Betst Dining Experience of My Life
Rebecka posted hers on the Manhattan board, but my response didn't seem to belong there, since the meal in question was eaten in Lyons, France, 10 years ago. Actually, there's another that ties for first place in my heart (3 years later, at La Tour de Monthlery, in Paris), but I didn't want to take up too much room here. If anybody expresses interest, I'll post that one, too.
After consulting Patricia Wells Food-Lovers Guide to France, we decided on Chez Tante Paulette, which Wells recommended strongly, particularly for the poulet à lail (chicken with garlic) for two. A young woman greeted us on entry and we told her that we wanted to have lunch there, but that we werent quite ready to eat yet. She noticed the copy of "The Food-Lovers Guide to France" tucked under my husbands arm and asked if we were there for THE CHICKEN and we nodded, mais, oui! She told us it would take about forty minutes to prepare and suggested we take a walk and return then. Perfect. So we went window-shopping and returned at 2:00, to be greeted by incredible, mouth-watering odors, wafting from the kitchen, into the dining room, and out onto the street.
This has got to be the smallest restaurant dining room Ive ever seen: there were four tables, I think, seating ten lucky patrons maybe twelve, if they were all slender. We began with a truly marvelous salade frisée aux lardons (curly endive with small pieces of thick-sliced bacon and homemade croutons and a warm mustard-vinaigrette dressing). We asked for a local white wine and an earthenware pitcher of Macon was delivered to the table, followed by THE CHICKEN: one large chicken, cut into about ten pieces, subtly seasoned and sautéed with garlic, wine, and butter, then flamed with cognac. It was surrounded by cooked, unpeeled garlic cloves, floating in a Reisling wine sauce, and toasted slices of French bread. Our server demonstrated: you squeeze the cloves of garlic out of the peel, like toothpaste from a tube, onto a piece of toast. Then mash them down a little, with a fork, swish them in the sauce, and pop em down. What an experience! She also brought us a bowl of pommes lyonnaise (potatoes, diced and fried to perfection) to have with THE CHICKEN.
After all the bones were in a nice, neat pile and wed done in a second pitcher of Macon, we were presented with a cheese tray and an apple tart. And this amazing meal can be yours for under 300F! (Well, 10 years ago it could have been.) It was, without doubt, the best meal we had on this trip. Definitely worth the 576-mile round-trip from Paris. (My husband said it was worth the entire 4,176-mile round-trip from New York!)
(By the way, the recipe for Chez Tante Paulette's speciality was in the Food-Lover's Guide to France. Relatively easy to follow -- I've made it a couple of times.)
Thanks for your interest, efdee. The homemade is very nearly identical to the Tante Paulette version. I think the difference is probably due to a variance in American and French raw materials.
You asked for the description of my meal at La Tour de Monthlery. This meal was memorable not so much for the food (which was good, don't get me wrong) as for the experience. Warning -- this is a pretty long post.
It was loud. It was crowded. It was smoke-filled. Hams and sausages hung from hooks in the ceiling. Ruddy-cheeked and shiny-eyed old men stood two deep in the bar. We were shown to a table which we shared with a couple of other diners. They were engaged in animated conversation over beautiful dishes of gravlax (cured salmon) and didnt glance in our direction. A basket of Poilâne bread and a dish of butter (very unusual) were on the table. We assumed it was theirs and we didnt want to ask and look like tourists, as though it wasnt obvious when we asked to see the menu and the waiter crossed the room and took the chalkboard off the wall. We decided on onglet de boeuf for my husband and cotelets dagneau for me (skirt steak and lamb chops, respectively), along with a plate of fries to share and a bottle of the house red wine. The wine arrived and the waiter indicated that the bread basket was, in fact, community property and that we oughtnt to be so timid! Meanwhile, our table mates had moved on to their main dishes. When a large plate of fried potatoes arrived for them, it was placed dangerously near us. The waiter nudged me and said something I didnt understand, but the gist of it was that I ought to implore our neighbors for a little taste. We probably looked like starving dogs at that point and I think they were afraid not to offer us some! We were each given a perfectly prepared, hot, slightly greasy, fried potato and we knew we were in for a terrific lunch.
The two diners on our other side had, by then finished their desserts (raspberry tarts, surrounded by more raspberries) and pulled out small cigars to enjoy with their coffee. With a gesture, they asked our permission to light up and we granted it with a shrug. (What the hell, we were in Paris.) Our food came, including a huge mound of pommes frites, and we fell to it. I made fast work of my four little lamb chops and my husband, Jimmy, kept giving me pieces of his steak because it was so enormous. My appetite apparently delighted our cigar-smoking pals. We began to communicate more in English than in French with all our neighbors. The fellow beside my husband had a few restaurants to recommend, as did the two women next to him. They were impressed that we were Americans and we still knew how to eat! Michel (next to Jimmy) offered me a piece of his calves liver, which I accepted and politely made a fuss over, and we talked about New York and restaurants. Hed stayed at the YMCA on his first visit, for $15 a night, and at the Plaza Hotel on his next, inspired by the movie Crocodile Dundee. His friend, Gilles (next to me) said something to our waiter about the paper table covers (which were printed color reproductions of the owners portrait) and the waiter presented me with half a dozen of them rolled up in a rubber band.
Gilles excused himself and returned a few minutes later, leading a waiter who was carrying six glasses and a bottle of champagne and this odd group of six strangers toasted and laughed together while we ate raspberries with ice cream and crème fraîche and powdered sugar. Later, it was Jimmy who left the table and returned with six cordial glasses in hand, followed by a waiter with a bottle of Hennessey XO, a bottle of pear liqueur, and a huge bottle of la vieille prune, a prune liqueur. In the bar, the old men were singing folk songs.
The owner sat down at a nearby table as the restaurant began to empty. He was having a late lunch with friends and they began with something we all found terribly intriguing. It appeared to be a slice of cheesecake in some sort of fruit sauce. When they saw we were all so obviously curious, the owner invited me over with a wave to taste it. No dessert, it was a delicious crab meat mousse with fresh tomato sauce! While the others were murmuring their approval of this wonderful thing, I kissed the owner a giant of a man with an enormous white handlebar mustache on each cheek, which prompted a round of applause.
The drinking and the conversation lasted through the afternoon and ended with business cards being traded and handshakes all around. We promised to try this restaurant and that and Michel wanted Jimmy to fax him our reviews. It was 4:30 when we emerged into the startling daylight.
Your post brought back every special meal and restaurant--from low-key to "la-la"--I'd eaten in my wanderings through France, over the years. It was a special charm of this country that even the most shabby surroundings could bring forth superb food and delightful, warm comraderie.
Even when skiing (at Courcheval), lunch at a century's old inn at Courcheval 1300 (with people like you've just described) and an outdoor sunlit table with a gargantuan rolling cheese trolley, at the base of Meribel, were among the highlights of the slopes!
Thank you for bringing it all back. Your post was a highlight of MY day.
I have a copy of Patricia Wells "Bistro cooking" which includes the entire meal that Dena describes. i have never had Tantes original but I am constantly amazed that i have managed to make the meals that i do when I use that book - a testament to the strength and deliciousness of the recipes!
Well, I have a gastronomic twin! I remember saying to the concierege at our hotel, please, please--I am tired of subtle, rich food. I want something gutsy, something big and bold and elemental. With no hesitation, he drew a walking map upside down--so I could see it right side up as he drew (my, these guys are talented and proud of their profession)which took us to Tante Paulette. We were bowled over. I too have made that recipe many times, and I will never forget that meal.
Another that stands in high relief was at Le Centinaire in Les Ezyes de Tayac, in the Dordogne. There I ordered the most mundane thing I could find on the menu--pot au feu. Limpid, essential, virile broth, with vegetables so individually perfect in texture and color, with shapes so geometric my bowl looked like a cubist canvas. This was not mother's chicken soup, and my mother was one helluva cook. Plop in the middle was a micque--a yeasty, bready ball--sort of a Gallic equivalent to a matzoh ball. Had I arrived with the flu, I'm convinced I'd have left cured.