the upper floor featured small balconies with views over a rocky gorge. The coffee filled the mid morning bill. The beer was cold. (Yes, a bakery with a bar!) And the food hearty and priced right.

We lunched on Tuesday and Wednesday. On Tuesday, I had a French loaf filled with scrambled eggs and sausage while Cathey enjoyed dense, toasted bread topped by salt cod. On Wednesday, I chose a smoked salmon/hard-boiled egg sandwich while Cathey munched on an assortment of charcuterie on toast. Each with beer. Each meal for less than 25 euros total. Cheerful attentive service. Pleasant surroundings. Recommended.





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LE TERMINUS, CRUZY

When Cathey suggested that we have lunch out on Sunday and that we stick close by, Le Terminus immediately came to mind. It's just down the road, we've eaten there on several occasions, and we've always enjoyed it. So I was surprised to find that I'd never fully reviewed Le Terminus as I searched through my blog. True, it appeared on a couple of lists of restaurants worth a visit. But a formal review? Nope. Couldn't find one. So here goes.

Located in the old train station between the towns of Quarante and Cruzy, the new young owners have created a thriving, bustling dining experience. In the summer, there are tapas nights with music. Special meals are featured on major holidays, even for take-out. The 16 euro lunch menu is always interesting. So Le Terminus is a local hotspot. On the Sunday that we arrived, the shabby-chic main dining room was fully packed. (And a bit noisy...) And the 16 euro weekday formula menu had morphed into a 30 euro menu. But one expects paying a premium for quality weekend dining.

I was a bit surprised at the extent of that premium, but more on that later.

A small dish of lucques, local olives fresh off the tree, greeted us at the table. No amusée bouche was forthcoming. We chose from the aforementioned 30 euro menu. Cathey started with the rouget (red mullet). Properly (barely) cooked, the two little filets came on a bit of greens with a slice of grainy toast,\ with red pepper tapenade and a chunk of chèvre de Combebelle (the especially fine local goat cheese) underneath. Just perfect. I chose an off menu recommendation from the server, an assortment of cured hams. Tasty, enough for two, and the cause of the aforementioned premium. (Wait for it...)

We both chose the Charolais beef tartare for our main, topped with shaved Parmesan, light greens, and bits of dark toasted olive crumble. You either like tartare or you don't. We do. To be special, the tartare has to be fresh, really fresh, and naturally sweet. It was. We were both quite happy.

I chose a chocolate confection with a caramelized crust at the bottom for dessert. (See the pic.) I've said it before. The French know chocolate. Scrumdiddlyumptious. Cathey's baba was the one disappointment. For us, a baba is about the sponge and the rum. This baba was confined to a cutesy Mason jar and covered in a thick and unnecessary layer of chantilly. It's considered a specialty of the house and, from the number of servings that came out of the kitchen, it's a customer favorite. Had she known, however, Cathey would definitely have tried something different. Not a total loss, mind you. Just not Cathey's idea of a baba.

With a bottle of Mas de Cynanque rose (local, clean, bio, at 13%) and a bottle of still water, the total bill came to 92,65 euros. That's about 12 euros more than I expected. Why? Apparently, my choice of the cured hams at the start meant that I was off the formula and ordering a la carte. Maybe my French wasn't good enough to understand that would be the case when the server announced the choices. But it was a surprise and frankly, if I had realized that would be the case, I might have ordered differently.

Water under the bridge. A fine meal, prepared well, presented well, served well. We'll be back...and be more careful when ordering off menu and choosing desserts.






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BACHELOR MEAL #1 - SCRAMBLED EGGS

The Southern Woman That I Married is visiting family in the Colonies. I'm on my own. That's not to say that friends haven't stepped up with dinner invites. They say that they are 'taking care of me' as if I'm incapable of feeding myself. But I do know my way around the kitchen. And I don't mean that I can heat a frozen pizza.(Well, I can. But only once in a while.)

Every student, solo apartment dweller, and spouse winging it alone has relied on scrambled eggs for sustenance at some point. They're cheap and they're easy and we know how to fix them just the way that we like them. So why am I writing about scrambled eggs? Well, you've got your recipe and I've got mine. After a great deal of experimentation - and not a few failures - I've finally come up with a method that works for me. Every time. Since I've probably tried your recipe already, it's time to see if you are willing to try mine.

Now, I know that there are many schools of thought. Mix the eggs in a bowl. Add water to the eggs. Add milk to the eggs. Add cream to the eggs. Salt in the pan. Salt on the plate. Use a nonstick pan. Use a cast iron pan. Cook in butter. Cook in vegetable oil, sunflower oil, canola oil, olive oil. The possibilities are endless. And, of course, every cooking site has seventy-three recipes and every chef/cook/blogger has THE answer.

I have THE answer.

MY answer, anyway.

Here goes:

Note the ingredients. Two eggs - locally sourced, fresh, and never refrigerated. Saucisse de foie, a livery bit of hard sausage from the local butcher. Bleu de Causses, my favorite bleu cheese. Olive oil, locally sourced, fresh and buttery. Slices of petrissane, a soft and crusty, slightly grainy bread fresh from the local bakery, preferred over a baguette. Tomatoes fresh from the garden of a local producer who sells them in the market a few steps from our door. And garlic. Locally sourced. Of course.


So I pour a bit of olive oil into a cast iron skillet and heat well. Then I toast one side of the bread. While warm, I rub the toasted side first with the cut side of the garlic and then with tomato.




Then I crack the eggs into a bowl and dump them into the hot pan, stirring with a flexible spatula.


As I scramble the eggs, I add the saucisse. The bleu goes in just before the eggs are done. The heat of the eggs will melt the cheese and I don't want the cheese to stick on the pan. Cook the eggs soft or hard, to your taste.


Arrange on the plate. Sit down and eat up. No salt or pepper. The cheese is quite salty and the saucisse is well spiced. Just eat what comes out of the pan. You know what I really like about this method? The colors of the eggs stand out, yolks and whites, not mixed together but truly scrambled.


And there you have it. Bachelor Meal #1.

******

BACHELOR MEAL #2 - SAUSAGE SANDWICH

Having discussed breakfast, it's now time for lunch. A sandwich. A sausage sandwich. Across the Pond in the Colonies, particularly in the Northeast, there's a thing about sausage sandwiches. They are ubiquitous, hefty and chewy and overstuffed and sloppy and seldom very remarkable. The bread isn't as good as the bread here in France. The sausages are basic pork sausages, not very interesting. And the other ingredients...well, you get the picture. I'm a fan of French food...locally sourced, in season, grown for the taste and not the ability to be shipped across a continent. But I do miss a good sausage sandwich. So let's put together a suitably French version.

Ingredients: I start with a loaf Aveyronnais from our local baker. It's crisp on the outside, soft on the inside, a bit bigger in circumference than the average baguette but a bit smaller than the petrissane that I had for breakfast, and nice and grainy. Made, logically enough, exclusively from flour from the French region of Aveyron. For the sausage, I chose chipolatas from the butcher, a thin and lightly spiced sausage a griller (for grilling). The onions and potatoes come from local producer Fanny, the lady in the market. Now we cheat a bit. So what? I'm on my own. Nobody's watching. I don't char and peel fresh red peppers. I buy them already skinned in a jar from the super. But they're French, so it's OK. Same for the jalapeno peppers...from a jar. The mayonnaise is also store bought. In a squeeze bottle! (The Southern Woman That I Married makes fine homemade mayo. But she ain't here.) For cheese, already grated emmental in a bag, technically a Swiss cheese but milder. Sort of the French equivalent of Monterey Jack. Yes, I didn't buy a more interesting cheese and grate it myself. Mea culpa.


I start by cutting a potato into thin, thin slices. Almost crisp thin. (For the Americans in the audience, almost chip thin.) I brown them in a skillet with a bit of olive oil, then arrange them on a baking sheet and throw them in the oven to finish.




While the potatoes are roasting, I grill the chipolatas on the gas grill with the peppers and onions on the upper rack. Yes, I put the onions on top of the peppers. For this sandwich, I like the onions warm but still crisp. And yes, I use a gas grill. I also have a wood-fired grill/smoker but the gas grill works fine for this sort of thing.


I slice the Aveyronnaise lengthwise to match the length of the chipolatas, spread the mayo, lay down the peppers and onions, arrange the chipolatas, and cover with emmental. (Now I know that with hot dogs, and even the traditional American sausage sandwich, the mantra is: Dress the meat and not the bun. Well, I prefer it this way. Less mess. And I know that mayo may not sit well with everyone. Well, it's my sandwich, not yours.) I pull the baking sheet out of the oven, push aside enough of the crisps to accommodate the open-faced sandwiches, and put the sheet back into the oven until the cheese has melted.


Arrange on the plate. Salt and pepper the potatoes if you'd like. Eat. (It's not a sandwich to be eaten by hand. You can, I suppose. But married life has diluted the Neanderthal in me. Knife and fork, please.)


Bachelor Meal #2...

******

AUBERGE DE LA SELETTE, BIZE-MINERVOIS

They say that familiarity breeds contempt. Maybe that's true. We'd passed by Auberge de la Selette dozens of times if not more, sitting close by a very busy two-lane blacktop, next door to a wine shop, just around the corner from bustling L'Oulibo - the touristy olive cooperative outside of Bize Minervois. A highway joint. With a wine shop next store. And a tourist attraction around the corner. Why waste the time and money?

Over two years go by...

For some unknown reason, friends suddenly began asking us what we thought of La Selette. They liked the place. We'd never been? Let's fix that. A visit was arranged.

Worth the trip.

Five of us sat on a patio, quite close to the highway. But somehow a small retaining wall and some landscaping seemed to modify the noise of passing cars considerably. We had plenty of space although the patio was quite full. And with a bit of adjustment as the sun moved, a large parasol provided sufficient shade. That's not to say that comfort was total. The temperature exceeded 90F (32C) so the girls traded the one dainty little fan back and forth.

Enough side business. What about the food?

We all went for the 24 euro lunch, a bit pricier than our normal, wine not included. (And we went through one and one-half liters of pink and a half liter of red.) We started with a small plate of olives (local lucques) and a cheese-and-cream dip seasoned with Espelette pepper and accompanied by nice toasted bread bits. The table was a bit large for the one small plate but we managed to each get a share. A simple little glass of gazpacho followed, nothing fancy but you can't beat the local tomatoes when they are in season.

Cathey went for an escargot starter that came in four small cups. She could detect no differences between the four, and if the differences were too subtle for Cathey, they were just too subtle. Not too garlicky. I had a good-sized salad featuring what I would call Camembert fritters, four chunks of pleasantly tangy Camembert fried with a crispy crust of bread crumbs. Plenty of lettuce with a creamy dressing and a radish and onions and corn kernels. (The French have a thing for corn kernels on salads. Don't know why. I surely do miss my American sweet corn though. Nothing like that here. But again. I digress.)

Cathey had the seafood gratin for her main course - creamy, cheesy (I say that a lot, don't I? Creamy and cheesy...) piping hot fresh catch flanked by fleurettes of mashed potatoes. Very satisfying. My slow roasted lamb with black pepper and lemon confit just fell off the fork. If you like lamb, the lamb here is heavenly. The pepper threatened to be overpowering at first taste. But once I settled in, it worked. You had to like black pepper, though. Sides included mashed potato, a little dish of ratatouille (totally unnecessary), and a little spoonful of diced fresh tomato with garlic and oil.

Dessert? Of course. I had a tall, wonderfully nasty profiterole (see pic). Cathey's sorbet finished her meal cleanly and well.

I should add that there were a couple of different choices by our table mates throughout the meal. All satisfactory. The full-on cafe gourmand was quite impressive.

I can't speak to the full freight. We were treated to lunch and I don't ask. Whatever the cost, the food was well-prepared and well-presented in a no-rush, pleasant atmosphere, served by attentive, helpful servers. As it should be...

Camembert Fritters

Seafood Gratin

Slow-Roasted Lamb

Profiterole

******

 THE HAMPSHIRE BOWMAN, DUNDRIDGE

I can't swear to you that the Hampshire Bowman is a typical English pub serving a typical Sunday roast. But I trust my friends Roger and Caroline. And I do believe that they delivered when we asked to be taken to just such a pub during our recent, brief trip to England. The Hampshire Bowman looked the part, the ale was superlative, the food well prepared and reasonably priced, and the atmosphere was warm and inviting. If it wasn't typical, it should be.

After following a narrow country lane for a bit, we walked into the Bowman through the lounge. (The plaque on the door touted the sardine races. British humor? Humour?) We were greeted by a wall of barrels of ale behind the bar. (The pub dog appeared later.) I asked for something dark and malty but not too crunchy. The barkeep poured two sample glasses. One was perfect. Warm, but I expected that. I don't remember the silly name. It's a thing, I guess. Silly names for ales and beers. After we all chose and paid, Caroline decided that she wanted to sit in the bar and not the lounge, so we went through the door to the bar. And that door remained closed, separating the loungers from the hoi polloi.

And the hoi polloi arrived soon after we settled in, a happy crew of a  few well-dressed country gents outnumbered by families with kids - babes-in-arms, toddlers, and adolescents. All reasonably well behaved.

The chalkboard menu was more varied than I expected. Interesting stuff. But we were there for the roast. Three of us went for the beef, the gents the large plate and wife Cathey the small. Caroline went for the small pork roast. All came with veggies al dente, well-roasted potatoes, and a crisp Yorkshire pudding. The meat was spot on as was the abundant gravy. Roger and Caroline almost skipped dessert but, when I pointed out that I would need to order one to complete this review, they dug in like troopers. Their sticky toffee pudding and bread and butter pudding disappeared almost as quickly as my dark chocolate and rum torte.

With a second round of beer for me and Roger, all came in at about 15 GBP per person, more or less. (More for the men with our large roasts and pints and a half. Less for the ladies with their small roasts and their half pints.) Well presented. Well priced. Recommended.

******

LE FAITOUT, BERLOU - RESTAURANT REVIEW

Beautiful setting. Good friends. Agreeable service. Tasty food. End of review.


That's never the case, is it? You deserve more.


Berlou is a small village in the hills well north of Beziers. You just find the village, park, and there's Le Faitout, an old stone building on the Rieuberlou, a fast-flowing stream that eventually finds its way to the Orb. We chose to eat outside on a mild spring day so we can't report on the interior amenities. No need. Beautiful day. Beautiful views.

Five of six in our party chose the special of the day. We began with an amusee, a puree of anchovies and tomato. The start consisted of a ring of mackerel salad with a bit of fresh minced radish arranged on top. A small duck breast followed, covered with honeyed onions and sitting on olive oil-infused mashed potatoes. All courses arrived with edible flowers. Our host ordered the trout, presented to him whole before cooking for his approval. I was the only one in the party to try the dessert - vanilla-bean panna cotta with strawberries. (The sacrifices that we make for our art.) Coffee came with a frozen chocolate confection. During the meal, the six of us finished off two bottles of suitable pink from the local cave cooperatif.

All was prepared properly, served properly, and properly priced. A most pleasant meal. I can't be more exact about pricing. I was a guest and didn't ask. But the menu listed combinations for the menu du jour - starter and main, main and dessert, or all three - starting at 16 euros. Tasting menus ranged up to 52 euros for five courses.

Visit Le Faitout. Beautiful setting. Agreeable service. Tasty food. End of review.



******

LA TARTINE, ALBI - RESTAURANT REVIEW


Tourists in France are fortunate that they are touring in France. Unlike restaurants in other places that can count sightseers as a captive audience, restaurants in France simply will not succeed unless they pay more than minimal attention to the quality of the food that they are serving. As a result, and as I have said before, an average restaurant in France is better than most restaurants in other parts of the world. A case in point is La Tartine in Albi.

Let's face it. If your restaurant is located in a UNESCO World Heritage Site, right across from the entrance to the beautiful riverside gardens and the Toulouse-Latrec Museum, in sight of the cathedral, you could serve corn dogs on a stick and sell them out most days. La Tartine does not sell corn dogs on a stick. It does serve reasonably solid food at a decent price. That's not meant to damn with faint praise. That is exactly what La Tartine should be doing.

Of the four of us in the party, two chose the cassoulet de Toulouse and two chose the menu of the day. Connie started with a green salad topped with Roquefort and walnuts followed by a joint of chicken from the plancha and frites. I had an onion tarte with a small side salad followed by a grilled link of Toulouse sausage and frites. For our desserts, Connie had sugared crepes and I had a small slab of dense chocolate cake with creme Anglais and whipped cream. The crust of the cassoulet may not have been broken seven times but the cassoulet tasted as a cassoulet should. The frites were reconstituted but hot and plentiful. My single link of sausage, though tasty, did look a bit lonely on the plate. The most telling commentary may be that the only truly noteworthy dish of all of the dishes was the chocolate cake.

With two demis of wine and coffees at the finish, the tab ran just under 80 euros.

This is France. Average can be a good thing.



******

 AUBERGE DES JACOBINS, NARBONNE - RESTAURANT REVIEW


 Saunter along the renovated pedestrian spaces bordering the Canal de la Robine in Narbonne and you'll find a variety of restaurants vying for your business. We've tried a few. We have a few more to try. But the other day, about a block off the Canal on the Les Halles side, off the beaten track and out of view of the Canal, we came upon the Auberge des Jacobins. We're glad that we did.


The Auberge is a small space, just a few tables outdoors on the sidewalk, about three tables indoors in the shade looking out, and some tables up a few steps in a room in the back that we didn't inspect. On a midweek day, having arrived a bit after noon for lunch without a reservation, the trade kept the single waitress hopping. But she was attentive and timely. And when we finished, as busy as she was, she was happy to spend some time chatting with the Americans.

We started with small salads, anchovy and smoked duck and chevre chaud. Three of our party of four went for the plat of the day, a chunk of fresh cod, lightly breaded with a parsley sauce, accompanied by potatoes pureed with artichoke. All properly done and well priced at 9 euros. I had the duck breast with frites. The duck had been grilled hot and fast and was just right. The frites could have been crisper but serviceable. For dessert, I had a loose custard with a burnt crust adorned with raspberries. Hot and tasty. The brioche pain perdue was a real hit.

With two demis of wine (Too expensive, but isn't it always?) and coffee at the finish, the tab just broke 100 euros. Just fine for a leisurely meal. So...

Better than average. Good but not outstanding.

For more restaurant reviews and foodie info, click HERE.




******

LA MENINO, CARCASSONNE - RESTAURANT REVIEW


Pic of patio space swiped from Carcassonne tourism website...

It's hard to give a restaurant less than a sterling review if you had a perfectly adequate meal at a reasonable price. Isn't that what we all expect? But isn't that the point, as well? An adequate meal at a good price should be the average. And in France, it is the average.

So La Menino is an average French restaurant and that's OK by me.



La Menino is about the closest restaurant to the airport outside of Carcassonne that doesn't serve fast food. We couldn't find our TripAdvisor choices, Bad mapping or bad navigation, so we settled for what we could find. The joint was jumping when we arrived for lunch at about 1:00pm. We showed ourselves to the only available table, a table for two, in a room that had seating for about 40. The waitress found us soon enough and, upon learning that we were native English speakers, stopped her perfectly understandable French spiel and sent over her colleague, very pleasant and helpful. No menu, just the deals of the day. 15 euros, all inclusive. The mains were grilled pork; a casserole featuring cabbage, bacon, and onions; and a joint of roast chicken. Cathey and I both chose the pork.

We began at the simple apero buffet - charcuterie mostly for me, salad for Cathey. Nothing special but just enough to make up a plate. The pork was done properly, hot and fast. The chips (fries, for my American audience) were reconstituted but plentiful and hot. Cathey chose the fromage blanc with strawberry jam (homemade, not store bought) and I had a small dish of creamy chocolate (mousse?) with a side of creme anglaise. With a demi of pink (surprisingly good quality) and coffee at the end, the total came to 30 euros...15 apiece as advertised with no ups.

So, the food was proper. The service pleasant and timely. The price was right. All as it should be.

This is France. Average is just fine.

******

CATHEY'S SHRIMP REMOULADE - A RECIPE

From France by way of New Orleans. You can buy your shrimp already cooked to save some time and effort. But if you are from New Orleans, you have very specific ideas about what to do with raw shrimp. You can even buy prepackaged remoulade at Carrefour. (You wouldn't do that, would you?) Here's Cathey's take on the entire process, guided by her favorite chefs.





REMOULADE                 
Makes 2 cups                                                                
Serves 10

1/2 cup celery
1/2 cup green onion
2 tbsp parsley
1 clove garlic
1 cup mayonnaise
1 tbsp paprika
2 tbsp capers, rinsed, drained, and chopped
2 tbsp horseradish
1 tbsp Dijon
1 tbsp ketchup
1 tbsp lemon juice
1 tbsp Worcestershire sauce
1 tbsp cider vinegar
1 tbsp hot sauce
1/2 tsp salt
Pulse first 4 ingredients until finely chopped in food processor. Drain or dry with a paper towel. Add remaining ingredients and pulse until well combined. Chill several hours.

SHRIMP BOIL
4 bay leaves
1 tsp whole allspice
10 whole cloves
8 sprigs fresh thyme or 1 tsp dried
2 tbsp coriander seeds
2 tbsp mustard seeds
1 tsp celery seeds
1 tbsp salt
2 lemons, cut in half
1 tsp cayenne, or as much as you can stand
2 garlic bulbs, cut in half horizontally
1 onion, quartered
2 pounds shrimp, shell on and preferably heads on
Wrap seasoning in cheesecloth and secure with kitchen twine. Place the spices, 1 gallon water, salt, lemons, cayenne, garlic, and onion in a large pot (squeeze the  lemons over the water as you throw them in), and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat and simmer 10-15 minutes. Return the heat to boiling and add shrimp. Cover and remove from heat. Let stand 10 minutes or until shrimp are cooked through. Drain and place on baking tray until room temperature. Refrigerate until ready to serve.

Mix with the Shrimp with the Remoulade and place on a bed of greens.

FOR MORE FOODIE INFO, VISIT HERE.

******

BUFFALO GRILL, NARBONNE - RESTAURANT REVIEW

I am not embarrassed to be reviewing an American-themed burger chain in France. I am not.

I will not be reviewing McDonald's or KFC or other American fast food chains. I didn't patronize them when I was living in the States and I won't patronize them here. But every once in a while, especially if you've lived for two years in France without one, you need a burger. That's nothing to be ashamed of.

So what do you do, particularly if the point of the exercise is to have someone else do the cooking? One answer is Buffalo Grill.

Here's where reviewing a place like the Buffalo Grill gets a bit dicey.

Ambience? American country music. Photos of John Wayne and prints depicting scenes of the American west on the walls. Life-size fiberglass statues of cowboys and Indians...cartoonish in the extreme. Booths lined with padded red Naugahyde. And wait staff wearing red flannel shirts and jeans. So basically, there's nothing approaching the type of atmosphere you expect in a French restaurant at all. It ain't fast food plastic, but it ain't ambience.

Service? Adequate. We came. We ordered. We were served. We ate. We asked for the bill. We paid. All in good time without undo waiting.

Food? Ah, yes. The food. Remember, this is a burger joint. And we got a burger. A beefy, juicy, drippy burger. There was a bit of a salad with kernels of corn, a few kidney beans, and commercial ranch dressing at the start. The burger came with standard, reconstituted frites along with a little bowl of dipping sauce that was too sweet to be the barbecue sauce that it was pretending to be. And the bun was a typical French take on a hamburger/hot dog roll, more brioche than bun and therefore prone to falling apart.

But all of the above having been said, we wanted a burger and we got a burger.

With an on-tap beer apiece, the tab came to 27 euros.

I am not embarrassed.

******

LE POURQUOI PAS, CAPESTANG - RESTAURANT REVIEW

Nobody goes there anymore. It's too crowded.
                                                              ~ Yogi Berra 

You find a new restaurant. Everything is perfect - the setting, the ambience, the service, the food. You want to keep it to yourself. You know that if your new favorite generates the latest buzz, it will lose some of its charm. Maybe you won't be able to get a last minute reservation. Maybe the idiot at the next table wearing an earbud will start talking too loudly into the ether. And your perfect place won't be perfect any more.

Please. Don't visit Le Pourquoi Pas.

On the other hand, many more restaurants fail than succeed. In the States, it's estimated that 80% of restaurants close after less than one year. Some that fail deserve a better fate, deserve to become staples of the local cuisine scene. Le Pourquoi Pas deserves to survive and thrive.

Please. Visit Le Pourquoi Pas.

Get it? I'm conflicted. Cathey and I already love this place. After just one visit, we know that we'll be back again often, introducing this charming restaurant right up against the Canal du Midi to friends and family. Because we want Le Pourquoi Pas to succeed. And we have a feeling that it will succeed. But on its own terms - as a friendly, easy going, out of the way meeting place for small groups of friends who enjoy good food lovingly prepared from the freshest, best available local ingredients.

I mean it when I say that Le Pourquoi Pas is out of the way. You follow signs tacked to trees through the vineyards that lie between Capestang and Quarante, ending up on a dirt track along the canal. Your Belgian host Yves Urbain has taken a ramshackle canal house left to the elements and created a comfortable blend of stonework walls, tile floors, and modern amenities. Patios are in the making...when he recharges his energy. And then there's a kitchen garden to institute. But for now, let's talk about the food.

We chose from the tapas menu. You can choose individually or in groups of four, six, or nine. Cathey and I opted for four choices apiece. In truth, the portions were sized so that an array of six would have been sufficient for the two of us to share. Between us, we had a smooth, mild boudin; a pate fin de campagne equally smooth and delicious; a tasty saucisse sech au Roquefort; anchovies both salted and in vinegar; and petit gris a la persillade (snails in a parsley sauce infused with garlic). The charcuterie comes from the town of La Salvetat in the hills to the north, the anchovies from the lovely coastal town of Colliure. Yves' care in the selection paid off. Each morsel represented the best of its kind. And the one example of Yves own work, the sauce for the snails, was impeccable. The next visit, we'll order the plat du jour to fully test Yves' kitchen skills. I have no doubt that he'll pass.

Local olives and chunks of petrissane (the bread from our very own bakery in Quarante that Cathey and I purchase several times each week) accompanied the tapas. And we had plenty of choices for our wine, including the local pink that we ourselves serve to favored guests.

I often say that the French know chocolate. Of course, so do Belgians. The chocolate cream (Not mousse. No eggs.) topped with berries and lightly whipped cream was simply heaven. And Yves insisted that I taste his apple tart with cranberries. Not chocolate, but well executed just the same.

With coffee for me at the finish, the tab exceeded 50 euros. No, not cheap. But we could have done with the less expensive tapas choice and we spent the better part of three hours in a tranquil, comfortable, off the beaten track setting with the best of the terroir in front of us, a congenial host seeing to our every need, and that chocolate cream. An afternoon well worth the price.

Reserve early. Reserve often.





 ******

ME GUSTA TAPAS, BEZIERS - RESTAURANT REVIEW


The Polygone in Beziers near the train station is about as modern a shopping experience as you will find in the region. There are dozens of little boutiques trying their best to be trendy on two floors surrounding an open atrium. There are chains like chocolatier Jeff de Bruges and book/CD/DVD/crafts vendor Cultura. There's a major grocer, a cineplex, and even a bowling alley. And, of course, a food court. On the roof. We passed up Subway and tried Me Gusta Tapas.

It's a nice space with outdoor tables, tables enclosed by glass but still with an exterior feel, and an indoor room. Comfortable chairs and well-spaced tables. Friendly service, attentive without being intrusive. Some English.

We both ordered from the tapas menu. Cathey chose the eponymous Me Gusta Tapas, one of several assortments. The full plate included green olives, black olives and cucumber with bits of feta, chicken wings, grilled red and green peppers, bread slices spread with garlicky diced tomatoes, Serrano ham, bits of pork on a skewer, and fried potatoes with a house sauce. Cathey especially liked the crusty croquettes of creamy mashed potatoes and bits of ham. I had meat - Serrano, chorizo, and bellota - along with the tomato bread and a small green salad. Meat. Lots of meat.

All in all, if not dazzlingly inventive, the food was fresh, tasty, and filling.

With a glass of sangria for Cathey, a Spanish beer on tap for me, and a coffee for me at the finish, the total came to 45.90 euros. Given a coupon that was worth 3 euros for parking, well worth the price for a hefty, enjoyable, leisurely food court meal.

******

LE PTIT JARDIN, NARBONNE - RESTAURANT REVIEW

Our car spent extended time in the shop due to a busted clutch and we needed to get out of the house. The first day that the car came back, shopping - Lidl, Carrefour, Tridome, and Grand Frais. The second day, a restaurant lunch. Somebody else's cooking. I chose a new place for us, Le Ptit Jardin in Narbonne.

The restaurant is tucked inside a quiet courtyard close to the busy Boulevard Gambetta and Cours de la Republique, on the other side of the Canal from Les Halles. It's a sedate, comfortable, well-appointed space with light jazz playing in the background and a little waterfall tinkling in an alcove near our table. Not too modern, very color coordinated (lime green). We shared the room with a handful of other diners on a quiet February noontime. I would imagine that things pick up considerably as the weather warms and folks dine in the courtyard.

The simple menu touts fresh ingredients; choices are limited but the descriptions suggest interesting executions. We went for the formula of the day - a main and a dessert with coffee for 16 euros plus a 2 euro supplement for a glass of wine. Cathey chose the squid, bite-sized bits properly prepared - short cook time, high heat to keep the bits tender. The plate included a small boat of sauce - parsley and garlic in oil - and a side of fresh, herbed small potato halves. I had the faux filet, a nice little piece of beef cooked to my order with a boat of mild pepper sauce and the potatoes on the side. The rolls came hot and crusty. Dessert came in a shallow bowl, a layer of creamy custard slathered with a tart marmalade (currant?) and sprinkled with crunchy biscuit crumbs. Very nice.

The waitress was attentive without being a nuisance and, when it came time for the coffee, offered decaf as well. When Cathey declined, she was offered tea. Very nice.

36 euros total for a pleasant luncheon in restful surroundings. Very nice indeed.

 ******

CHATEAU DU PUITS ES PRATX, GINESTAS - RESTAURANT REVIEW

This is a ticklish one.

We went to the Chateau to hear an Indian fusion jazz concert. We could have booked for just the concert but we decided to try the dinner menu as well. We experienced a roller coaster ride, full of ups and downs. Let's see if I can make sense of the evening for you.


The venue is in some ways unique. The chateau sits just on the outskirts of Ginestas, a rural Languedocian village with a surprisingly robust English contingent in residence. The restaurant is situated in what had been the winery of the chateau, behind the main house. A conversation nook with a wood-burning stove greeted us on entry. The walls of the large space are well-pointed stone and the dining room is surrounded by the trappings of a major wine-producing facility - casks and cuvees (large vats) abound. Set up the way that it was, about 30 or 40 people could have been seated. We counted perhaps 25 attendees total as the concert commenced.

It's a very inviting space.

Cathey chose the 26 euro menu, starting with an assiette of tapas that was light and refreshing. Her main featured chunks of a white fish in cream sauce baked with melty cheese and a crisp crust. I went for the 36 euro seafood infusion, featuring some common and uncommon denizens of the deep, followed by duck breast with red wine reduction. At the finish for us both, a chocolate torte. With a pitcher of rose, the tab totaled 97 euros.

The food was competently prepared. The service - by our obviously British host - was prompt and timely. But I have three quibbles.

The meal was not worth the price. We don't usually eat dinner out, so perhaps I'm mistaken. But if the same meal had been served at lunch, I would have expected to pay no more than 20 euros per person.

I did not expect to pay for admission to the concert as well as dinner. I guess I didn't understand the blurb on the website.

Finally, the audience was one of the most inconsiderate in memory. We've been to free concerts nearby with a couple of hundred folks in attendance who were quieter and more attentive than the 25 or so at the Chateau. There were a few of us who came for the music. The rest acted like an American dinner theater audience, more interested in being heard than in listening. Maddeningly distracting given the quality of the music.

In sum, a night that started out with great promise given the venue and the musicians soured quickly given the nature of our fellow diners and the cost. A shame...

The image below is from the website, showing the room but with a different setup.


2. interior reception hall.interiorreceptionhall

******

LA GALINIERE, CAPESTANG - RESTAURANT REVIEW

We decided to try out La Galiniere after living in the area for quite a while and somehow passing it by. That was probably a mistake. The softly lit room with well-spaced tables and a casual atmosphere provided a pleasant, leisurely paced afternoon meal that was as easy on the wallet as it was on the taste buds.

We never saw a menu, opting for the 15 euro formula of the day. Cathey started with the seafood tart with small side salad. These little tarts are ubiquitous near the Mediterranean and this one, with mussels and shrimp, was just fine. I had the Serrano ham with salad. And corn. The little niblets of corn in the salad were, to my memory, the first we've ever been served in France. Nice touch. We both opted for the roasted chicken with red wine reduction. Cathey passed on the fish because it was done with saffron and Cathey does not prefer that combination. No worries. With frites and tomato Provencal, the chicken leg-with-thigh was tasty and filling. For dessert, Cathey went for the cheese plate - three small pieces with the feature being the bleu with fig compote. I had the chocolate soup. Well, you had to be there. YooHoo French style. With whipped cream.

With wine and a coffee for me at the finish, the total bill came to 31.60 euros. Well worth the price.


******

LA FOLLE EPOQUE, MARSEILLE - RESTAURANT REVIEW

We hadn't planned to visit Marseille for another couple of weeks but we needed the notary services available at the US consulate there. So off we went. I didn't investigate possible sites for lunch because I had no idea how long it would take to get there, find the consulate, then find a specific restaurant. Since the US consulate was right next to the prefecture, the government offices of the region, I figured that there would have to be restaurants nearby to handle the hordes of government workers who would descend on the area once the noon bells rang. I was right.

Running up to the prefecture is a pedestrian shopping mall about a kilometer long. The side streets that intersect the mall are littered with restaurants and, at the very top of the mall up against the fountain in front of the prefecture, a handful of restaurants with outdoor spaces, both covered and uncovered, line the sidewalk. We checked out the posted menus, decided to pass on the joint that advertised an Italian hamburger, and settled on La Folle Epoque.

The wait staff was friendly and energetic. They actually seemed to be having a good time. And they had passable English. The menu was comprehensive and diverse. All in all, it was an enjoyable meal. Highlights included house-made gravlox for Cathey, steak tartare with a touch of sweet - perhaps pickle - for me, and a slow-roasted lamb shank for Connie. Well dressed plates, well prepared food, timely service. With soups and salads and wine and coffee and desserts, the tab for three came to a touch over 60 euros. For a blind, shot in the dark meal, very nice.


 ******

LE PETIT BOUZIGUES, BOUZIGUES - RESTAURANT REVIEW

It sits looking out over the Etang de Thau on Bouzigues' restaurant row, a relatively tiny place seating about 18 people when it's full. So reservations are a really good idea. (We must have witnessed 15 or so people being turned away for a mid week lunch.) Tiny kitchen for the chef/owner. One waitress...owner's partner? And while it's true that there is a menu, let's face it. The reason that you are there is for the assiette. 


It's an amazingly beautiful dish just to look at - colorful and exotic. Octopus and squid and shrimp and more. (As is sometimes the case, oysters and mussels were restricted due to a bacterial infection in the etang. But no matter.) Add roasted red pepper, a slice of melon, spiced chick peas in endive boats, and several rounds of orange, and the presentation was awesome. As was the taste - or so I'm told. I'm not a lover of seafood. In fact, I ordered the one item on the menu that wasn't fishy, the duck breast. (And it was perfect, by the way.) Add two bottles of picpoul for the five of us, a few cute desserts (Not made in house, as we were told up front.) and coffee at the finish, and it's a complete seafood lover's delight. The tab exceeded 150 euros for the five of us, but that's the price that you pay.

There are fancier restaurants with more comprehensive menus along the etang. And if that's your thing, I have no argument. But you really should try Le Petit Bouzigues once if you're going to be in the neighborhood.

 ******

RESTAURANT DE LA TOUR, MONTADY - RESTAURANT REVIEW 

When your restaurant is the go-to choice in a small town in a popular tourist and expat region near the Canal du Midi in the south of France, when the view from the patio of the restaurant is just this side of breathtaking, you can get away with doing less and charging more. It's a sad commentary but it happens. One place where that definitely does not happen is at the Restaurant de la Tour in Montady.



 We stopped by the Restaurant de la Tour after a long ride and a bit of shopping out in the country. We've lived within 15 minutes or so from the place for 18 months but for some reason we just haven't stopped by. Mistake...

You climb to the very top of the village. Make certain that your hand brake works. The view is of the Etang de Montady - vineyards and farmland stretching for miles. We sat on the patio in the shade on a warm, early October afternoon and enjoyed the view all the while that we dined.

We never saw a menu. The daily specials were sufficient. The two girls started with a hearty salad - mixed greens, cheese, and chunks of nut-encrusted chicken. A very satisfying start. I had gnocchi in a heavy cream sauce with bits of smoked salmon incorporated. A great idea. One that Cathey will replicate. The girls followed with a fish filet (grouper?) in a light cream sauce. I had roast pork, a chunk sort of like a short rib that had been roasted with an Oriental/soy glaze. Sides were potatoes roasted with red and green peppers and bits of eggplant. All well prepared and well presented. For dessert, a berry medley in a small dish, topped with chantilly. Olives at the start, good bread with, and a demi of rose. We paid with a 50 euro note for the three meals and left the few coins that came back on the table.

Very satisfactory in all respects. We'll return.





******

LA BRASSERIE BARBA, BEZIERS - RESTAURANT REVIEW

I've been wanting to stop into the poissonnerie (fish market) that is attached to La Brasserie Barba for quite some time but I always seem to miss the turnoff. On this trip, I discovered that the problem was that the exit on the roundabout is not marked as I expected. Problem solved if you come at it from the opposite direction. So this time we found it and, although we missed the market because it didn't open until some time after we'd finished our lunch, now that we know how to get there, and now that we know that the restaurant is worth a repeat visit, we'll be back.

The exterior of the building has an industrial modern flavor but the brasserie is of the white tablecloth and sparkling crystal variety. Our waitress was attentive without being intrusive and had enough English to answer the question or two that we couldn't answer for ourselves from the extensive menu.


Our meal began with a small tray with three amuse-bouches - olives, tiny crisp-roasted shrimp, and a snail-like little shelled creature that required some digging to get out. All very proper.

The girls picked from the menu of the day. Connie started with mussels en croustade, juicy mussels with a tomato-based (but not Italian) veggie medley in a ring of pastry. Cathey chose the smoked mackerel pressed in a vegetable terrine. Both were inventive, tasty starters. Connie then had the bonita, Cathey the sole meuniere. Both properly done. Both with a nicely prepared, cheesy cauliflower side.

I'm not a big seafood guy. Steak/frites for me. The beef was above the average for the region and I enjoyed it.

I was the only one with room for dessert, chocolate ice cream. The waitress asked, almost with a wink, if I'd like a bit of chantilly. Of course. The French really do know how to do chocolate, ice cream, and chantilly.

With a bottle of regional rose from Domaine La Croix Belle, a favorite winery, and coffee at the finish, the total tab was 94.10 euros. That's a bit more than we usually pay but this was an exceptional meal in genteel surroundings, worth the price. Our new, special local seafood place.

 ******

CHEZ DAVID, CASTELNAUDARY - RESTAURANT REVIEW 


This was our third visit to Castelnaudary and Cathey had already given a hearty thumbs up to our previous two choices for cassoulet. Chez David, however, outstripped them both. Were it not for the darn techno-pop music in the background, perfection was in sight.

Chez David is on a side street with an unassuming exterior sporting a posted menu that is brief, less comprehensive than a tonier place a few doors down. The interior is a study in contrasts. On the one hand you'll see natural stone walls, comfy and well-spaced tables and chairs, and standard issue plates and utensils that don't appear to have been designed by Dali. On the other hand, the art on display is mostly non-representational, the music is techno-pop (though not overly loud), and the back dining room appears to feature purple lighting.

But it's all about the food. Well, mostly...

The girls opted for the Menu Cassoulet. They started with a green salad with a balsamic dressing and a dash of carrot. The feature, of course, was the cassoulet. Served for two piping hot in the traditional earthenware dish, the cassoulet had a fine crust; plenty of sausage, pork, and duck; and the creamiest, best seasoned beans that Cathey had yet encountered. Just heavenly.

I opted for the special of the day. I began with a plate of small, plump mussels with a sauce of olive oil, much garlic, chives, and white wine. Very tasty. My guinea fowl came with a red wine and onion reduction to which a bit of liver was introduced, making the sauce thicker and heftier than the average fowl sauce, suitable for guinea fowl.

Desserts included a shallow dish of Creme Catalan, a hot apple crumble, and my two scoops of chocolate ice cream. All just fine.

Our waiter had better than passing English and was able to help us with questions about the proper beans for a cassoulet and the reduction on the guinea fowl. And the chef (David?) came out to greet each diner. Very nice. With a liter of house rose and coffee for two at the finish, the tab came to just under 90 euros. 

When we are obliged to demonstrate the art of Castelnaudary cassoulet to the next set of visitors, we'll visit Chez David.

 ******

 LA PERLE GRUISSANAISE - RESTAURANT REVIEW

This is what two dozen oysters, shrimp for three, and some odds and ends look like.
We wound our way through Gruissan on a gorgeous September Sunday, headed through the seaside town to the Med and La Perle. Friends had recommended La Perle to us as the place to go for seafood fresh off the boat. Cathey and Connie had yet to have their first R-Month oysters, so off we went.

The parking lot was full. This is not your typical restaurant where you find a table, read a menu, wait for the wait staff, and place your order. Instead, we joined a line snaking past tubs of fresh oysters for sale and tried to figure out how things worked.

As the line advances, you come to a chalkboard with prices and a guy who asks what you'd like. If you appear to be a newbie, he prompts you. We wanted a couple of dozen oysters, shrimp for three, and a few raw mussels to taste. Did we want lemon? Yes. Mayonnaise or aioli? Aioli. Wine? Yes, a liter of white. He gave us a numbered, handwritten stub that we took to a cashier. She asked if we'd been there before. No. Keep your stub. In about 15 minutes, you come back and pick up your food. We paid and were given our wine, a carafe of water, and a plastic garbage bag.

You can choose from tables and chairs indoors or picnic tables outside facing the water - the etang (bay), not the Med. We found a table under a little thatched umbrella. Connie and I went back inside and picked up six glasses - real glass, three plates, knives and forks and lots of paper napkins, and a bucket for the oyster and mussel shells only. The plastic bag would hold the rest of the trash. After a few minutes, I went back for the seafood, oysters on a bed of ice, opened and with the shells replaced so that they almost looked as if they hadn't been, good-sized pink shrimp scattered throughout, the mussels and lemon halves and a little jar of aioli on top.

La Perle reminded us of the seafood shacks with which we are familiar in Louisiana. Off the boat fresh. Sweet shrimp. Briny if not overly plump oysters. Raw mussels were a new taste, interesting but not in our wheelhouse.

61 euros and change for the lot. Just great. Next time we'll bring hot sauce.






******

LES JARDINS DE BAGES - RESTAURANT REVIEW

Bages is a pretty little touristy village on the etang (salt-water bay) south of the city of Narbonne. There's a fantastic view of the Narbonne cathedral several kilometers across the etang from a lookout point at the top of the village near the village's little church. During high season, Bages is a hopping place but at other times it's a quiet, peaceful town with pretty facades to stroll past and a fine restaurant or two in which to pass a relaxed luncheon. One of those restaurants is Les Jardins de Bages just across from the cafe Les Beaux Artes, another fine choice, by the way.

We sat outside under the shade of a tree heavy with ripening olives. We had no reservations for our Sunday luncheon but it was the very end August, the high season was virtually finished, so there was no problem being seated. Service was crisp, timely, and helpful. There were four menus, starting at 18 euros for your choice of two plates (starter, main, or dessert) and going up from there. Seafood was featured as was to be expected so near the Med.

My three table mates started with the fish soup. Not as hearty and thick as some but still tasty and satisfactory. I had a quiche with goat cheese melted atop and a bit of a side salad. All good. For our mains, two tajines with chicken and one with seafood - served hot in their clay dishes. I had marinated chicken with a bit of ratatouille and a potato mash on the side. Again all good, well-portioned fare. One cheese plate at the finish had a nice assortment. My one scoop of strawberry ice cream (all out of chocolate) had iced up a bit, so not the freshest best.

With a bottle of local rose, the total tab for lunch for four came to 90 euros. That's a bit much except for the fact that the food was good and that Bages is clearly a tourist village that can charge tourist prices.With that in mind, Les Jardins de Bages is a good choice for a lazy lunch in the shade of an olive tree.

 ******

LA POSTE MARTIN'S RESTAURANT, OLONZAC - RESTAURANT REVIEW

On a recent Sunday night in August in Olonzac, English seemed to be the preferred language - Brits, Irish, and Americans jammed the Cafe de la Poste as we sat down for a glass of pink before dining in Martin's close by. It's a little jarring but who are we to complain? We are American, after all.

We chose to dine inside given the occasional sprinkle. Places were set for about twenty in the small room but the tables for two were severely undersized. By the time that a water bottle, an ice bag with wine, bread, two sets of glasses, silver, and rectangular plates were set down, the empty table next to us had to be recruited for the overflow. We were not the only party of two that found it necessary to commandeer more space.

An amusee plate of olives, an anchovy-heavy tapenade, and tiny little quiches was all good. Cathey started with an array of escargot - with garlic butter, with bleu cheese, and with ratatouille - each accompanied by a flaky pastry. Cathey's first escargot after 16 months in France and nicely done. I opted for a small ham omelet with a side salad. Fresh eggs, plain vanilla diced ham. OK. Cathey's pork with chorizo and cheese came bubbling hot. The pork was well spiced and the chorizo tasty. Cathey thought that the cheese took it over the top but I liked the taste/texture combination. My roast lamb was a bit of a disappointment - not the best cut and not interestingly spiced. It was French lamb so it was OK, but French lamb can be special. This was not.

The big rectangular plates came with two sides, both a bit mushy and nondescript, with eggplant and carrot and cheese and egg and whatever. One of the sides would have sufficed if it shown a bit more oomph. Oddly enough, our little glasses of frites were special, the best in France so far. Real slices of potato, not reconstituted, fried very hot and very quickly so they puffed.

The chocolate cake at the end was proper French dense chocolate cake.

With a demi of wine and a bit of extra service for the sole, kept-hopping waitress, 55 euros.

Don't get me wrong. The meal was worth the price. But if the objective of Martin's is to take the next step, there's a still a bit to go. Since we seldom go out to dinner, and therefore like our dinners to be special, we may not return.

 ******

LA BONNE HUMEUR, CAZOULS-LES-BEZIERS - RESTAURANT REVIEW

There are restaurants with bars and bars that serve food. La Bonne Humeur in Cazouls-les-Beziers falls into the latter category. But don't be fooled. Lunch is well-prepared, substantial, and reasonably priced. We stopped by recently to pass the time while our car was being serviced and were not disappointed. The outside seating was shaded and comfortable although the road noise could be a bit much. The lunch crowd was clearly composed of friendly locals who enjoyed each others' company - including an Irish couple who sat next to us. They had retired to the village several years earlier and lunch at La Bonne Humeur more frequently than they had been since it's changed hands for the better.

Starters included a choice of charcuterie, crudities, salad, or chick peas in vinaigrette. Not fancy but the salad was well constructed and the chick peas were an unfamiliar twist. Mains included encornet (cuttle fish - a squiddy sort of thing), faux filet, and duck breast. Cathey's encornet came in a light tomato sauce, non-Italian, with peppers and lots of garlic, properly slow-cooked. My duck breast was seared on the outside and pink on the inside. Fine. Frites or rice on the side. For dessert, Cathey had the cheeses (goat, bleu, and brie) and I had the floating island. Both satisfactory. (One of our neighbors had the fruit salad and it was clearly out of a can.)

We had a glass of rose wine (with an ice cube already in it) and a beer while we waited, a demi of rose with the meal (luke warm and accompanied by a sack of ice cubes), and I finished with a cafe creme. 32 euros.

This was not gourmet eats but nothing flopped and, if the rose had been chilled and the traffic a bit calmer, I might have called La Bonne Humeur above average. As it was, it's decent cheap eats if you find yourself in Cazouls. But be aware, there are better restaurants for lunch within walking distance charging just a few euros apiece more. You decide.

 ******

HOTEL JALABERT, OUVEILLAN - A REVIEW

(UPDATE: Closed. Madame has retired. After 53 years of serving guests, she has decided to spend her remaining days serving family.)
 
If ever there was a restaurant review that required a warning label, this is the one. When visiting Hotel Jalabert, you can't care about the niceties. There's no menu. There's only jug wine, probably from the local cooperative. The dishes, glasses, and utensils are clunky. The 'napkins' are old tea towels. And there's a slightly musty odor in the background, the result of the woodwork having soaked up generations of grease. But if you want to taste food as it might have been served to you in a French farmhouse kitchen 50 years ago, there's not a better place to have that experience...other than a French farmhouse. This was our third visit to Hotel Jalabert and each has been rewarding.

Madame greets us with a genuine smile and handshakes all around. She's stooped and shrinking and ageless. I have no doubt that she served partisans...perhaps during WWI? Our non-uniformed waitress (grand-daughter?) asked who wanted the poultry and who wanted the pork. The ladies took the former and I the latter. Meanwhile, Madame brought us rose wine in an unmarked bottle with a cork shoved in, well chilled. 

Out came a simple salad, just fresh lettuce with a homemade oil and vinegar dressing. Then rounds of fresh bread (no butter). Then a charcuterie plate - three portions each of Serrano, pate en croute, saucisson, and head cheese. A happy addition was a wedge of the very tasty house pate. When we were finished, having been given plenty of time, the charcuterie was removed but the salad stayed. Then came the main course.

My pork cheeks came in a metal bowl, braised with red bell pepper to fork tenderness, with a simple reduction. The poultry (guinea fowl?) was also braised, with olives, not quite as thoroughly as the pork, and served with a reduction. We shared a large bowl of pasta for which grated fresh cheese was provided as the only dressing. It was all good, plain, hearty food and more than we could finish.

At about this point, Madame walked through, noticed that we had about finished our wine, and brought us another bottle.

Cheese plate next - mimolette, brie, and a white, perhaps comte. Then dessert - house-made chocolate mousse with bits of chocolate and a dab of whipped cream. The French really do know how to do chocolate. And finally, coffee poured from a kettle.

54 Euros.

I can't stress enough that the Hotel Jalabert is not for everyone. It's caught in a time warp and is not haute cuisine to begin with. But it's a favorite of ours. And we hope Madame lasts forever.

 ******

RESTAURANT LE 29 AU BORD L'ETANG, BOUZIGUES - A REVIEW


Bouzigues fronts the Bassin de Thau, a saltwater lake (etang) separated from the Mediterranean by a strip of land that reminds one of the Outer Banks. The waterfront is lined with restaurants, all featuring the oysters and other seafoods from the etang and the Med. It's not the most picturesque of villages but the flavor of the place is certainly more inviting than the more crassly commercial towns directly facing the Med. There are souvenir shops to be sure, but they are somewhat restrained and don't appear to be the raison d'etre of Bouzigues. Rather, the work of harvesting the bounty of the etang and the sea seems to take precedence.

Cathey and I both chose from the 22 Euro menu at Restaurant le 29. Cathey started with the plateau de coquillages (6 oysters and 6 mussels served on a bed of ice). The oysters were as advertised. Bouzigues oysters are recognized as about the best to be had in the region. It was Cathey's first try at raw mussels on the half shell and, with the vinegary sauce in a squeeze bottle added, she enjoyed the taste. (Don't try this at home. The mussels have to be fresh, fresh, fresh.) I had the baked Camembert on toast with bacon, onions, and mushrooms and a small side salad. Creamy, tasty good. Cathey's main was the Parmesan encrusted fresh morue (cod) topped with herbs and lemon. Cathey raved. Superb, she said. Excellent. These are words that Cathey seldom uses in restaurants. And the distinctively prepared side of rice also took her fancy. I had the pork filet with a honey and ginger sauce. (Yes, seafood is pretty much lost on me.) Totally satisfactory.

For dessert, I had a lemon meringue torte, Cathey the rum baba. Both with pastry cream and whipped
cream, both a pleasant quality surprise at the finish.

With a bottle of picpoul and coffee for me at the end, 64 Euros.

I suggested that we might try one of the other restaurants along the waterfront next time. Cathey would
have none of it. We'll be back to le 29 the next time that friends visit who enjoy seafood.

******

RESTAURANT AU PETIT GAZOUILLIS, CASTELNAUDARY - A REVIEW

Less than a week after our first visit, we unexpectedly found ourselves back in Castelnaudary for lunch. The first time through, on a Thursday, Au Petit Gazouillis was closed. Tuesday? Open.

A small sign along the main downtown drag in Castelnaudary points to Au Petit Gazouillis, tucked out of the way on a side street. It's a funky, family operation in a small, dim (but not dingy) dining room.We were first in, at about noon, but the room quickly filled with a combination of locals and tourists.  The maitre d' and the single waiter were kept hopping. Even so, service was timely and gave the appearance of being unhurried.

We chose the 13.50 Euro menu. For starters, a charcuterie plate, slices of a variety of processed, store-bought meats with a bit of greens and crudities. Filling if not noteworthy. Cathey opted for the house cassoulet (for a 2.50 supplement). I went for Toulouse sausages and frites. The cassoulet came bubbling hot and quite meaty, a perfect portion for Cathey. My sausage was dense and tasty and the French do know their frites. Cathey had a simple fruit salad for dessert. My molten chocolate fondant came with pastry cream, whipped cream, and a small scoop of French (very) vanilla ice cream. Just delightful. With a demi of wine, and perhaps the most disappointing chunks of baguette I've yet to be served in France, 35 Euros.

If it hadn't been clear that the slices of baguette had been cut from an old loaf - one side of the first slice was crumbly dry and at the least should have been discarded - this would have been a near perfect meal. Be that as it may, Cathey preferred the cassoulet to that of Le Tirou, a ringing endorsement. Given the authentic atmosphere, and for the price, Au Petit Gazouillis is a true find. We'll return.




LE TIROU, CASTELNAUDARY - A REVIEW

Three different towns in the south of France each produce slightly different versions of cassoulet, that hearty, beany casserole named after the cassole, the earthenware bowl in which it is traditionally cooked and served. Having visited Carcassonne and Toulouse prior to our permanent move to the region, only Castelnaudary, which lays claim to actually having invented the dish, remained.

Le Tirou chef/owner Jean-Claude Visentin is a Maître Restaurateur, a prized title not taken lightly.  It's a curious place with odd, slightly chintzy furnishings that embellish otherwise standard restaurant table settings. And you can't miss the petting zoo in the back yard on display to the entire dining room. (Roosters and an alpaca (llama, maybe) and a statue of a cow and more...) But, like 90% of the restaurants in Castelnaudary, whatever else that it's about, it's about the cassoulet.

Brought to the table with some ceremony in the appropriate cassoles, properly crusted, the maitre d' spooned out a piece of homemade sausage, a piece of confit de porc, a piece of confit de canard, and a serving of beans onto the plates of each of the ladies. Not a fan of such beanful fare, I opted for cuisse de canard confite - leg and thigh of duck confit. The cassoulet was a real treat for the ladies, each component with a distinctive flavor, the portion slightly more than they could finish. My duck was done as I like it and as so few restaurants serve it, with the skin crispy instead of limp.

We found the service polite and attentive without being intrusive and Visentin visited each table as lunch concluded, even displaying a smattering of English in our honor. This was the real deal even if the setting had the flavor of a touristy joint. They care about the cassoulet and it showed. Not the least expensive in town - the three mains with a demi of wine, two desserts and two coffees just topped 100 Euros. But well worth it. Thumbs up.




RADISH LEAF SOUP - A BRIEF RECIPE

Fannie brings seasonal veggies to the church square just a few steps from our house on Wednesday and Friday mornings, fresh and locally grown, still wet with dew. We buy our lettuce from Fannie along with whatever else looks good that day. She even sold us the fresh pumpkin for our Thanksgiving pie, slicing off just as much as we needed from a big bruiser.

The other day, Fannie displayed bunches of radishes. When I commented on how pretty they were, a friend of Fannie's standing nearby commented that she made soup from the greens. Yes, Fannie said. Very good. So I bought a bunch and brought them back to Cathey. She checked out several recipes and came up with her own.

Cathey sauteed an onion in butter, then added the cleaned and chopped radish greens, a cubed potato, and stock. When the potatoes were finished, she pureed the lot and heated it back up with a bit of cream and salt and pepper to taste. Served with thin slices of radish as a garnish, Cathey's comment was, "It's very green."


BAR LE 40, QUARANTE - REVIEW

I live in the little French town of Quarante. Quarante also happens to be the French word for the number 40. Is it any wonder that the local sports bar/cafe is called Bar Le 40?

Let's be honest. Bar Le 40 is a local joint with no ambiance whatsoever, inside or out. Sitting on a busy intersection with cars whizzing by all day, you are protected from even a minimal view of the traffic by cars parked at the curb, obstructing that view (such as it is) because the sidewalk is only a few feet wide. Except for a few posters, the interior hasn't been redecorated since the town was liberated...in 1918. But as the only place in town where you can sit down at a table and be served a meal, nothing really matters as long as the food is edible. On a recent Friday, lunching with a couple of my neighbors while Cathey was out of town, the food was edible. Not great, but not bad and worth the price.

The three of us each chose the menu of the day for 12 Euros, add a Euro for a liter of house wine. For starters, choice of salad with a wedge of a cheese tart or a simple plate of charcuterie. For the main, fish filet or biftek with a side of either frites or spinach. Several dessert choices including an apple tart and ice cream, but we all chose the caramelized flan. As I said, all edible. I think the beef was a better choice than the fish, but that's me. And the spinach looked a bit limp, but I chose the frites...also a bit limp. The flan was just fine. All in all, we filled up and didn't feel cheated.

They say that the house confit de canard is a good choice for dinner. I'll give it a try. Yes, I will be back. After all, it's the only place in town where you can sit down at a table and be served a meal.

 L'AMBASSADE, BEZIERS - REVIEW

When I was writing restaurant reviews professionally in the Lehigh Valley of eastern Pennsylvania, I would take copious notes. How was the room furnished? Did the acoustics allow for comfortable conversation? Crisp linens? Sparkling glassware? Was the service attentive, professional? And I would carefully describe every dish - visual presentation, aroma, texture, taste, ingredients, derivation. All grist for the mill. I was being paid to eat and I was determined to give my employer and the reader their money's worth.

I now live in the south of France, in the land of the Impressionist artists who taught us that beauty is not always best expressed through strict attention to photographic detail. It's possible, perhaps desirable, to simply sketch the outlines and let the imagination of the viewer fill in the forms. I'm certainly not in the same league on the printed page as the Impressionists were on canvas, but you get my meaning. My style is not as precise as it once was. You'll have to get to know me, to trust me, and to read between the lines.

Why have I spent so much time explaining my process? Because I have just finished the best fine dining experience that I have yet to have had in France and I don't want to spend an inordinate amount of time on the details. The details would only fuzz up the experience rather than sharpen it. There are those who would disagree, who would demand every jot and tittle. Fine. Enjoy a lunch at L'Ambassade. Write your own revue. But think of me as the Rod Serling of restaurant reviewers. Are you familiar with the customary opening of Twilight Zone? Rod would face the camera, perhaps smoking a cigarette, and say, "Imagine, if you will, a world in which..."

Imagine...

L'Ambassade is directly opposite the train station in Beziers, not the toniest part of town. With an unprepossessing facade and simple, adequate, but almost pedestrian interior furnishings, L'Ambassade doesn't strike any poses.

The service is attentive but not intrusive. Informative without being overbearing. Timed to our pace rather than demanding that we conform to theirs. Nearly three hours at table and we never felt either rushed or neglected. (You read that right. Three hours. For lunch.)

An assortment of amuse-bouches presented us with a kaleidoscope of tastes and textures. I particularly enjoyed a test-tube portion of creamy mussel soup sipped through a straw (my table mates found it a bit too briny) and a tiny bowl layered with custard, sauced mushrooms, and a lobster froth. About six different such tidbits were presented to us on two rectangular plates, one plate for each side of the table, enough for the seven of us to have one of each of the bits.

The starters were diverse and unusual, for this Yank anyway. I had the masque de cochon, pig snout for the uninitiated, with a skewer of fried offal. Calm down. If you are a meat eater in a culture that adheres to the 'from tail to nose' philosophy, you should be prepared for a little tail, a little nose. The thin circles of tender snout were quite tasty and were accompanied by green lentils that were prepared in such a way, and in such a creamy sauce, that completely changed their typically beany flavor. Cathey had an off-menu velouté de champignons (mushroom soup) that spanned the gamut of textures from solid bits of mushroom to foam. She described the soup as essence of mushroom.

We were offered several such off-menu items, by the way. We all chose from the 30 Euro menu that, in print, featured two choices for starter and three mains. In fact, we were offered about twice as many choices. Our host, a new foodie friend of ours here in France, is well known in L'Ambassade. Since he dines there often enough to have run through the seasonal menu, the chef provides an alternative or two for him when he books a reservation.

I chose ris d'agneau (lamb sweetbreads) for my main course. I am not a particular fan but the other three choices - two on menu and one off - were each seafood and none caught my fancy. Simply grilled, on a bed of rizotto adorned with truffle shavings, and with a couple of hearty chunks of fresh girolle mushrooms, the sweetbreads filled the bill. But they did point up another curiosity, perhaps French, perhaps just L'Ambassade. Think about it. Four choices. Three fish - monkfish, sea bass, and baccalao (salt cod) - plus sweetbreads. From my point of view, a bit restrictive. Speaking of the baccalao, that was Cathey's choice. Perfection.

Before dessert, a shot glass of citrus mousse with almond slivers cleansed the palate. Wondrous desserts. Several choices. I had chocolate ice cream in a ganache cup sitting atop a chocolate 'brownie' (but so much more) encased in ganache, with a shot glass of chocolate syrup on the side. Wondrous is just the right word for French chocolate. Cathey had crepes Suzette, an add-on of a couple of Euros, prepared at table side. Without the dramatic pyrotechnics that sometimes accompany the dish, but perfectly executed just the same.

A word about the wines. We all drank white throughout the meal, a fine, full-bodied four-grape white, primarily chardonnay and viognier, from the Domaine Castelneau a bit east of us. I think that given my menu choices, my pairings-conscious host would have preferred that I shifted to red. But the viognier gave the white enough of a boost to work with my choices and I saw no reason to change from the excellent vintage. At the finish, and in honor of our host, we were treated by staff to glasses of a sweet Banyuls from Catalan country.

And, of course, coffee.

With a bit of a gratuity, 50 Euros a head. An afternoon of exquisite taste at an incredibly low price for the quality of the fare. If you are a true foodie and you find yourself anywhere near the train station in Beziers, you owe L'Ambassade a visit.

CAFE DU MIDI, BIZE MINERVOIS - REVIEW

You can't go home again. Well, in this case it might be more accurate to say that you can't always get back to where you once were even if you go back to the same place. Catch my drift? Too much drift?

On a luscious fall day in 2004, my wife Cathey, her sister Liz, and I happened across a restaurant in the little village of Bize Minervois. It's a pretty little village with the river La Cesse running alongside, not far from the regional olive cooperative with its neat gift shop, and on the back road from here to there if you're tired of the highway. We're in and around Bize quite often. But we've never returned to that little restaurant just inside the Bize archway until this weekend. We remember the restaurant well, though we've lost the name, because of a picture that Liz took of Cathey and I as we sat down to eat, a picture of a younger, happy, and satisfied couple that was printed out, framed, and given prominent play in my office at work and also served as my avatar on several websites in the decade since it was taken. The meal was as memorable as the picture. The girls shared a huge salad plate with a dozen or more ingredients including fresh veggies of the region and the season, pickles, and a hunk of country pate. I had rabbit, my first in France, stewed to perfection and served in a funky terracotta bowl. No ambiance, though. Not a lick. Just good French country cooking.

Today's Cafe du Midi is a different sort of place. Modern brown and red fabrics in place of the white linen. Modern, slightly awkward chairs. Modern lighting. Modern. That's okay. Modern is okay. But the menu was not okay. Our choice for a main dish was either hamburger or steak. Granted that it was a winter weekend. Granted we arrived just before a party of about twenty that had booked beforehand. Granted that it was the fixed price special. Even so, you shouldn't have to choose between cow and cow.

I will say that the presentation was interesting. Check out the picture. But to Cathey, the idea that hot and cold courses were served at the same time meant that by the time that you got to the last hot course, it wasn't hot any more.

So...

The sauteed veggies atop a square of puff pastry with a mild sauce was OK. The gazpacho with bits of bacon would have been interesting if we didn't get the feeling that the tomatoes came out of a tin. The steak was French biftek with a sauce and a dash of onions. The fries - chilling down while we worked on the veggies and the gazpacho - were probably reconstituted. The pineapple was fresh and the presentation novel. The goat cheese was good and the cheddar was French cheddar. (The French don't get cheddar.) Good baguette.

With a demi of wine, 32 Euros. Cathey has spoken. There are too many kitchens to sample in the region to come back to the Cafe du Midi any time soon.

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FRENCH BLACK WINTER TRUFFLE MARKET - VILLENEUVE MINERVOIS


 

Every day, a link to Languedoc Living appears in my Inbox, providing a useful compendium in English of news, event listings, and feature articles concentrating on our region but including a taste of the rest of France, Europe, and the world. I give the site a thorough look as often as time permits. Recently, I learned that the season for truffle fairs had arrived. Is it any surprise that my wife Cathey knew this? The surprise, I suppose, is that I realized that Cathey would be interested and that I proposed without any prodding that we pay a visit the truffle fair in Villeneuve Minervois, a small town in the foothills of the Massif Central about an hour north and west of us here in Quarante.


We arrived at the salle polyvalente (community room) at about 10am. Just about every village has one of these multi-purpose spaces. Villeneuve Minervois’ sports a kitchen and a stage at the edges of a basketball court downstairs and what appeared to be classrooms/meeting rooms upstairs. A market was already in full swing. Tables displaying wine, artisan whisky, saffron and saffron-infused products, truffle-infused butter and brie, artisan chocolate and cheeses and sausages, and knives and other gadgets with points and edges were arranged in an outward-facing square on the floor of the court. After a quick circuit and tastings, we had purchased two bottles of sparkling Limoux wine and a couple of hunks of chocolate, both white and dark, both with bits of raspberries. I thoroughly enjoyed my sip of Black Mountain, very smooth artisan whiskey. No sale, though. I’m a bourbon man myself.

But the reason for the festivities are the truffles. I won’t bother defining what truffles are or describing their culinary importance. If you don’t know, you can look it up. I will simply say two things: that we are talking here about the French black winter truffle, tuber mélanosporum, and that if you enjoy mushrooms, truffles are kind of like mushrooms to the nth degree. Truffles are a gourmet’s delight. At a cooking demonstration under a small tent with perhaps 50 chairs lined up, the audience was standing room only.


The truffle foragers arrive with their musky little treasures in baskets, in glass jars, or in plastic containers. They present their finds to an examiner stationed by the entrance, in this case a youngish man casually dressed in jeans, and his female assistant. They represent the French Department of Agriculture as well as the local Brotherhood of the Truffle. The examiner assesses every single truffle, sharp knife in hand, trimming them as needed, carefully shaving and smelling. If the truffle passes muster, it goes in a bin on the examiner’s scale. If it doesn’t, it’s added to a pile of rejects under the examiner’s table. There may be some discussion concerning a rejection, but the discussion is always civil and the examiner’s judgment is final. The assistant writes down the forager’s name by hand in a simple, lined notebook and, when the examiner is finished, writes down the combined weight of the forager’s approved truffles. The truffles are then placed in a cloth bag, tied securely, sealed, and handed back to the forager.

The foragers took their approved hauls to a long table at one end of the hall, separated from the crowd by a waist-high rope. A gent with a rifle, one of the Brothers, patrolled the stage above. When all of the day’s truffles had been examined, very close to the appointed hour of 11am, the examiner walked down the line to each forager’s station, cutting open the seals of the cloth bags and pouring the contents into whatever display container that the forager had set up. Some of the forager’s displays were quite fancy. Some foragers simply used the plastic containers that their truffles had arrived in. Every station had its own scale. When the examiner had opened and poured out the last bag, and without any warning, the Brother on the stage fired off a loud blank. (I hope that it was a blank.) The rope dropped. The stampede began.


I knew then why there had been such a crowd around the examiner’s station by the door. Folks who were intent on buying were scoping out the batches that they thought looked the best, watching and listening to the examiner. So when the rope dropped, they hustled to purchase the truffles that they’d targeted. We weren’t so focused. We simply walked up to the lady at one end of the table with just a dozen or so mostly small truffles sitting on the lid of a plastic container, watched the two ladies ahead of us pick up and smell each and every one of her truffles before purchasing two, then repeated the exercise for ourselves, picking out one small truffle of 14 grams that she put in a little cellophane bag for us. 11 Euros. That’s right. 11 Euros for a fresh French winter truffle weighing one-half ounce. We were amazed. We would have paid at least four times as much in the States, probably more. At that price, we could afford another. We were more discriminating. We walked down the table slowly, eying each display.  We liked that of a forager displaying deep black truffles in a cute little basket lined with red fabric. We picked out another truffle. 16 grams. 12 Euros. Damn.


When we got them home, Cathey put the truffles on a paper towel inside a Mason jar and put them in the fridge. We’ll be shopping for fresh-made pasta. Cathey will make a simple sauce and shave bits of truffle on top. Perhaps an omelet? Yum…

One final note. Cathey rhapsodized over the smell of truffles that she said pervaded the salle polyvalente. I frankly didn’t notice it. But when friends popped by our house the day after the fair for a visit to set a luncheon date in order to introduce us to their favorite local restaurant, Cathey brought out the jar and opened it to give them a whiff. And from the other end of the table the fragrance of the truffles wafted over to me. Unmistakable.

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LES TROIS PETITS COCHONS, GINESTAS - REVIEW

Full disclosure...I'm a sucker for neighborhood joints.

Certainly Cathey and I enjoy destination restaurants with inventive takes on classic themes. But most times when we go out to eat, Cathey and I are simply looking for good food, well prepared, in a casual atmosphere, at a reasonable price. That's what defines a good neighborhood joint. That's Les Trois Petits Cochons (The Three Little Pigs) in a nutshell.

Les Trois Petits Cochons is more a bar than a restaurant or bistro. There's seating for about twenty at tables inside, a few more outside facing Ginestas' market square if the weather suits. You choose starter and main from a chalkboard menu that the waitress props up near your table. We were surprised at the variety. I had grilled Camembert for a starter that came boiling hot with a sort of cracker crust underneath and bits of smoked ham on top. Cathey had an odd take on German potato salad - herring and sliced potatoes in olive oil with a boiled egg for a garnish. There were a number of other choices including the ubiquitous salade chevre chaud (salad with hot goat cheese). For my main I had a steak with pepper sauce, onions, and mushrooms. Cathey had chunks of veal with a tomato and mushroom sauce. Crispy frites accompanied my steak, Cathey's veal came with rice. Everything was nicely but simply presented. No square plates. And everything was properly cooked and spiced. There were even sprigs of herbs in water glasses at the exit of the kitchen that were plucked for garnish as the waitresses brought out the plates. Other choices for mains included beef bourguignon, chicken, duck breast (for a supplement of a couple of Euros), and more.

A demi of wine was included as were our desserts. The wine was good sipping pink. The desserts didn't feel as though they were made in house, local commercial probably. Not bad but not great.

Service was pleasant and cheerful, timely but certainly not rushed. There were clearly a number of regulars in the house for our Tuesday lunch. We heard British English and German as well as our American English and, of course, French. We liked the fact that, as we entered, one of the waitresses was handing a gentleman in a wheelchair a takeout meal and another gent came in later with a basket for takeaway, returning his cleaned plate from his last meal. Being among happy, buzzing neighbors getting the service that they needed, regulars both inside and out, made for an enjoyable hour and a half. And at 13,90 Euros apiece, including the wine, easy on the wallet.

We'll return.
  
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RESTAURANT LA CAVE, LA CAUNETTE - REVIEW

There are myriads of restaurants with diverse and interesting menus to choose from here in the south of France. Every would-be celebrity chef on the road to fame and a Michelin star has a kitchen pumping out his or her specialty. How to choose wisely? Lunch specials are the way to go. You get great value for your Euro and a definite feel for the skills of the folks behind the swinging doors. One spot we've recently visited for such a taste test is the Restaurant La Cave in La Caunette.

On the road to the beautiful tourist destination that is the town of Minerve, La Caunette is itself perched precariously on a hillside. Reached by way of a tall and narrow bridge, near the entrance to the village there's a small church with an oddly new-feeling cemetery behind it overlooking the gorge. The town of about 350 souls boasts several wine producers offering tastings. And across from the mairie (town hall), in a building that one would suppose had been a winery (cave) in a previous life, sits the Restaurant La Cave.

We first tried lunching at La Cave on a Wednesday. A group was waiting to be served on the small terrace as we approached. We tried the door but it was locked. The front of the double-sided chalkboard with the menu said Ouvert (Open), but the backside advised that the restaurant was closed for dinner on Tuesday and all day Wednesday. We so informed the French folks who were waiting and went on over to Minerve and La Table des Troubadours (See previous post for my review. You don't want to be bothered? It's passable. Just passable.) 

On our return to La Caunette, with a different companion, we chose to dine inside. Surprisingly modern furnishings contrasted with the obviously ancient but well re-pointed stone interior. And I can do without the oddly shaped plates. But why quibble? It all seems to fit together somehow. And it's all about the food.

For a reasonable fixed price (15,50 Euros apiece) we had a starter, a main, a dessert, wine, and coffee. No ups. The tab came to 46,50 Euros for three. Amazing. That never happens.

For starters we chose from either a piping hot, fall-inspired root veggie soup or vegetables of the season (tomato, cucumber, eggplant, and onion) sliced thin, oiled, and topped with a few anchovy filets. The choices for the main were a steamy bowl of cassoulet or three plump sardines escabeche-style. For dessert? Creme brulee or chocolate/saffron fondant or a banana torte. All were properly spiced, freshly prepared, and well-presented. The service was well-paced and attentive without being intrusive. 

We shall return and try a dinner on a special night. Recommended.

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 LA TABLE DES TROUBADOURS, MINERVE - REVIEW

Simply stated, La Table des Troubadours in Minerve is just good enough if you can't arrange for a better meal while you are visiting one of the most beautiful villages in all of France. Just good enough...

Minerve clings to the wall of a broad, deep gorge carved by the River Cesse. As we heard one American remark as we walked down into the village from the parking area above, "It's impressive what a little water can do over a long period of time." And Minerve is truly impressive, although it's always been difficult for me to understand why a group of people would choose to live in such an inaccessible place. I appreciate the concept of a defensible position. But in fact, it seems that these 'impregnable' positions always end up falling to their enemies as Minerve did during the Albigensian Crusade. So why bother?

Enough history. It's about the food.

The lunch menu of the day consisted of a starter, a main dish, and a dessert or cheese plate for 19 Euros. Wine and coffee extra and the house wine was by the bottle, not en pichet (in a pitcher, meaning bulk wine), so not cheap.  63,50 Euros for three people. That's a high-end tab for the typical daily special in the region. But Minerve is a special place and the view from some of the tables at La Table des Troubadours is special as well, looking out as they do over the gorge. The food, however, is not special at all. My duck confit, leg and thigh, was passable, as was Cathey's fish in cream sauce. Passable. The rest? Passable. No sense in going into each jot and tittle. Passable.

If you must eat while visiting Minerve, this is the cheaper of two alternatives as far as I can tell, though not cheap in terms of value for dollar. The supposed haut cuisine provider in Minerve is Relais Chantovent. Supposedly higher quality. We may or may not visit one day. The better bet is to drive into the village of La Caunette either before or after your visit to Minerve and dine at Restaurant La Cave.

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LE NEW PORT SNACK BAR, PORT PLAISANCE, COLOMBIERS - REVIEW

Not far past the town of Colombiers, a couple of dozen kilometers away from us in Quarante, stands Brico Marche, the local equivalent of Home Depot. We travel there often to purchase shelving and hardware and such while we've been setting up housekeeping here in France. Going through Colombiers, you can't help but notice that the town has used its positioning on the Canal du Midi to great advantage. Relatively new and refined port facilities greet the recreational boater with restaurants and shopping, camp grounds, and other amenities. An amphitheater faces the Canal and, on a recent weekend night, saxophonist Pierre Schirrer et l'Orchestre Louisiana performed a free New Orleans jazz concert, playing the music of Sidney Bichet and Louis Armstrong from an old post boat anchored in the Canal. Our friends Simon and Julia invited us to join them for dinner and the show. So follows my review of Le New Port Snack Bar.

Le New Port benefits from its overview of the port, both from inside the glass-enclosed bar/dining area and from the outdoor patio with its bright blue and white striped awnings. It's simply a pleasant space, a place to spend an hour or more lingering over a midday meal.

We didn't see the full menu. Because of the concert, everyone was anticipated to come charging in at the same time. Limited choices were available. For starters, one could choose either a full plate of  garden salad sprinkled with little chunks of cheese that looked a lot like cheddar or else a wedge of country terrine (coarse pate), a couple of thin slices of smoked ham, and a small, less complex side salad. I chose the latter as did the two ladies. We were all pleased. Simon chose the salad and enjoyed the cheese.

For our main course, the choices were either shrimp (in the shells) or duck (braised with olives) with rice or frites on the side.The ladies went for the shrimp, Simon and I took the duck, only Julia chose the rice, and all was satisfactory. The shrimp were a good size and well seasoned. The duck was braised properly without being falling-apart mushy, completely infused with the fresh olives. And the French know their frites.

For dessert, the men had ice cream, Cathey had fruit salad, and Julia tried the fromage blanc, cheese just this side of yogurt. Just OK for all.

The service was cheerful and as responsive as was reasonable given the full house. With a couple of carafes of wine and coffee for Julia and me, we dropped just under 100 Euros. That's a bit much for a fairly simple set menu except for the fact that we had comfortable seats for a concert and stayed for over three hours.

In the final analysis, I'd only choose Le New Port for this type of event. Perfectly satisfactory. But I wouldn't choose to stop for a meal here under ordinary circumstances. There are too many fine little cafes in the region offer surprisingly fine dining to have to settle for bar food that's just satisfactory.

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ABBAYE SYLVA PLANA, LAURENS
AUBERGE de ST. MARTIN, BEAUFORT
QUICK TAKES


Abbaye Sylva Plana: Cute tapas place attached to a winery on the outskirts of Laurens. Modern décor. Good food. Reasonable prices for the quality except for the wine. (Every restaurant in France should serve a house wine. Restaurant wine in bottles is simply too expensive given that perfectly acceptable wine is sold in supermarkets for 3 Euros or so. Rant over.) Cathey had the tapas menu, choice of three – a mini Mason jar with a seafood soup that was pure New Orleans crawfishy, marinated mushrooms, and peppers stuffed with the best bacalao that Cathey has ever tasted. I had a superb duck breast and finished with a nasty chocolate lava cake with whipped cream. Worth a visit if it's lunchtime and you're in the area.

Auberge de St. Martin: Fine dining on a tree-shaded patio or in a formal dining room in Beaufort outside of Olonzac. We were treated for lunch by Simon and Julia along with their Australian friends from Capestang. Beautiful setting. Comprehensive menu. Most of the party chose the Menu Terroir at 23 Euros – choice of sardines or soup, trout or lamb, and a hefty variety of interesting desserts. Cathey chose the Menu du Jour, sardines to start prepared differently than ours followed by stuffed artichokes covered with foie gras. All started with a tiny sip of fishy fish soup for an amusee. Every dish prepared and presented impeccably. Much of the cooking done on an open fire fueled by the wood of grape vines. A destination restaurant to which we'll return.

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FRENCH CHEESE - AN ENJOYABLE, DIVERSE HUNK OF OUR DIET

Unless we're dining out or have particularly tasty leftovers from the previous night's dinner, our mid day meal consists of chunks of fresh bread purchased from the bakery a block away, a plate of charcuterie (meat products, primarily pork but including anything and everything, like sausages and salamis, pates, bacon and the like), fresh tomato and/or cucumber and/or artichoke, olives, fruit, and a cheese plate.



Our typical cheese plate will have a variety that includes soft cheese (brie, Camembert, reblochon), firm cheese (cantal, emmental), Roquefort or other blue cheese, and a goat or a sheep cheese.




You can buy cheese where ever food is sold. Our favorite super markets have long cheese counters with varieties running the gamut. Smaller groceries' assortment reflects either the owners' taste, the local product, or both. And every market day usually includes a cheese vendor. The offering of the vendor in the Wednesday market in Quarante is pictured just below. Below that are two pictures of the charcuterie, meat, poultry, and cheese truck in the Capestang market.







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MORE QUICK TAKES


Hotel Residence, Nissan-lez-Enserune: Chef/Owner Philippe SANS and his wife Bernadette built a destination hotel/restaurant, sold it in 2012, and went traveling. The new dining room doesn't have the country/funky ambiance of the original. And yes, it's a bit more pricey than when they were building an audience. But it's about the food, isn't it. And the food and the service is still top notch.
Le Patio, Nissan-lez-Enserune: Also once owned by the SANS, a delightful little place, a pizzeria with a diverse menu, less expensive than the Hotel Residence, to take lunch or dinner with friends. The original manager purchased Le Patio, so not much has changed. Fresh ingredients, well-prepared and thoughtfully presented. In good weather, dine on the patio.

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 from a wood-fired oven (try the one with foies-gras).

Le Terminus Between the towns of Cruzy and Quarante: This is a recent find, recommended to us by our Brit friend Miles. 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. The 12 Euro luncheon special of two years ago is now 16 Euros. So it goes. But it's well worth a visit on a sunny afternoon.

Le Mewen, Narbonne: A couple of blocks from Les Halles, Narbonne’s comprehensive and fascinating covered market, Le Mewen is an old-fashioned creperie without frills serving both sweet and savory concoctions. Try the apple cider instead of wine. (UPDATE: Le Mewen has moved to new digs. We have not visited, but we can't imagine that they've managed to retain the funky charm of their old haunt. We'll see.) (UPDATE #2: The new restaurant, just across the canal from Les Halles, maintains the menu if not the charm of its previous location. We have visited and approve. Good stuff.)

L'Auberge de la Croisade, Between Quarante and Ouveillan on the Canal du Midi: This upscale restaurant is one of our special places. Your host Bruno is multi-lingual, full of energetic hospitality, and the food is to die for, most of the time. There are those who say that the menu has grown a bit lazy, but we don’t visit often enough to notice. There are those who say that the preparation is not always spot on. We haven't noticed that, either.

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. Service is family style. Madame has 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 we're crazy. (UPDATE: The restaurant is closed. A hand-written sign posted out front explains that, after 53 years of serving guests, Madame wishes to spend her remaining days serving her family.)

Les Tapas de la Clape, Les Halles, Narbonne: It's not a traditional Spanish tapas bar, but the assortment of tastes of meats and cheeses is interesting and moderately priced, so you can shop in Les Halles over lunch and not skip a beat. Les Halles is the covered market in Narbonne – the best of its kind in the region and a great place to shop for local meats, seafood and produce. The website is entirely in French, but you'll get the picture.

Almost a selfie...

7 comments:

  1. Thanks for the tips about Le Pourquoi Pas. A definte YES. We've just tried out their new terrace! (Reservations strongly recommended.)

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  2. Thanks for the kind words. We have family visiting and we're eating out a bit. So stay tuned. Several new reviews are coming in the next week or two.

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  4. I have enjoyed reading your restaurant reviews and am looking forward to visiting a few during our visit to Quarante in July. We have several friends in common and hope to meet you and Cathey while we are in town..

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    1. Thanks Tamra. It appears that you stay at Deb and Gloria's house. Get in touch when you arrive and we can share a bottle on our terrace.

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    2. Yes, we are one of the seven owners of the house on Moulin a Vent. We will get in touch and gladly share a bottle of wine with you on the terrace!

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  5. Hi, Ron and I are in town and looking forward to meeting you both...Let us know when you at up for a glass of wine on the terrace. I think you and Ron have two things in common...cars and motorcycles.

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