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Trip report: Lyon, Ardèche, Aveyron, Hérault, Camargue, Tarn

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Thank you everyone for a lot of fantastic advice for our trip, on these threads:

http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/830666
http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/830249
http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/830997

There were highs and lows. Here's what we thought.

We started in Lyon. The bouchons had excited us most beforehand, and we loved Daniel et Denise. (Not, of course, a typical bouchon given the chef, but serving a bouchon menu in an old bouchon.) The foie gras and sweetbreads terrine in pastry was very refined; the sautéed gras-doubles (tripe) were deeply satisfying. Their famous mousse-consistency "gateau" of chicken livers wasn't so much our thing but I could see how other people might love it. Lunch at Abel and dinner at the Café des Féderations confirmed how special Daniel et Denise is. Abel had a lovely atmostphere and the quenelle seemed correct (I was surprised how massive it was!), but the food was not up to Daniel et Denise. The Café des Federations, meanwhile, felt like a tourist trap and all the opening dishes fell very flat. They weren't even worth picking at. The mains (where you're offered a choice) were ok - we had the tablier de sapeur and the veal head, dishes that normally excite us - but the execution was not impressive. The only particularly good course was the cheese. We also ate lunch at la Mère Brazier. We only ordered the poularde de Bresse demi deuil, so I can't really make a proper judgement, but I wouldn't say that we were wowed by the restaurant. The chicken - particularly the breast, stuffed with very mild-tasting black truffle served with a creamy sauce - was good but nowhere near (admittedly more expensive) Parisian preparations we have enjoyed at l'Ambroisie, l'Arpège. It would be better shared between four people than between a couple and made for a hefty lunch. Breakfast-wise, we thought the Boulangerie Saint Vincent did a lovely pain au chocolat and a solid baguette.

For our drive down to the Hotel Faurie in the Ardèche, we picked up two explodingly-ripe goat's cheeses from the market on the Quai Saint Antoine to eat with one of those baguettes, together with fraises des bois and cherries. A great picnic! For two nights, the Faurie then blew us away. The couple who own it are very sensitive, charming people. The no-choice menus at dinner are harmoniously constructed in their entirety, and leave you feeling refreshed rather than obliterated. This is quite unlike many tasting menus in New York, which often seem uneven, choppily arranged and far too heavy. The chef at the Faurie is evidently a perfectionist and the quality of the ingredients was extremely high, including the best-aged cheeses we ate on our entire trip. (Like at l'Arpège, they just present you with three or four perfect cheeses.) Highlights were a lovely dish of oysters and fresh almonds; raw sea bass layered with foie gras and summer truffle; brioche with artichokes, chestnuts and white asparagus. The wine list is well-edited and good value. The chef's wife is very attuned to your reactions to the dishes and genuinely seems to care about what you think. The dining room is quirky and pretty. And then breakfast the next day... We have never eaten a better breakfast and skipped lunch afterwards. Freshly made brioche, strawberry tart, exquisite savoury dishes. I can't think of anywhere else like the Faurie. Cannot wait to return.

Next, in the Aveyron, we stayed for one night at Chez Remise. Although we appreciated the dining room's fishing-themed décor, we mostly felt the dinner served as a pitstop for hikers. The food is clearly assembled in large quantity and could do with more love in its preparation. The idea of serving something hearty and unpretentious completely appealed to us (especially looking back, after bad-but-fussy meals in the Hérault and Tarn), but the Remise didn't exactly deliver. We were served smooth vegetable soup, followed by pork ribs and pommes aligot. Could have been fantastic but the execution was just OK. The breakfast - very weak croissants and baguette, served with a jug of weak coffee - was terrible. Cheap half-board but a hostelly room. Such a pretty village.

The splurge of the trip was two nights eating and staying at Bras. I had been worried about whether the restaurant and hotel could live up to both the expectations and the expense but shouldn't have. In fact, I would say that it was good value, relatively speaking. We ordered à la carte at dinner each time. The gargouillou was incredible (no big surprise): by the end of eating it, you feel like your mouth had been lit up by the humble fireworks of the different ingredients (indeed different each day). A cote de boeuf with summer truflle sauce (for two) and a saddle of lamb with a saffron-based sauce, relish, and Planèze peas, were both the high points of lamb and beef preparations in our dining experience. The lamb, in particular, was sheepy but not musty, with amazingly aromatic fat. Both meats were one step up, ingredient-wise, from what we ate at the Faurie, which already served us impeccable produce. A cold, duck-fat poached salt cod starter with very firm pak choi, fennel and a red wine sauce was extremely accomplished, more experimental. Pan-fried Breton lobster with a vin de voile sauce and leeks vied with a lobster in red wine sauce we ate at l'Ambroisie in January for our all-time best lobster preparation--and although it didn't impress itself on my memory quite as much, it was much better value. Photos also do not do justice to the view from the dining room, from which we saw the most beautiful sunset we've seen, on our first night. (The second night was stormy and the dining room was shrouded in cloud with no view at all!) The negatives: service is not up to a 3 star like l'Arpège (but at least unpretentious) and, strangely, there are a lot of what seem to effectively be bus boys and few waiters; the cheeses, though plentiful, were not particularly remarkable - they could have been better edited. Judging from what we had read before we went there, we didn't think the desserts would be great and indeed the one dessert we tried was very disappointing, as were the petit fours; this continued into the overpriced breakfasts (28 euros per person) where the viennoiserie isn't much good at all, and the breads did not match the quality of very good pain épi at dinner. The restaurant and hotel are rather too branded, with the sistre (herb) logo everywhere and a lot of merchandise for sale. But the savoury cooking at dinner was exceptional and warranted ordering à la carte, where portions are generous. The wine list mark-ups are heavy. We like modern décor and loved our room with a view.

Perhaps the big disappointment of the trip was the Mimosa in the Hérault. We like fresh, delicious food and authentic ambiance and we did not find that here. We had the tasting menu. Except for a well-executed, fresher loup de mer dish, the food all tasted like a retrospective of boring, unnecessarily fussy cooking from a decade (or two?) ago, pretentiously served and overpriced. Lots of julienned vegetables. A 58 euros per person tasting menu is not cheap for this level of restaurant (we ate a terrific meal for a similar price at Hedone in London beforehand and the difference is immense), and the à la carte prices for starters and main courses are about 30-40 euros each. The restaurant was almost empty on a Saturday night. The wine pairings were fine but not great.

After that, we ate at l'Entonnoir in Sète which was tasty but not as zingy as we'd hoped for after reading about it beforehand on ptipois' blog. Perhaps it was just that day or the chef has changed? Fried minnows and anchovies to start were very good and the sort of Carribean-inflected main courses were perfectly tasty but not worth a big detour. The day before we also had a fairly poor meal at l'Oustal in Pézenas (despite claiming to serve market-sourced produce, the salad was clearly bagged). To make up for a bit of a mounting disillusion regarding the Hérault/Languedoc dining scene we drove over to la Chassagnette in the Camargue and had a really fantastic lunch sitting outside. Here, at last, was the kind of fresh-tasting, more vegetable-based cooking we had been longing for! I'd been before and I truly think this is a very special place, in a wonderful setting, rustic crockery, with the vegetables grown right next to the restaurant. We had been slightly worried because we'd seen on the website that the chef was cooking a benefit dinner for Japan that night some way away in Vence, but luckily he was definitely present cooking for the lunch that day. In a way, this sort of restaurant feels more Italian stylistically, or perhaps just more modern than so many of the other restaurants we went to. If you like Spring you will love la Chassagnette.

Finally, in the Tarn, Vigne en foule was a fun night out for the two dinners we ate there. The starters weren't much good but the mains are copious and pretty delicious (pork chop, steak). The best thing about it, though, is the amazing wine list and variety of wines at excellent prices by the glass. We loved a Domaine Henry, Mailhol, itself grown "en foule". La Falaise (where we went twice, one too many times) had a good "menu vegetal", well-priced, but we didn't think the protein-based dishes were particularly impressive and, ordering à la carte there, you seemed to get the exact same portion size as was offered for the set menus. Unless you wanted a long menu, it didn't seem like a very good place to go to value-wise or otherwise. Our mistake was to not eat lunch at the Café Joubert in Fayssac, which looked like it served a yummy lunch in a much more charming atmosphere for far fewer Euros. For the local markets, there was a lovely, tiny organic market at Albi on a Tuesday evening where we bought the best cherries of our trip, in a rainstorm. There was also an even more charming "Nature et progrès" market in Gaillac on a Tuesday.

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  1. Excellent report. Having visited several of your destinations, I easily recognize your experiences. First, Daniel et Denise is one of my husband's all time favorite restaurants. I'm thrilled that you loved Hotel Faurie. It is indeed singular. We had to ask Philippe to stop the breakfast which just kept coming and coming.

    I do see a tremendous letdown at Remise, although when we visited, the similar menu (we were served leg of lamb), although quite simple, was well sourced and prepared. Breakfast included the special bread that is found only in St. Urcize, and Fred sat with us during breakfast, spinning wonderful yarns. But, of course, the real draw is their outstanding chambre d'hote down the street with its enormous and sumptuous rooms..

    And La Mimosa. (Sigh.) When we first stayed and dined ( :)) with them some half dozen years ago, the boutique hotel was charming and David was an extraordinary guide to the very local wines of the area. The wines always surpassed the food. We subsequently returned every year since until this spring. The Pugh's tried to sell and retire a year ago, but the economy was weak and they reopened both hotel and restaurant. Perhaps their initial decision was the right one.

    Once again, a point on report. Many thanks.

    3 Replies
    1. re: mangeur

      mangeur, that's interesting to hear about your stopping going to the Mimosa. The trouble with that part of the Hérault is that there doesn't seem to be much good dining, so the Mimosa's hotel at least is pleasant, but unhelpfully situated. Would have liked to have tried Chai Christin Cannac, the wine bar in Bédarieux, but didn't see the point in going there and having to hold back on drinking for the drive back.

      re: Remise, unfortunately, we stayed in the rooms in the main building. These are decidedly not sumptuous, and we couldn't tell if they were much less than those in the Remise's chambre d'hôte -- in the main building the cost is per person, but they did charge us half-board for the dinner and breakfast, only 2 euros more per person than the room rate.

      1. re: johannabanana

        Having planned part of a september trip around a visit to mimosa, I am wondering if there are any dissenting views out there?

        1. re: degustazione

          Well, we loved it when we went last summer. Yes, it is maybe what some would call outdated, but I think that's a bit harsh. Actually we thought that every dish was great - a very high standard of cooking, with some lovely flavour combinations and their terrace is gorgeous.

          It's not cheap though, especially if UK places of a similar or higher standard are the same price. It's not clear from Mangeur's post whether they had been disappointed the last time they went. I've only been once, but thought it was of a very high standard - the only negatives for me were the pavlova and maybe slightly pretentious service - but others may call that gracious service!

          The B&B is lovely too - we walked there as the sun was setting and back in the dark along a small road through the vineyards.

    2. Now that's what l am talking about, super report, thanks so much.
      Did you have aligot at Bras ? That was my major food memory there,
      Michel let me help make it with him

      1 Reply
      1. re: Delucacheesemonger

        Yes, we liked the aligot very much! Me more so than my husband, and the version at Bras was the best we had. Thought it a little odd that it was served with all the meats -- even there perhaps, more of a one-off experience than a repeat.

      2. Thanks much for this very useful report. We are heading to three of your listed places in the early fall -- Faurie, Remise, and La Mimosa -- and re each, you give us food for thought. In order to help keep the conversation and information flowing, I'll report back on these as well as other places (including Parigi's recommended ferme-auberge, La Mas de la Madeleine, in Largentiere). -- Jake
        .

        9 Replies
        1. re: Jake Dear

          Hope it's a good trip Jake! I imagine your itinerary might be quite fixed but if not I strongly recommend allowing time to enjoy the Aveyron. It is such a beautiful region, and the quality of cheese and meat seemed very high to us. We forgot to mention that we also stayed in the Auberge du Fel near Conques, which has a truly excellent cheese cart but rather weak food otherwise. Good wines from the local, tiny appellation, great value breakfast and lodging. We also decided we should have probably slept in the Camargue instead of the central Languedoc on our trip as the food options seem greater and it's more scenic, unless you love vines.

          1. re: johannabanana

            johannabanana, yes the Aveyron is beautiful – and we've spent nice times in/ between above Rodez, in and near Decazeville (visiting relatives in and nearby) and near Conques, etc. – and so we wanted to explore to the south & east on this trip. And being in the deep countryside will, to a certain extent, be pleasure enough for us, even if the cooking is not stellar or even memorable at each stop. I respect your judgment, though, and am now considering a possible “plan B” during our Mimosa stay – we will still stay at and dine at Mimosa, but may cut back from two dinners there, to one. (Already we'd planed to have one of our three dinners in that area at Mimosa’s other place, La Terrasse in Montpeyroux.) But I’ve also been toying with the idea of, one evening, jumping on the A-750 and driving 45 min to dine at Le Jardin Des Sens in Montpellier . . . .

            PS, at Remise, we will stay in mangeur’s “outstanding chambre d'hote down the street.” We'll see.

            1. re: Jake Dear

              Jake, you might also want to consider La Coquerie in Sète, not that we actually managed to go, but from what I'd seen online it seemed promising. When we rang to see if we could get a last minute reservation, we couldn't, so probably somewhere to book ahead. We took a look at la Terrasse's food menu when passing and weren't blown away, but didn't try it so can't truly say what it's like.

              And if you or anyone else likes the idea of lunch at La Chassagnette, it really doesn't take long to drive there from the Mimosa's B&B: between an hour and an hour and a half, as the motorways/highways can take you most of the way there and can be joined quickly.

              1. re: johannabanana

                johannabananna, We will be two nights in Sète before we venture inland -- a Mon and Tues. Because Ptipois' l'Entonnoir is closed both days, we were thinking, for Mon, Restaurant Quai 17, in the Grand Hotel http://www.legrandhotelsete.com/#/en/... ; and for Tues, Sel et Poivre, 30 rue Révolution. -- see reviews at http://linstant-resto.blogspot.com/20... ; http://www.linternaute.com/restaurant...

                But now you have us thinking of La Coquerie for the Tues slot. http://www.annemajourel.fr/horizon.html. Run by a "passionate self-taught woman chef" -- looks and sounds great to us. And apparently it just rec'd a star? -- Jake

                1. re: Jake Dear

                  I will report back in some detail later, but this is just a quick note to say: Dinner at La Coquerie in Sète was excellent (thanks to johannabanna for the tip)-- one of our top meals of the 35 restaurant lunches and dinners we had on our three-week trip. Quickly, the other outstanding meals down south were: lunch at Le Jardin des Sens -- an incredble deal at Euros 49 per (thanks to Ptipois for encouraging us to go there); dinner at Faurie -- wow (thanks mangeur for sedning there); and, not in the same league but really excellent for the area, dinner at L'Auberge des Granges, in 07150 Bessas, which is near Barjac/Vallon-Pont-d'Arc/ the Gorges de l'Ardeche.

                  And re Mimosa, etc., I'll add: Dinner at Restaurant Mimosain Saint Guiraud (we walked back and forth from the hotel) was quite good; but they are closing for real (and for the third time) in November; dinner at La Terasse de Mimosa in Montpeyroux was good (and they have a great wine list); and right across from the Hotel Mimosa in 34725 Saint Saturnin de Lucian, Le Pressior has been totally redone as of July and is now a bright, spacious, and stylish restuarant with an impressive indoor fireplace/grill. -- Jake

                  1. re: Jake Dear

                    "dinner at L'Auberge des Granges, in 07150 Bessas, which is near Barjac/Vallon-Pont-d'Arc/ the Gorges de l'Ardeche"

                    Wow! Thanks for this one, Jake. We stayed for several nights at the Chateau de Bessas when our usual host was closed, so I know the village. But the Auberge is new to us. And as you have found out, exceptional dinners are hard to find in the immediate vicinity.

                    1. re: mangeur

                      Serendipity led us there. It was a Tuesday night; many places in Barjac are closed Mon and Tues -- including "Les Delices de l'Esplanade" -- at which we thought we had a reservation that night. Our apartment host told us she'd heard very good recs about L'Auberge des Granges, but had not been there herself. The site has been a restaurant for quite some time, but remodeled and revised as it is now for only the past 15 months. It's a husband-wife operation, he's the chef. And now I see that our apartment proprietor is not the only one to notice this place -- it apparently has Jardin des Sens approval: http://www.pourcel-chefs-blog.com/blo...

                      And here is the restaurant website: http://www.aubergedesgranges.com/rest...

                  2. re: Jake Dear

                    You need an update about Languedoc, Jake. L'Entonnoir is no longer run by my friend Nathalie and I can't vouch for the quality of the cooking anymore. Reports have it that it's only a shadow of its former self.

                    There is also a possibility that Le Jardin des Sens will be closed when you go there. But I will have a few good recommendations for you in the area.

                    (Edit: whoops, forgot to read the date.)

              2. re: johannabanana

                The best of the central Languedoc scenery-wise is inland and I mean further inland than the coastal plain of vineyards. As soon as you get to the hills and mountains, the scenery is breathtaking - much more so than the Carmargue. There are some great options for food in this area too, so if people are in search of good places, they don't need to be restricted to the coastal strip or vineyards. Just a wee plug for a relatively unexplored area :o)

            2. Great report and I was happy to hear Bras was worth the trip. I'm going in September and your report was encouraging that the trip will be worth the time and effort. Would you second the recommendation that I've read elsewhere that à la carte is the way to order even though this is likely to be my only visit to the restaurant and the tasting would allow for a better sampling of the dishes?

              2 Replies
              1. re: michaelstl

                michaelstI, to us, the composition of the tasting menus when we sat down wasn't that appealing and research online had convinced us (rightly, I think) to order that way. You should definitely order the gargouillou. The meats at Bras are wonderful and the à la carte menu features them strongly. On our second dinner, we also asked if they could split single portions of the lobster and the lamb so that my husband and I could eat them as two courses. In my opinion, you could happily skip cheese and dessert at Bras, which instantly renders several of the courses on the tasting menus obsolete.

                1. re: johannabanana

                  You bring up a very good point. An extremely accomplished diner always creates a tasting menu for her and her husband by ordering "one for two" throughout the menu. Any dish will/should be served split between two people at a starred restaurant.

              2. Since several people participating in this thread seem to be visiting they Aveyron this summer/fall I'll put in yet another plug for Le Vieux Pont at Belcastel.
                One star, great food (the 29€ lunch during the week is a steal) nice well priced wines, professional & friendly service & a beautiful village. Definitely a favorite.

                You might also want to look at a site called: fifi82.org. This is a club for ladies living in the Tarn et Garonne. There is a pretty good local restaurant list under 'local resources'. Everything from soup to nuts so to speak.

                1 Reply
                1. re: Yank

                  Excellent, le vieux pont, in a picture perfect village, besides

                2. A little late, but having had a lovely lunch today at Café Joubert in Fayssac I had to respond.

                   
                  1 Reply
                  1. re: Discerning1

                    I love Café Joubert. So glad it's still alive. There were strong rumors of its closing forever a year ago, but they held on.