In the Land of the good life – Château La Fleunie, Perigord

In the Land of the good life – Château La Fleunie, Perigord

Périgord… A word that conjures up medieval castles, precipitous cliffs, intriguing archeological sites and extravagantly rich food. I suspect the good life was born here, as wave after wave of our prehistoric ancestors came to settle in the many shelters conveniently hollowed out of the limestone cliffs by the Vézère and Dordogne rivers. And then there was the all-you-can-eat barbecue potential of the herds of reindeers that roamed the narrow alluvial valleys.

Perigord-Chateau La Fleunie.

Château La Fleunie is a medical castle reborn as boutique hotel.

By the middle ages, our forbearers were building fortresses to keep at bay the hordes of invaders eager to appropriate their good life. And from the bounty of their fertile land, they were creating a gastronomy that evolved into the pride of the region. Truffles and duck confit are traditional fare here.

Many fortified castles still stand on the hilltops, facing each other across the now peaceful banks of the rivers. Others materialize along the back roads that curve up and down the steep hills, when an opening in the foliage reveals turrets and crenellated walls. Some have remained private properties that can only be admired from afar, or historic sites to be visited in passing. But for visitors who yearn for a more personal experience, a number of these beautifully restored châteaux now have a new life as boutique hotels.

Le Château La FLeunie

Perigord - La Fleunie rear wing.

The rear wing of the hotel once housed the stables of the castle.

Little is known of the history of La Fleunie, other than it was built in the twelfth century by the Order of Saint John of Jerusalem, a community of monastic knights (later known as the Knight of Malta), on an estate given to them by the ruler of the area as reward for services rendered during the first crusades. The knights managed to hang on to their château for several centuries, and even enhance it in the fifteenth century (witness the Renaissance dormers). But eventually, local nobility moved in and the surrounding land became a part of their vast agricultural domain. Today, after a complete renovation in 1990 that mercifully preserved its original character, La Fleunie has become a charming 33-room, three-star hotel, secluded within its own 106-hectare (260-acre) estate.

Perigord-La Fleunie reception.

The public spaces have retained a medieval flair.

The first thing that attracts us to La Fleunie, other than the storybook looks of its pale U-shaped sandstone facades and four circular towers topped with sharply pointed slate roofs, is its location. The main purpose of our visit this weekend, Montignac, home to the world famous Paleolithic painted caves of Lascaux and the recently opened Centre International d’Art Parietal (International Center of Rock Wall Art), is only eight kilometers (five miles) away via a scenic back road. And all the other not-to-be-missed sites on our list (troglodyte villages of the Vézère Valley, and medieval gems along the Dordogne River) are all within a 45-minute drive. After a day spent roaming the countryside for prehistoric caves to Renaissance wonders, we enjoy returning to our very own château and relaxing on the lawn with a pre-dinner drink. Life is good at La Fleunie. And it’s about to get better.

La Table du Chevalier

Perigord-La Fleunie dining room.

The rustic dining room décor recalls its medieval history.

We are dining at La Table du Chevalier (the Knight’s Table) tonight, which the property’s website introduces as its restaurant gastronomique, the French code word for seriously upscale in both its cuisine and setting. No idle boast in a place where gastronomy has been a way of life ever since overweight ducks were first turned into foie gras.

Perigord-Table du Chevalier asparagus starter.

The cream of asparagus starter is garnished with foie gras.

 

The dining room is formal, decorated with a medieval flair that recalls the property’s history. The ancient beams that hold the soaring ceiling are adorned with brightly colored hand-painted garlands. The upholstery of the high back dining chairs recalls the faded tapestries hanging from on the rough limestone walls. The white linen-draped tables are set far apart to ensure the privacy and comfort of the guests. The stage is set for a memorable meal.

Memorable Meals

Perigord-La Fleunie spring lamb.

The filet of spring lamb is grilled to perfection.

After a lovely amuse-bouche of salmon tartare topped with a swirl of tangy, cloudlike lime mousse, I start with the chaud-froid d’asperges. The cool cream of fresh asparagus is garnished with paper-thin slices of smoked magret de canard (duck breast) and slivers of foie gras. It’s smooth, light and bursting with interesting flavors. I follow with a filet of spring lamb, grilled to medium-rare perfection, and served with alternating dollops of smoky purée of white beans and mousseline of potatoes enhanced with grainy old-style mustard. Brilliant in its apparent simplicity.

Perigord-Table du Chevalier confit.

The confit de canard is drizzled with nuggets of caramelized duck skin.

One of my dining companions, who can never pass up a duck confit, orders the innocuously listed “Confit de Canard with the chef’s potato purée”. It appears as a mysterious mound of smooth potatoes enhanced by chopped fresh vegetable and herbs, drizzled with bits of caramelized duck skin and topped with a crunchy ball of pastry filled with duck essence. A generous portion of boneless confit is concealed under the succulent potato puree. All it takes is a taste to convince all three of us accomplices on this girlfriends’ escapade to order it the following night.

Yes, we so thoroughly enjoy this first dinner that we reserve our table on the spot for the next evening.

The Knight behind the Table

Perigord -Chef Gregory Lafeuille

Chef Gregory Lafeuille.

There was never any question for Gregory Lafeuille, the inspired young chef of La Table du Chevalier, that he belonged in the kitchen. By the tender age of eight, he had declared himself in charge of preparing his family’s desserts, and had already compiled his own notebook of recipes. Fast forward a decade or so, and this Perigord native is pursuing advanced cooking and pastry studies at the Lycée Hôtelier in nearby Souillac. There, he earns himself internships in prestigious local restaurants, including Le Vieux Pont at Belcastel (one Michelin star) and Michel Bras in Laguiol (three Michelin stars), as well as further afield with the Spanish luxury hospitality chain Parador. Back in Perigord, within three year of starting at Le Château in St Geniès, he works his way up to sous-chef. Another brush with stars follows, in London this time, at Chef Marcus Wareing’s eponymous Marcus restaurant in Belgravia (two Michelin stars) before returning home to join La Table du Chevalier. Here, after two years as sous-chef he assumes the top role in 2016, and now dishes out his own style of masterfully prepared, elegantly presented creations rich with the earthy flavors of the Perigord heartland.

Chef Lafeuille’s imaginative cuisine is so popular with local gourmets at well as La Fleunie guests that reservations are a must, especially on weekends.

Good to Know

  • Getting in TouchChâteau La Fleunie, Rue d’Aubas, 24570 Condat-sur-Vézère, France. Contact: e-mail lafleunie@free.fr,Tel: +33 (0)5 53 51 32 74
  • Getting There – Condat-sur-Vézère is located four hours by car southwest of Paris and 2 hours northeast of Bordeaux (Highway A89, exit n°17 Montignac-Lascaux).

A Few Souvenirs

Location, location, location!

Château La Fleurie

A Provencal Foodies Delight in Roque d’Antheron

A Provencal Foodies Delight in Roque d’Antheron

It’s a flawless spring weekend in the Provencal backcountry, all verdant hills dotted with blooming trees and ancient villages of golden stones under a robin egg blue sky. It’s so easy to lose track of time in these idyllic surroundings that it’s well past midday by the time we get to La Roque d’Anthéron, a tiny town on the left bank of the Durance river.

Provence-Chateau Florans.

Renaissance Château de Florans dominates the old town.

Although well within one-hour’s drive from most key destinations in the area, it remains a sleepy, off the beaten path little charmer best known for two architectural masterpieces: its twelfth century Abbaye de Silvacane and seventeenth century Château de Florans. Once a Cistercian monastery, the Romanesque abbey remains a prime example of conventual archictecture in medieval Provence. Meanwhile, the Renaissance castle, now a private healthcare facility closed to the public, still dominates the center of town.

A foodies’ Lucky Find

Provence-Castellas bar.

The diminutive bar offers only the finest brands.

Yet, La Roque d’Anthéron has another, far more current claim to fame, which we discover as pangs of hunger shift our attention from the local architectural heritage to the more mundane issue of finding a restaurant for lunch. The streets are virtually empty during the midday lull, but among the shuttered shops the cheerful red awning of L’Auberge du Castellas catches my eye. The selections du moment (daily specials) listed on a blackboard hanging against the mellow stone façade are all the convincing needed for a consensus. We peer expectantly through open French doors into a small, rustic dining room filled with obviously delighted patrons. Katia, an elfin young woman with a welcoming smile, promptly ushers us to the last available table. The patron saint of foodies has come through once again!

Provence-Castellas asperges.

The daily special Terrine d’Asperges Vertes.

Everything on the menu, Katia explains, is prepared in-house with seasonal products sourced from local artisan producers. Said menu seems simple enough: four appetizers, five main courses and four desserts, including a cheese tray. But this doesn’t make choices any easier. Roasted quail or pike mousseline for starter? Stuffed breast of veal or monkfish for main course? Covert glances at the plates on nearby tables only reinforce the dilemma.

Love at First Bite

Roasted milk-fed lamb and spring vegetable medley.

I begin with the Terrine d’Asperges Vertes, a thick slab of silky asparagus Bavarois bursting with fresh asparagus flavor that has me smitten at the first mouthful. Next comes the succulent Agneau de Pâques (Easter Lamb), a generous portion of milk-fed lamb shoulder, roasted to perfection and served with a medlley of spring vegetables. Dessert is a swoon-worthy verrine of freshly picked strawberries, topped with chunks of meringue and an extravagant swirl of pistachio mousse.

Wine selection comes easier. To complement the decidedly Provencal menu, the small and fairly priced wine list favors the growing regions of southern France. We select a bottle Cuvée Tradition Rose from the nearby Lubéron Château Val Joanis. The fresh blend of Syrah and Grenache grapes, with hints of red fruit and spices subtly enhances the delicate flavors of our springtime meal.

A Passion for Traditional Cuisine

Provence-Castellas strawberries.

Local stawberries with pistachio mousse.

L’Auberge du Castellas is the brainchild of Celine Moulins and her husband Frank (Franky) Villani. After years of working in trendy ski resort and inns of the Provencal Alps, they longed to return to the classic cuisine born from the seasonal bounty of Provence. It is the abundance of high quality local suppliers that influenced their decision to open their restaurant in La Roque d’Anthéron. Celine, who developed her passion for traditional local cuisine as a child at the elbow of her professional chef grandmother, officiates in the kitchen. Meanwhile Franky, also a trained chef, manages the dining room with the assistance of the ever- attentive Katia, and oversees relations with suppliers.

With its memorable food and excellent service, L’Auberge du Castellas is a lucky random choice this time, but from now on it will warrant a detour, and a reservation, whenever I am in the area.

Good to Know

  • Getting there – La Roque d’Anthéron is located 59 kilometers (36 miles) north of Marseilles, 31 kilometers (19 miles) north of Aix-en-Provence. It is easily accessible by road (A51) as well a public transportation (Bus no. 250) from both cities.
  • The International Piano Festival – each year for the past four decades, from mid-july to mid-august, La Roque d’Anthéron is overrun with music and musicians as the host venue for a major summer event in the calendar of European Music Festivals. A number of performances featuring world-class artists and newly discovered talents take place on the grounds of the Abbey of Silvacane, as well as in the spectacular gardens of the Florans Castle, open to the public for the occasion, and other local open air venues.
  • L’Auberge du Castellas, 10 bis Rue de l’Eglise, 13640, La Roque d’Anthéron, France, is open for lunch and dinner Wednesday through Sunday. It is closed Monday and Tuesday, and from late January to early March.
  • The restaurant can seat 18 guests in the dinning room, plus an additional 20 guests on the terrace during the summer months. Reservation are strongly recommended anytime and an absolute must during the International Piano Festival. Contact: email auberge-du-castellas@sfr.fr . Tel.: +33 (0)4 42 50 50 58.
  • In addition to featuring vegetarian options on the menu, Celine can also accommodate gluten-intolerant guests.

A Few Souvenirs

Location, location, location!

La Roque d'Antheron.

A Fine-Dining Surprise in Lyon

A Fine-Dining Surprise in Lyon

From its popular Bouchons to internationally revered local chef Paul Bocuse, Lyon is a city that takes its cuisine seriously. Nowhere is it more obvious than at the little known Restaurant Vatel.

A Legendary Namesake

What first piques my interest in this teaching restaurant of the Groupe Vatel, a worldwide education group specialized in the various aspect of the hospitality industry, is its choice of patronym.

Lyon-Vatel table setting

The subdued elegance of the table setting annonces a fine-dining experience.

Granted, Francois Vatel (1631-1671) rose from pastry cook apprentice to becoming the most famous event planner at the court of French King Louis XIV (the monarch who left us Versailles). Yet history remembers him only as the man who skewered himself with his own sword because the fish delivery for a royal banquet was late. Hardly a motivating role model for aspiring hospitality business professionals! However, my musings about this long-ago case of professional burnout end at the door of Restaurant Vatel. It’s clear at first sight that its namesake would approve.

A Timeless Temple of Gastronomy

Lyon-Vatel kir royal.

A generous amuse-bouche enhances our spectacular Kir Royal à la Framboise.

The dining room has the understated elegance of a space dedicated to the appreciation of Haute Cuisine. The pale amber walls are enhanced with burled walnut wainscoting and paneling. Spotlights discretely recessed into the white plaster coffered ceilings softly light the tabletops. Dark blue wall-to-wall carpeting muffles any service noise. The generously sized, white linen-clad tables are spaced far enough apart for privacy, and the medallion-back chairs upholstered in goldenrod velvet ensure seating comfort through a multi-course meal. Add gleaming silver and stemware, monogrammed china and delicate centerpieces of fresh flowers, and you have a relaxed setting staged to fade from awareness, so guests can focus their attention on the works of culinary art on their plate.

A Memorable Dining Experience

After a day spent tracking down the famous frescoed walls throughout the city, a cocktail is in order. We start out with a Kir Royal à la Framboise (Champagne with raspberry liqueur). A generous amuse-bouche materializes along with it. It includes a verrine (miniature glass tumbler) of chilled cucumber cream, a tiny savory pound cake with an herbed crumble topping and a pair of fresh anchovy filets in a tangy marinade on a mound of cold quinoa risotto.

Lyon-Vatel guinea fowl.

Roasted breast of guinea fowl on a Gorgonzola glaze.

For our first course, both my dining companion and I opt for a refreshing salad of al dente spring vegetables. It is served on a bed of baby arugula, with dollops of light tapenade and this traditional Lyon specialty, the cervelle de canut (silk-worker’s brain; a creamy fresh cheese blended with herbs, shallots and a touch of garlic). Just the right start for an early summer’s meal.

My main course is a roasted breast of guinea fowl with tiny potatoes and whole garlic cloves, served on a creamy glaze of Gorgonzola sauce and garnished with a marinated sundried tomato. The simple dish is flawlessly executed, with the cheese glaze adding an interesting, delicately tangy note.

Lyon-Vatel stuffed squid.

Squid stuffed with haddock mousse on a coulis of shellfish.

My friend declares her squid stuffed with haddock mousse also a success. It is served with wilted baby spinach and saffron rice, on a coulis of shellfish. I have a discrete taste of the coulis. Ambrosia! Whoever is teaching the sauces class to these soon-to-be chefs deserves a medal.

The wine list offers a comprehensive sampling of the main wine growing areas of France, with a concentration on Burgundy and Côtes du Rhone. These are, after all, considered local wines here. When asked for suggestions, our student sommelier points us to a little known Mâcon vintage, a 2013 Saint Véran Chardonnay from Pierre Ferraud et Fils. The dry, pale golden wine with a faint fruity aroma is a perfect foil for the seafood, but has enough clout to hold up to my roasted fowl as well.

A Dessert Nirvana

Lyon-Vatel dessert.

It is a struggle to restrain myself to just a few options.

A look at the dessert cart convinces us to pass on the cheese course. Three trolleys are wheeled to our table, laden with most of sumptuous classics ever bequeathed to the world by French pastry chefs. There are multi-layered chocolate cakes, showing off several intriguing textures under their veil of lustrous ganache. I spot a Saint Honoré, its high peaks of whipped cream contained within a ring of creampuffs glossy with brittle caramel. Then there is a perfect strawberry cream cake, a Baba au Rhum, and a crunchy Dacquoise with its thick praline butter cream filling sandwiched between two layers of hazelnut meringue. And several varieties of fruit and chocolate tarts, and bowls filled with various flavors of mousses.

Lyon-Vatel petits fours.

An extravagant tray of petits fours closes the meal.

Lest this dessert Nirvana failed to satisfy, our post-dinner espresso arrives with an extravagant tray of petits fours: macaroons, pistachio and chocolate tarts, various miniature cookies, and even a cube of homemade marshmallow.

 

 

 

Well-choreographed Service

Lyon-Vatel wine.

Our sommerlier introduces us to the little-known Saint-Véran Chardonnay.

We are attended by a veritable chorus line of black-suited, eager young servers and sommeliers, about twice the number that would be customary in a luxury restaurant. Yet, the service is unobtrusive and rigorously synchronized. Many of the students are already quite poised; a few are still a bit tense. Understandably so since the entire evening unfolds under the eagle eye of a majordomo who, from a discrete vantage point at the back of the room, clearly doesn’t miss even the smallest detail. But neither does the dining room staff. Everybody is gracious and attentive. The courses are precisely timed and the dishes served with just the right touch of flourish. Glasses are refilled promptly and not a single crumb is ever allowed to linger on the crisp tablecloth as soon as plates are removed.

If you ever yearn to feel like visiting royalty, this is a great place to dine in Lyon. But do plan ahead. Advanced reservations are a must.

Good to Know

  • Restaurant Vatel, 8, Rue Duhamel, Lyon, 69002, is open Tuesday through Saturday, Noon to 2:00 pm and 7:00 pm to 10:00 pm. It is closed on Sunday and Monday. Contact: e-mail lyon@restaurantvatel.fr, tel. +33 (0) 4 78 38 21 92.
  • Getting there – Located in the heart of the Presqu’Ile neighborhood, it is easy to reach on foot from anywhere in central Lyon, or via Métro: station Perrache (line A) or Tram: also station Perrache (lines T1 and T2).
  • Amazing value – Restaurant Vatel is a training facility where students get hands-on experience in their chosen field. The prices, therefore, are considerably lower those of a conventional restaurant of comparable standing. There are two three-course menus at the very friendly fixed prices of 29 and 34 Euros respectively, excluding beverages. Both offer two choices per course, plus a com[limentary amuse-bouche that is a course in itself, as well as an optional cheese course. The wines and bar beverages are equally well priced.

Location, location, location!

Restaurant Vatel

Not Just Another Paris Bistro – L’Accolade

Not Just Another Paris Bistro – L’Accolade

There are literally thousands of neighborhood bistros all over Paris, dishing out meals that go from banal to “can’t-wait-to-tell-my-friends”. It’s a French thing, the telling. When you discover a new swoon-worthy eatery, you are honor-bound to tell your friends. L’Accolade, the newly opened restaurant of Chef Nicolas Tardivel is a clear winner in the “tell” category.

Paris-L'accolade lamb.

The caramelized lamb shoulder is vacuum cooked at low temperature for twenty hours.

This latest stroke of gastronomic good fortune begins with a timing setback, when the place I had in mind turns out to be closed for a private event. At the suggestion of a friend who “hasn’t eaten there yet but has heard good things about it,” I make a short notice reservation at L’Accolade.

 

 

 

An Omen of Delights to Come

Paris-L'arcolade menu

Our server, Malik, discusses the blackboard menu with the gusto of one who has tasted and loved it all.

I know at Bonjour that I am onto a good thing. The instantaneous welcome is cordial and attentive. Then come the olives, promptly, with our drink order. Olives? I refrain the urge to turn my nose. Not that I actively dislike this ubiquitous Mediterranean staple, but I tend to dismiss it as the food equivalent of Muzak. These olives, however, play a much different tune. Speckled with herbs and glistening in their white porcelain ramekin, these little black nuggets, somehow, beckon. The first tentative bite reveals a sweet, mildly exotic taste I can’t quite identify. My dining companion and I enthusiastically polish off the dish. “The chef makes his own marinade,” our server volunteers when he comes back to discuss the menu, which I now peruse with added eagerness. A man who can do this to olives has to be a culinary wizard.

The Market’s Seasonal Best

No printed menu here. The blackboard changes every couple of months, but can be tweaked any time to take full advantage the market’s seasonal best. It is kept to five appetizers, five main courses, three desserts and a cheese board. But with every single item oh so intriguing, choice is still a dilemma.

Paris-L'Accolade tomato salad.

Heirloom tomato salad with basil ice cream.

My tomato salad starter is a platter of juicy slices of heirloom tomatoes (I identify at least five varieties), drizzled with Sauce Vierge, and enhanced by a scoop of basil ice cream. My friend’s large black tiger prawns are thinly wrapped in a sheet of crunchy phyllo dough and served with a spicy tomato mayonnaise. Alas, choosing also means renouncing. I can only hope the salad of girolles (golden chanterelles) with garden pea ice cream will still on the menu on my next visit.

Paris-L'Accolade cod.

Poached cod with passion fruit and coriander sauce.

Because my friend has her heart set on the slow-cooked caramelized lamb shoulder on a bed of mini-ratatouille, also my main course first choice, I opt for the cabillaud instead. The flaky slab of delicate cod is served with an al-dente stir-fried medley of seasonal vegetable and a tangy passion fruit sauce. An unusual harmony where tradition meets creativity for dazzling results.

The Sublime Mille-Feuille

Paris-L'Accolade mille-feuille.

Chef Nicholas’ signature mille-feuille.

By the time we reach dessert, we are both approaching the euphoric state of the blissfully satiated. It matters not that there are only three options, since one of them combines two of my guiltiest pleasures, mille-feuille and caramel au beurre salé (Napoleon and sea salt butterscotch). The portion is generous enough that it can be shared without afterthought, and so high and flaky that it can’t be done without making a finger-licking mess. In the process, I notice a thin layer of meringue within the layers, a new twist on the puff pastry classic that makes it extra light and crunchy.

Passion fruit Bavarois ravioli with sautéed pineaple and mango.

Passion fruit Bavarois ravioli with sautéed pineaple and mango.

The elegant passion fruit Bavarois ravioli with diced sautéed pineapple and mango on my friend’s plate is a delicate and refreshing creation. But it will always be the mille-feuille for me, as long as Chef Nicolas cares to keep it on the menu.

 

 

 

 

The Man Behind the Magic

Paris-L'Accolade Tardivel.

Chef Nicolas Tardivel.

Nicolas Tardivel is a man with two passions: rugby and cooking. He follows the former first. But after an early career as a wingman with the major league PUC (Paris Université Club) rugby team, he decides in his late twenties to pursue a culinary career. For the next decade, he hones his skills by assuming ever-increasing responsibilities in several noted Parisian restaurants. Along the way, he finds his mentor in Chef Christian Etchebest, one of the pillars of Bistronomie, the culinary movement started a quarter of a century ago by young classically trained Parisian chefs who wanted to bring haute cuisine down to earth. Applying their own creative talent to the highest quality products from the French heartland, they created simple dishes that brought bistro fare to new heights.

Chef Nicolas has mastered the lesson well. Now that the barely forty-something chef is at the helm of his own restaurant, he personally selects his local artisan suppliers. Then, using only the best of their seasonal bounty, he develops his own imaginative creations, juxtaposing flavors and textures in unconventional dishes that surprise and delight the palate.

L’Accolade’s wine list follows the same mindset: just over thirty labels, favoring handpicked small producers, with an emphasis on Burgundy, Chef Nicolas’ native region. Nine wines, well paired to the menu, are also available by the glass.

I look forward to a return visit to L’Accolade on my next stopover in Paris. I have already invited the friend who “hasn’t gone yet” to join me, as my thanks for steering me to this gem.

Good to Know

  • L’Accolade, 208, Rue de la Croix Nivert, Paris, 75015, is open Tuesday through Friday from 12:00 noon to 2:30 pm and 7:00 pm to 10:30 pm. It is open for dinner-only on Saturday from 7:00 pm to 10:30 pm, and for lunch-only on Monday from 12:00 noon to 2:30 pm. It is closed on Sunday. Contact: e-mail laccolade2016@gmail.com, tel.  +33 (0) 1 45 57 73 20.
  • Getting there – Located on a side street of a residential neighborhood near the convention center of the Porte de Versailles, at the southern end of Paris’ fifteenth arrondissement, L’Accolade is easy to reach by Métro from anywhere in Paris: stations Convention or Porte de Versailles (line 12) or Boucicaut (line 8).
  • In addition to its a-la-carte menu (average € 35 to € 50 per person excluding beverages), there is a fixed-menu lunch option (two courses for €19.5 or three courses for € 24.5 excluding beverages). Every night except Saturday, there is a table d’hôte four-course fixed-menu option at € 35 per person.
  • This cozy bistro with a relaxing contemporary flair can accommodate up to 35 guests. While it is still a word-of-mouth kind of place at the time of this writing, the word is deservedly getting around fast. Reservations are strongly recommended any time and are a must on weekends.

Location, location, location!

L'Accolade

My Favorite Table in Aix-en-Provence

My Favorite Table in Aix-en-Provence

Hard to imagine that in the historic center of Aix-en-Provence, where even the tiniest of squares is crammed with bistro terraces thick with tourists, cookie-cutter menus and hurried waiters, there still exist an intimate heaven where you can enjoy imaginative cuisine and considerate service in a relaxed atmosphere.

A Seasonal Feast

France-Aix Table Relaxed Atmosphere.

An intimate heaven of imaginative cuisine in a relaxed atmosphere.

Until I stumble onto La Table des Saisons, an unassuming little hole-in-the-wall on a narrow cobbled lane of the old town, somewhere between the throbbing, cigarette smoke-filled Place des Augustins and the trendy Place des Cardeurs. The jewel-like pastries lined in the refrigerated display case by the open French doors first catch my eye. But before I have a chance to consider skipping dinner and going straight to dessert, the plat de la semaine (weekly special) announced on the blackboard by the door straightens things out. Herb-encrusted filet of cod, served with a zucchini and red-pepper custard, carrot puree and baby string beans? Yes please! My friend, a red meat aficionada, is already sold on the filet of Charolais beef, the most prized cattle meat in France, served en croute, (in puff-pastry, Wellington-style) with shallot and port wine sauce.

France-Aix special cod.

Herb-encrusted filet of cod weekly special.

These simple dishes are flawlessly prepared to order and artfully presented with garnishes of spring vegetable. Because of our disparate choices of main courses we order wine by the glass, pleasing local offerings at friendly prices recommended by our knowledgeablel server. I won’t pretend we’ve left room for dessert, but we indulge anyway. My pistachio Bavarois over a “heart” fresh cherries is pure poetry! And a taste of the exquisite lemon cheesecake earns it top billing on my “next time” list.

A Family Affaire

France-Aix local artists.

The decor makes room for works by local artists.

La Table des Saison is a chef-owned family affaire. In the open kitchen, Lionel officiates with the enthusiasm and efficiently of a one-man orchestra. In the dining room, Martina welcomes guests with all the attention of a gracious hostess. The atmosphere is warm, the décor unpretentious. Comfortable wicker chairs, tables set with casual linen, soft lighting and art by local artists all around the room (yes, it is for sale in case you happen to fall in love with a particular piece).

Filet of Charolais en croute, with shallot and [ort wine sauce.

Filet of Charolais en croute, with shallot and port wine sauce.

The menu, a showcase of ultra-fresh seasonal ingredients from the market and local artisan suppliers, offers a range of options to satisfy the varied demands of the guests. There are imaginative grandes salades: Quinoa taboule with magret de canard (quinoa with grilled duck breast, cherry tomatoes, garden fresh radishes and cucumbers, sautéed baby carrots and black olives, served on a bed of mesclun). Tempting. But so is the Mediterranean-style vegetarian candied zucchini salad, bursting with roasted vegetable, pine nuts and the chef’s own pesto. Then there are the tartes salées (savory pies) that also make for a satisfying lunch or light dinner: red snapper with tapenade or goat cheese and cherry tomatoes. Both are served with a choice a mixed greens or assorted spring vegetable at the time of my visit.

France-Aix Tapenade.

This week’s special is rabbit with tapenade.

But my favorite remains the plat de la semaine available Monday through Friday, a new one offered each week. On my second visit it’s a succulent rabbit leg, in Lionel’s homemade mild tapenade sauce, served with grilled polenta triangles, crunchy string beans, and more of that lovely zucchini and red pepper custard.

 

Guilty Pleasures

France-Aix Bavarois.

Pistachio Bavarois filled with fresh cherries.

By now, La Table des Saisons is my own guilty pleasure in Aix. I stop for coffee and one of their irresistible pastries in the afternoon whenever I am in the neighborhood. And I manage one more visit on my recent stay there, a late lunch antidote to a particularly hectic morning. It’s Saturday, no plat de la semaine today. No problem though, as I have had my eye on one particular item on the regular menu. For me, it’s Gigot d’agneau de Sisteron today, a pan-grilled steak of delicate milk-fed lamb from the Provencal Alps, just one hour north of here, served with garlic cream sauce and eggplant “caviar”. As I pause by the door to let a young woman pass by, she whispers confidentially: “tout est très bon içi ,” and vanishes without breaking stride. The word is out: everything is delicious here!

Good to Know

  • La Table des Saisons, 6 Rue Lieutaud, Aix-en-Provence, France, latabledessaisons.com, is open 12:00 noon to 5:00 pm on Monday, Tuesday and Thursday, 12:00 noon to 10:00 pm on Friday and Saturday, and 12:00 noon to 6:00 pm on Sunday. It is closed on Wednesday. Reservations are prudent on weekend. Contact: e-mail contact@latabledessaisons.com. Tel: +33 (0)4 42 22 97 07.
  • The overall menu is seasonal, updated every couple of months to take full advantage of local offerings at their prime.
  • Lionel, who originally trained as a pastry chef, creates some of the most tempting desserts ever, showcasing local seasonal fruit. His creations can be enjoyed on site, or purchased to go.
  • In addition to featuring vegetarian options on the menu, Lionel is happy to recommend choices and substitutions for gluten-intolerant guests.

A Few Souvenirs

Location, location, location!

La Table des Saisons

An Improbable Foodies Destination – Lille

An Improbable Foodies Destination – Lille

Improbable? Only if one sticks to preconceived stereotypes. Northern cuisine is one of the most underrated in France. Ask any casual outsider about Lille gastronomy and you may get a snickered “moules et frites,” or at best a dismissive Gallic shrug. Yes, mussels and fries are common fare in the historic capital of French Flanders, and reliably some of the freshest and best tasting I have sampled anywhere in France, but so are many other delectable regional specialties that reflect the dual French-Flemish heritage. Step into the first estaminet and find out.

What’s an Estaminet?

France - Lille Estaminet.

L’Estaminet ‘T Rijsel is popular for its local comfort food.

Estaminets are to northern French what bistros are to Parisians and pubs to the British, welcoming casual places where to enjoy local comfort food or just drop in for a drink. They are everywhere in Lille, dishing out hearty carbonnade (beef braised in dark beer), waterzooi (chicken or fish cooked in cream with leeks and carrots), and the unpronounceable pot’je vleesch (pot-cha-flesh). Or just say “potch…” The friendly waitress will say the rest for your benefit and bring on a huge portion of potted boned rabbit, chicken, veal and pork in vinegar aspic, with a heap of crisp French fries on the side. Most things come with French fries in an estaminet, even my all-time favorite lapin aux pruneaux (braised rabbit with prunes in a cream sauce).

L'Estaminet Chez la Vieille (at the Old One)

Boughs of dry hops hang from ceiling beams are a tradition at Chez la Vieille (at the Old One).

Estaminet ‘T Rijsel (that’s Flemish for Lille) is my preferred stop for both pot’je vleesch and rabbit. With its rough plaster walls lined with old framed prints and boughs of dry hops hanging from the beams over the tightly packed wooden tables, it looks like it’s been there forever. It’s cozy, and so popular that it can get quite raucous at the height of the dinner hour.

Estaminet Chez la Vieille (at the Old One) is other fun stop for a Flemish food fix. Same atmosphere and bric-a-brac décor hanging on its exposed ancient brick walls. But here, among the traditional recipes, another local staple that finds its way into a lot of dishes is the pungent local maroilles cheese, which mercifully doesn’t taste nearly as assertive as it smells. I especially like their chicken in maroilles cream sauce, and the leek-maroilles tart. I also rather enjoy their beetroot ice-cream, but the jury is still out on the chicory-flavored one.

Le Lion Bossu

France - Lille Restaurant Lion Bossu.

The Hunchback Lion’s lair is a seventeenth century townhouse.

But a woman cannot live on lapin aux pruneaux and fried potatoes alone. On my latest visit, I opted for Le Lion Bossu (The Hunchback Lion), one of the mainstays of the old town’s gastronomic scene. Here, in a seventeenth century townhouse at the corner of the Place du Lion d’Or (Golden Lion Square), husband and wife team Laurence and Pascal Coué have been welcoming diners since 1989. Madame Coué reigns over the kitchen, while Monsieur manages the dining room. The romantic second-floor dining room seduces at “Bonjour” with its period beamed ceilings, subdued lighting and brick walls enhanced by antiques gilded frames.

Cuisine Bourgeoise at its Best

France - Lille Lion Bossu Carpaccio.

Salmon Carpaccio, Lion Bossu-style.

The menu is a dilemma of interesting temptations. I start with a marinated salmon carpaccio. Instead of the traditional fanned paper-thin slices, it materializes as a finely diced patty of raw salmon on a bed of chopped fennel, surrounded by a lemon and chive cream. It’s more tartare than carpaccio, but lovely just the same so let’s not quibble. I follow with a magret de canard, (duck breast) sautéed to a medium rare perfection and served with a peppercorn sauce; excellent with its accompanying celery risotto and spring baby vegetables.

France - Lille Lionn Duck Breast.

Sautéed duck breast with a peppercorn sauce.

My friend’s poached scrod (dos de cabillaud in French) and baby spinach topped with foie gras mascarpone et caramelized onion compote on a mild curry foam, which of course I have to sample, is voted a success by both of us. But the coup de grace is yet to come. Dessert, a generous verrine of limoncello sabayon over creamy rice pudding and red berries coulis, has me wondering if next time I could ask for a main course portion.
 

France - Lille Lion Sabayon.

Verrine of limoncello sabayon.

The well-balanced wine list, representative of the main wine growing regions of France, is priced a bit on the high side. With the help of Mr. Coué, we select a light red Bourgogne Chardonnay, Domaine de la Vierge Romaine, 2014 that nicely complements both our entrée choices. The service, while attentive and friendly could be a tad faster.

 
 

Good to Know

  • L’Huîtrerie, the venerable centenarian widely recognized as the best fish restaurant and bastion of elegant dining in Lille, which I had intended to include in this roundup, regrettably is no more. I found out, when attempting to call for reservations, that it had closed its doors permanently in late February. Although glowing reviews still figure prominently on guidebooks and websites, beware that it is, alas, gone.
  • Estaminet ‘T Rijsel, 25 Rue de Gand, Lille, http://www.ruedesrestos.com/restaurateurs/rijsel/, is open Tuesday through Friday from 12:00 P.M. to 1:30 P.M. and 7:00 P.M. to 10:00 P.M., Saturday and Sunday from 12:00 P.M. to 2:00 P.M. and 7:00 P.M. to 10:30 P.M., and Monday from 7:00 P.M. to 9:30 P.M. Contact: Tel. +33 (0) 3 20 15 01 59.
  • Estaminet Chez la Vieille, 60 Rue de Gand, Lille, http://estaminetlille.fr/chezlavieille/, is open Tuesday through Thursday from 12:00 P.M. to 3:00 P.M. and 7:00 P.M. to 12:00 A.M., Friday and Saturday from 12:P.M. to 3:00 P.M. and 7:00 P.M. to 12:30 A.M., and closed Sunday and Monday. Contact: Tel. +33 (0) 3 28 36 40 06.
  • Le Lion Bossu, 1 Rue Saint-Jacques, Lille, http://www.ruedesrestos.com/restaurateurs/lelionbossu/, is open everyday from 12:00 P.M. to 2:00 P.M. and 7:30 P.M. to 10:00 P.M. Reservations are necessary. Contact: Tel. + 33 (0) 3 20 06 06 88.

A Few Souvenirs

Location, location, location!

Lille, France

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