May/June trip report: Paris, Burgundy, Jura, Savoie, Lyon
Thank you everyone for helpful advice in previous threads on the recent trip my husband and I took! Here's the report, divided up by region.
We arrived on the Eurostar and, after dropping off our stuff at our hotel, quickly made for La Table d'Aki. The restaurant was about 2 thirds full at lunchtime. We liked the lunch format, which features larger portions than the dinner menu we had in December, the total cost for lunch coming out at not much less than dinner (but we ordered the most expensive dishes). We ordered the same things: to start langoustines with morels and asparagus; for the main course dos de saint pierre (john dory) with a mousseline of artichokes. Both dishes were superb. Each of the langoustine dish's ingredients were perfect -- the morels were huge -- and there was a cream-based, slightly frothy sauce that also tasted of mushrooms and shellfish. The john dory was a lovely, generous piece of fish (as you'd hope for 38 euros), cooked just right, very gelatinous. The sauce served with it was brown, very savoury, almost like a meat jus, spiced but not spicey. For dessert we walked from the 7th to Jacques Genin and ate a great tarte au citron in the tea room.
For dinner we switched from fish to meat and went to Le Severo. We were particularly struck, while there, by the endurance of another couple who managed to polish off a full portion of the iberian ham, then 2 starters (including a black pudding), then the huge côte de boeuf, then 3 desserts! To start we had (large) half-portions of the iberian chorizo and rosette d'auvergne. The chorizo was exceptional, meltingly fatty and full of flavour, the rosette d'auvergne less compelling but not bad. For mains we ordered an entrecôte and a faux filet. The entrecôte, cooked rarer, was our favourite but both were excellent, the faux filet having more dry-aged flavor perhaps but less interesting texturally. We ordered the same wine we had the last time we ate at the restaurant, a well-priced 2009 Houillon Poulsard.
Our eating on the second day was limited to lunch at l'Arpège. It must have been something like our 6th or 7th time eating lunch there and the first disappointing lunch we've had at the restaurant. We would certainly go back on the basis of previous lunches (but wouldn't go back purely on the basis of this lunch), and might order à la carte next time as we've now had many of the lunch tasting menu dishes before.
What went wrong and why? The lunch lasted 3 hours and 45 minutes, only a little longer than past lunches there, but was very awkwardly paced, and fewer dishes were served. Towards the middle of the lunch, we only received 3 small dishes in the space of an hour and a half, which made us feel like dogs waiting to be fed! I think we were unfortunate to have given the kitchen carte blanche and then to be served much of our lunch in tandem with a neighbouring table of three Jain vegetarians, who arrived after us. The kitchen was clearly simultaneoulsy cooking the dishes for both tables, and some of the dishes weren't great. The meal really picked up again when we diverged from the neighbouring table's menu and started on the fishes and meat.
A possible reason for our disappointment in some of the dishes served is that due to recent cold weather the vegetable season has been greatly delayed this year in France and the produce at l'Arpège wasn't as stellar as usual.
Finally, the service didn't live up to its typical refinement-- the sommelier spilt quite a lot of wine on the table when clumsily pouring from an awkward position, out of laziness, and really should have righted that wrong, but didn't, and the waiters seemed rushed and less charming than usual. We also didn't love our table, which had a cart of bottled waters jammed up next to it for most of the meal.
Anyhow here's what we had, with a few comments: a small celery-onion pastry puff; "chips" with various toppings; beet sushi (delicious, one of the restaurant's classics); spinach, carrot purée, confit lemon (the excellent spinach was coarsely chopped and then massed together; altogether a very beautiful dish to look at with the three components arranged triangularly on the plate, and a thoughful flavour combination, the lemon confit extremely pungent); jardinière, aigre-doux sauce (another lovely dish, asparagus, turnips and other lightly cooked vegetables in a delicious sauce, similar but slightly different to the aigre-doux served with the restaurant's classic lobster transparence de navet dish); ravioli with consommé (always so flavoursome! love this!); asparagus soup with speck cream and wild garlic (this is the point when the pacing slowed and quality sunk -- the soup with speck cream is another of the restaurant's classics but is actually quite dull after you've had it a few times -- an enormous blob of the overwhelming speck cream is dolloped on top of the soup, which was this time quite dull-flavoured); vol-au-vent (the low point of the meal -- the same vegetables as in the jardinière, but overcooked, were piled into a vol-au-vent for no apparent reason... sad); smoked potatoes with vin jaune sauce and green beans (the last of the three dishes in the one hour and a half lull); monkfish, white asparagus, calcot (the lunch picks up again: a very small portion of monkfish, the fish l'Arpège nearly always serves, very well-prepared, good accompaniments); cod and peas (beautifully cooked piece of fish, divine peas); lamb with carrot and confit potatoes, radish and cabbage (delicious lamb, slightly underwhelming accompaniments); fresh cow's cheese, scallions and radish (a lovely cheese but we were a little disappointed that for the lunch menu l'Arpège seems to have stopped including- judging by this lunch and the last we had in Decemeber - its famous Bernard Antony comté and other cheeses from the cheese cart); île flottante, black cardamon and coffee, with mélisse sauce and salted caramel (delightful -- the soupy mélisse sauce was especially compelling); apple tart with salted caramel sauce (also excellent).
Theobroma -- thank you for the siphon info. My husband and I don't mind the Table d'Aki décor, indeed quite enjoy its informality, even if it perhaps belies the sophistication of the dishes. What we didn't like is the Table d'Aki charging 6 euros per small bottle of Badoit -- they don't serve large bottles. I guess it's better to go with tap water there.
Savoie and Lyon:
On Sunday night we drove from Poligny to Yoann Conte in Veyrier-du-Lac on Lake Annecy. How grateful we were that this worked out after missing out on the Faurie! The hotel is very charming, probably little changed since Veyrat's time. It's pretty old school, and very expensive to stay there, in particular once the delicious breakfast is figured in -- but worth it, we felt, especially on a day of brilliant sunshine (our first sunshine in almost a week).
We arrived as they were serving lunch but they put together an excellent charcuterie and cheese plate for us. Tired after the long drive, we spent the afternoon reading on the hotel's dock, took a walk, and then had an exceptional dinner. From the restaurant's dining room, you look out on the lake and inside you also have a full view of the glass-walled kitchen (I imagine a post-Veyrat renovation). We ordered à la carte. First, great cut-your-own sourdough bread and very good, springy amuses-bouches. As a starter, I had smoked féra (the local lake fish), which was served with a féra and potato raviolo - excellent. My husband had an homard bleu (Conte is from Brittanny) with a vin-jaune sauce and pistachio mayonnaise. The mayonnaise wasn't necessary but the lobster was a magnificent specimen, cooked beautifully, artfully plated. I then had the "truite feux d'enfer", which was served with a carrot raviolo (a nod to Veyrat), carrot purée, and pieces of slow-cooked carrot. Both the trout and the carrot variations were extremely good and flavoursome and this was a stunning dish to look at as well. My husband had a "déclinaison" of Alpine lake fish: perch with morels; crawfish claws and morel gratin; crayfish tails with tomato; féra (more lightly smoked than my starter) with tomme cubes and shabu shabu broth. We skipped dessert and satisfied our sweet teeth with the mignardises cart. Overall, this meal was perhaps the dining high point of our trip -- certainly the fine dining high point. Compared to Jean-Paul Jeunet, Conte seems vastly more current and sophisticated, with a lighter touch and more chic aesthetic. Not one dish disappointed in our dinner and, what's more, you felt like you could have been happy ordering any of the generously-sized dishes on the à la carte menu, which was very appealing. The one negative is the heavy mark-ups on the wine list, which has a good selection of natural wines (and, strangely, a lot of wines off-the list the charming sommelier can infom you about-- perhaps he couldn't be bothered to load them onto the wine list iPads).
The next day, we ate breakfast on our terrace (featuring a delicious bread pudding and better viennoiseries than at the Colline du Colombier) and packed before driving up to the chalet de Pricaz. Praised some time ago by Kim Severson in the NY Times, this is an excellent, all-organic tartiflette joint. We shared the tartiflette and a salade du chalet, featuring more reblochon melted onto little toasts. Both excellent. We admired the fabulous view.
We then drove to Lyon and had dinner and lunch at Daniel et Denise, where we'd eaten last summer. For dinner: the paté en croute (delicious as ever), the rabbit gâteau en gêlée (served in a glass jar - good but wouldn't order again partly because it had a lot of little bones in it); gras double (incredible!!); a quenelle sauce nantua (perfect, much better than @ Abel); and a perfectly ripe saint Marcellin. For lunch (the next day), we took more risks and ordered some things we weren't sure about: tête de veau (too much of an acquired taste and texture) and the tablier de sapeur (likewise). The salad of lamb's sweetbreads and poulet de bresse with morels and vin jaune sauce were both great, however -- as was a very chic dessert of madeleines and petits pots de chocolat. We then picked up a very large box of Bernachon chocolates before driving to the airport to fly back to London.
on to the Jura:
Gastronomically not much to report about at lunch and dinner, with our leftover beef sandwiches for lunch en route, and an underwhelming table d'hôte dinner at our chambre d'hôte in Poligny, run by the wife of the winemaker Ludwig Bindernagel of Les Chais du Vieux Bourg. However, we went to Pupillin and did manage to score a tasting with Emmanuel Houillon for the next day; had excellent chocolates sitting outside Hirsinger in Arbois; and drunk a glass of Michel Gahier 2004 vin jaune at the charming Bistrot des Claquets.
We went to our Houillon tasting. What a kind, thoughtful, unpretentious winemaker! We had read his profile in a wonderful issue of The Art of Eating focussing on vin jaune. As we had just tasted his 2009 Poulsard in Paris, we were able to very easily compare it by memory with the 2011 he poured for us. Houillon Poulsards are perhaps my favourite wine, if I had to choose. We also tasted the 2009 chardonnay, and an extraordinary 2003 vieux savagnin ouillé. The tasting was the highlight of a very rainy and cold 5 days in the Jura. For lunch, we picked up some delicious comté and tomme de Jura, and a dried sausage, at the highly recommended Epicurea in Poligny's place des déportés. This is a very good cheesemonger and natural wine shop (which has a little bar where you can drink and nibble in the early evening or at lunchtime), with perhaps the best natural wine selection we've seen in France -- even if its Jura selection is less extensive than the well-known Jardins St Vincent in Arbois, they have a wider selection of Macle and Ganevat, and even a little Houillon. We got a huge slice of 3-year aged comté for only 5 euros. The Epicurea owner gave us Macle's phone number and we tried to arrange a tasting with Mme Macle, sadly in vain. We ate our picnic on our way to Château-Chalon in one of the few moments of Jurassic sunshine we experienced. For dinner, we went to la Balance in Arbois. The restaurant's signature dish, coq au vin jaune et morilles was excellent and copious. A starter of asparagus with tomme de brebis (seemingly a classic Jurassic pairing) was also good.
We received an email from the Hotel Faurie, where we expected to end our trip, saying that they were cancelling our reservation. (I posted about this previously.) Lunch was more cheese from Epicurea: the leftovers of the comté and a local semi-soft goat's cheese.
Dinner was at Jean-Paul Jeunet. You have the sense that this restaurant thinks of itself as the fanciest place around, and resultingly displays a little too much pomp in its slightly unnatural service -- but the waiters aren't unfriendly. We ordered à la carte and the food was uneven, perhaps, like at l'Arpège, hampered by the weather and the slow start to the vegetable season. The amuse-bouches were very good. My artichoke starter with summer truffle and and barigou gelée was excellent, the best dish of the night. My husband's écrevisses starter, though, was the weakest -- and meanly portioned. Just 6 little écrevisses on parsnip rounds that completely dominated the flavour of the shellfish. The écrevisses themselves were lacking in flavour, far inferior to ones we had later at Yoann Conte in the Savoie. I then had agneau de lait fillet, shoulder and breast, the fillet a little dull, but the shoulder and breast very good. My husband had veal in two courses, the first course of cheek excellent, the second course of sweetbreads less successful for being served in a strangely soupy format with beetroots. We shared an ok dessert based on multiple preparations of strawberries. Overall, the food felt at times too fussy and dated: the chef has a mania for "tuiles" of vegetable or fruit that resemble fruit roll-ups; with the exception of the artichoke starter, each dish contained too many components so that the food lacked deliciousness from each component being so small. Given the pricing, it was hard to be uncritical and we wouldn't rush back. The wine list, though -- at least the Jura wine section -- is fantastic and very fairly priced and we ordered a 2008 Houillon Poulsard.
We drove to Besançon after some morbier and a more aged goat's cheese for lunch from Epicurea, where by now we had become regulars. Le Fooding had recommended a restaurant in Besançon called Monsieur Victor, not mentioning it was now exclusively vegan. (The restaurant evidently used to serve meat and Le Fooding's write-up mentions a terrine "parée de gros morceaux d'animal mort, du foie notamment"!) After visiting the musée des beaux-arts, we walked around the town and then showed up at Monsieur Victor as the sole diners on a rainy night. The vegan salad plate was nonetheless very good, carefully prepared and probably just what we needed healthwise after so much meaty Jurassic food and all that cheese we'd been eating.
Lunch at Le Grapiot, our favourite restaurant in the Jura. The prices for food and wine are very fair, the wine list is brilliant for such a small place. We had a bottle of the 2011 Houillon Poulsard we'd tasted -- the restaurant is almost directly across from Pierre Overnoy's house so it must be the restaurant the shortest distance from the domaine's cellar. The atmosphere is better, more lively than that at la Balance. I had an artichoke and skate starter, and my husband a pea soup served with toast and smoked goat's cheese. And we both had rascasse with vin jaune sauce. We then shared a very solid cheese plate -- indeed the cheese cart, together with other touches, suggest the restaurant is aiming higher than its bib gourmand. For dinner we went back to Epicurea just before closing and had a couple of glasses of 2000 Philippe Butin vin jaune with a last plate of comté.
We took a late morning TGV from Paris to Dijon and then had some difficulties with our pre-arranged car rental. The car rental negotiations took some time, meaning we skipped Dijon itself and drove straight to Beaune. It started to rain just after we'd bought huge wedges of jambon persillé and tomme de brébis from Alain Hess, which had reopened after its lunch break, along with another huge wedge of gingerbread from Mulot et Petitjean, also in the place Carnot. We ate our picnic ravenously, standing under the shelter of a bandstand in the place Carnot's little park. The ham and cheese were excellent. The gingerbread was only sold in such very large, pre-wrapped pieces but keeps an amazingly long time (as we had learnt in a Burgundy issue of The Art of Eating), and we were grateful to have it during later Jura picnics. Goes well with cheese!
Dinner, and breakfast and lunch the next day, were at La Ruchotte in Bligny-sur-Ouche, where we stayed in their charming and comfortable chambre d'hôte. For dinner we had bread with pork rillettes (made from an unexpected litter of pigs over the winter, they told us); a potato and leek soup with poached egg and pork belly; braised, 8-month-old guinea fowl with radishes, turnips and carrots (decidedly local and delicious); two amazing goat cheeses from the chef's cousin, served with a great salad; mousse au chocolat with icecream cone-like cookies. It was just the kind of meal you hope for in France but rarely get -- impeccable ingredients, cooked very carefully but unfussily.
The included breakfast the next morning was everything you wanted and needed: a young goat cheese, accompanied by hazelnuts in honey; more great homemade bread (the best of our trip), a baked freshly-laid egg, and homemade rhubarb and strawberry jams.
For the busy Sunday lunch, the menu was in fact the same as for dinner the night before but we were kindly served a different starter and main from everyone else. The starter was a tour de force: pig's trotter, which had been cooked, deboned, then artfully recomposed in a brick made up of layers with alternating textures, then lightly breaded and fried and served with a zippy lemon sauce. We could honestly imagine this dish being served at a 3 star restaurant. The main course of braised duckling was a little dense but the trotter made up for that. The wine list is impressive. With dinner we had a lovely Yvon Métras 2011 Moulin-à-Vent. A table of very loud American men even ordered a bottle of Romanée-Conti at lunch the next day.
The owners of La Ruchotte struck us as direct and authentic, perhaps a little unintentionally awkward, kind (which contrasts with some previous reports, although I can see how the owners might give the wrong impression.) Overall, we loved La Ruchotte and are eager to return!
The next 2 nights:
After lunch we drove on to La Colline du Colombier in Iguérande for Sunday and Monday nights. What a beautiful place! We stayed in one of the quirky and chic cadoles. However, we found some of the cooking uneven and thought that a number of the ingredients did not live up to the menu's (fixed and à la carte) pricing.
For dinner the first night, we had a special menu, which had to be ordered by two people, featuring an "Oreiller de la Belle Aurore": veal stuffed with black truffle, foie gras, cèpes, parsley and hazelnuts. This main dish was splendid, well-sauced, although short on cèpes. The starter and dessert, however, were disappointing: the starter was a plate of uninspiring, probably not local, steamed and raw crudités (cauliflower, broccoli, zucchini, cherry tomatoes, fennel) served with a jug of cloying carrot sauce; and dessert was a lackluster strawberry tart that used very weak-tasting strawberries. At 60 Euros per person we felt that the produce should have been better in the straight-forward starter and dessert, whose preparations didn't leave much room for error.
We ate lunch the next day in the charming courtyard outside the restaurant: marvelous frogs sautéed with garlic and parsley, and served with pommes dauphine -- our favourite dish at the restaurant. A cheese plate, good but expensive (20 Euros), to follow.
For our second dinner, we simply had the "welcome soup" served gratis with every meal (that evening it was nettle-potato) and the Charolais côte de boeuf, which was large and very tasty if without the kind of crust and dry-aging le Severo achieves. We saved the leftovers to make a sandwich. The rather inexperienced sommelier (accidentally) served us the wine list's Jamet Côte-Rôtie for the price of its Jamet Côtes du Rhône, not seeming to know the difference.
For the breakfasts, we enjoyed the baskets of pastries brought to us in our cadole and ate them on its balcony. We did miss a pot of good coffee (which we'd have preferred to the Nespresso pod machine provided) and certainly expected better milk than microfiltré. The milk, in fact, contradicted the rather pompous "manifesto" that is left in the room, where the Troisgros insist they will only serve raw, organic milk at the hotel... Overall we liked the cadole and bucolic setting a lot but thought the food should have been better given the cost of staying there (for a minimum of 2 nights) and the fact that it's a Troisgros operation.