On the plate in Bergerac

Last week Jan and I left the Atlantic Coast town of Arcachon with good friends Keith and Kathy, and headed east toward Daglan. But did we rush to our village right away? Of course not, since we had a chance for a lunch reservation at La Table du Marché in Bergerac, which is more or less between Daglan and Arcachon. And so it was.

I have written about La Table du Marché many times, so loyal readers will know how much Jan and I like the place. Chef Stéphane Cuzin, a Paris native who started his early career at starred restaurants in Paris and Brussels, is one of the most creative chefs around, at least in my view. He always amazes me in his choice of ingredients, his ability to introduce different textures and styles of cooking, and even his creative names for dishes.

Consider my entrée, called Naturellement Libre. It means Naturally Free, and I have no idea how that defines the dish. In any case, it featured a thick slice of roast potimarron, a popular winter squash in France; its name combines the French words for pumpkin and chestnut (since its taste is similar to the flavour of chestnut).

Now a slice of roast squash might sound a bit boring, but Chef served it with pesto vegetal, a condiment Tourin Périgourdin, pickles and young shiso sprouts, and it was wonderful. Have a look:

How boring is baked squasèh? Not at all, at this restaurant.

My main course had an equally odd name: Ephe-Mer. It consisted of a thick slice of cod which was prepared “sel à froid,” and I would love it if a reader could explain what that means. [Afterwards, my good friend Keith did some digging, and wrote: “It looks like a method much like gravlax.”] In any case, it was topped with a slice of sautéed foie gras covered with chopped walnuts, and surrounded by an artichoke cream and jus de vin jaune, a dry wine of the Jura region. The cod and foie gras made a delicious pairing, and again, I loved the dish. Here’s my serving:

An amazing mix of flavours that really worked.

Finally came my dessert, cleverly named No Name. It consisted of a light coffee cream atop a centre of cassis sorbet, with poached pear, toasted cereals and — wait for it — slices of mushroom. I’m sure it was the first dessert I’ve ever had that used mushrooms, and the whole dish was really well balanced. Here it is:

Mushrooms in a dessert? Well, why not?

The total bill for the four of us, which covered the three-course menus, kirs, two bottles of rosé wine, and coffees, came to a shade under 300 euros. So La Table du Marché is by no means a cheap date, but it’s certainly an excellent place to enjoy interesting and delicious meals.

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My kind of town (and art)

Before we headed west to Arcachon last Monday (September 27), I had very little idea of what to expect.

I figured that the Atlantic Ocean and the Bay of Arcachon would play starring roles in the area, and that there might be a lot of fishing boats in evidence. After all, Arcachon is well known as a place for harvesting delicious oysters. As for the town itself, I’m afraid I wasn’t expecting much. Well, what a surprise.

It turns out that Arcachon is definitely an impressive place, and my kind of town: clean, well-ordered and well-designed, with wide streets and a host of good shops (including prestige brands) and of course, restaurants and cafés. Sidewalks have low curbs, making it easy for people with walking disabilities to move along, and the promenade around the town’s beach is wide, well-paved, and attractive.

Here’s a view looking back towards our hotel, with restaurant after restaurant facing the promenade and the beach:

Along the shore, restaurants galore.

One of the many surprises was the weight given to public art, including some impressive (and impressively tall) statues, by a sculptor named Bruno Catalano. I did a bit of research on him, and discovered that he was born in Morocco, but moved to Marseilles as a child. He’s currently 61 years old. Here’s one of his pieces, called “Van Gogh,” on the waterfront of Arcachon:

Catalano’s statue of Van Gogh.

Catalano includes in his works a series called Travellers, and this one in Arcachon is known simply as Benoit:

The statue’s title is simply Benoit.

Finally, here’s an even larger display, with three separate but related pieces:

A triptych, by the same sculptor.

On the Arcachon beach itself, we found this incredible array of animals — all formed from sand, and then sealed with an acrylic paint. The artist was sitting near his works when we passed, and we learned that he comes from Benin in West Africa [Correction: In an earlier version of this posting, I wrote that he was from North Africa]. We chatted briefly, and then made a donation to help support his work. Have a look — most of the creatures seemed absolutely life-like, to the point that we thought a black dog in the centre of the display must be a real dog:

A gallery of creatures, all made of sand.

So when we left Arcachon, we made a promise to return. Possibly next May. It’s quite a place.

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Seafood by the seaside

This past Monday, Jan and I headed out to a place in France we had never visited — the Bay of Arcachon, or le Bassin d’Arcachon, as it’s known in French. We were travelling with good friends Keith and Kathy, from Toronto, and had a great time — wining and dining ourselves, and nosing around the wonderful town of Arcachon itself. In this post, I’ll focus on the dining.

If you’re not familiar with it, the Bay of Arcachon is a part of the Atlantic Ocean, located on the southwest coast of France. It’s known for being a great source of oysters — but there is a plethora of fish and other seafood as well. And the four of us were intent on sampling as much as possible.

Our first restaurant was Café de la Plage, which turned out to be around the corner from our hotel, the cleverly named Hotel B d’Arcachon. (It doesn’t seem like much of a name in English, but the letter “B” in French is pronounced “Bay,” so to a French guest the hotel would be known as the Hotel of the Bay of Arcachon, which is pretty clever.) Here’s a view from our table, looking out towards the bay:

Looking out toward the Bay of Arcachon.

Naturally enough, the four of us began our lunch by sharing an iced tray of oysters. Here are the shells, upside down because we’ve already devoured the briny, cold oysters:

Oysters to begin, of course.

As an entrée, Jan and I both chose the tataki of tuna, which was surprisingly delicious. The thin tuna slices had been nicely marinated, but the dish was made even better by the mousse on top (lightly flavoured with horseradish, as I recall) and especially the cold salad of quinoa as a base, sweetened and full of various herbs, including mint. Here’s my dish:

For my main course, I chose the seared scallops served on a bed of sepia rice, with a rich sauce made from the scallops’ coral. It was every bit as good as it looks in the photo below:

Sepia rice below the seared scallops.

Since I couldn’t think of a seafood dessert, I thought I should go for a traditional ice cream dish, and indeed I did. Here it is:

Admittedly, not a seafood dish.

For lunch the next day, we walked a few metres further to the sister restaurant of Café de la Plage, known as Restaurant Chez Pierre. Again, seafood was the star of the day. The four of us began by sharing a platter of sashimi and sushi, which was (as you would expect) wonderfully fresh. Then it was onwards — with Keith ordering a dorade, which needed to be filleted at the table. Here is our server, hard at work on the fish (and she did a very good job of it):

A fish is going under the knife.

For Jan and me, the main course simply had to be the lobster. We each had a plate-full, and loved every bit of it, along with (too many) crisp and salty french fries. Here’s my serving:

Jan and I each had a plate like this.

That evening, Jan, Keith, Kathy and I returned to Café de la Plage for drinks — and, because it was so good at lunch, we ordered a larger platter of sashimi and sushi to share. So Arcachon is definitely on our list for a return trip. Maybe next May, before the hordes of summer descend on the town.

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Fine dining: Start me up!

Not long ago, I posted a fairly unfavourable review of a Paris restaurant where we lunched in September to celebrate Jan’s birthday. It was called “Disappointment at a starred restaurant” (September 13). And one of the reasons for our disappointment was the amuse-bouche we were served before the entrées arrived.

An amuse-bouche is so-called because it’s meant to tickle the palate (“amuse the mouth”), and it’s supposed to showcase the chef’s creativity. What each of us received was a single small bowl with a piece of grilled octopus tentacle, sitting on a pool of not-very-tasty bean paste. So, to show what can be done — and what I’d expect to be served in a Michelin-starred restaurant — I’m now going to show the amuse-bouches we receive yesterday at Le Petit Léon, a wonderful restaurant in Saint-Léon-sur-Vézère. (Funnily enough, the amuse-bouches are described on the restaurant menu simply as “Snacks.”)

You may remember that I posted a fairly full review of the restaurant on September 1. In it, I wrote: “We began with a generous selection of amuse-bouches, including minced fresh oysters served on the half-shell with a tart sauce. The variety and number of the little taste treats were so stunning that I forgot to take any photos of the dishes!”) This time, I took photos, although I didn’t take notes on what we were actually receiving, since there was such a flurry of information. Anyway, here’s a look at some of the selections, which include oysters on the half shell and a variety of tasty creams or mousses on pastry bases:

Just three of our selections.

This next tray shows the dark, crunchy wafers that were gluten-free, and fairly sweet. On top were little dabs of delicious mousse and jelly:

The crisp wafers were surprisingly sweet.

In this selection of egg shells, we received velouté of potato, quite foamy on top, and rich and delicious lower down. This was, in a word, yummy:

The eggshells were filled with a rich, foamy broth.

The next and final photo actually shows the second of the main courses, the fish course. But I include it because it was so delicate. It’s described on the menu as a confit of trout, which I assume means that it was either (barely) cooked sous vide, or else lightly poached in warm olive oil. With the fish came a beurre blanc sauce, pieces of fresh peach, and something Japanese (seaweed?) sprinkled on top. Here’s my delicious serving, which was refreshingly sweet because of the peach:

Not actually an amuse-bouche, but rather the fish course.

So, in my mind, this is how you start up a fine-dining meal. There were actually five of us at lunch (Jan and I were with friends Joanne, Kathy and Keith) and all of us oohed-and-aahed as we munched away happily.

A final note: While the restaurant is described as a New Zealand place — because Chef Nick Honeyman and his lovely wife have a top-flight restaurant in Auckland, New Zealand, called Paris Butter — we discovered during a table-side chat after lunch that he was born in South Africa. Very friendly young man — and obviously, amazingly creative.

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As good as it gets

It’s taken me quite a while to get around to writing this, but we’ve been busy. In any case, last Sunday we had another marvellous lunch at O Moulin in Carsac with our good friend Joanne, and the dishes were as close to perfect as I could wish. Here’s a quick review of them all.

First, we began with a nice assortment of amuse-bouches, with Jan’s treats made gluten-free. Here’s our tray:

A delicious selection of goodies, to begin.

Then another amuse-bouche (our chef always includes a rich soup at this point in the meal), and this version was pretty darn close to the “Is-It-Okay-To-Lick-The-Bowl?” level. This thick, creamy, savoury concoction was made from finely puréed foie gras and a sweet red port wine. Sweet and delicious, which you can almost sense from this photo:

Rich and sweet and delicious.

My entrée was foie gras mi-cuit, accompanied by a roll of fig jelly that had been flavoured with orange flower. Beautiful to behold, and delicious:

Foie with a jellied accompaniment.

All three of us had the veal as our plat principal, and loved it. On the menu, the dish was described as picattas of veal, which to me means thin slices of veal that are lightly floured, then sautéed, then served with a lemon and butter sauce. At O Moulin, the veal was thicker (but still very tender) with a sweetened veal sauce and pine nuts, fondant potatoes, Swiss chard and spinach. Here’s my plate:

Yet more great flavours, on one plate.

After all that, the real star of the show (for me, anyway) was the dessert. Our friend Joanne says she is definitely not a “dessert person” — someone who (unlike me) can easily finish a meal without dessert. But even she thought this was an amazing creation, and possibly the best dessert she’d ever had. (And the same goes for me.) It included a variety of chocolates, including some very dark chocolate, crunchy little praline puffs, crisp wafers, and a rich chocolate sorbet. Have a look:

Possibly the best dessert of all time.

And the price for all this clever, beautifully prepared food? Just 47 euros for the O Plaisir menu. Now compare that with what we’ve paid for meals at Michelin-starred restaurants, and you’ll see why the title of this post is “As good as it gets.”

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Disappointment at a starred restaurant

We had been very much looking forward to dining this past Tuesday (September 7) at a Michelin-starred restaurant in Paris, chosen by my wife Jan because the specialty was seafood, and Tuesday was to be her special birthday lunch, with our great friends Keith and Kathy, visiting from Toronto.

As it turned out, I am sorry to say, our lunch at Divellec, on the rue Fabert, not far from Les Invalides, was a disappointment. Not bad, and rather pleasant as a gathering of friends, but disappointing nevertheless. There were a few reasons why.

Let’s start with Michelin’s own description of the restaurant, which in some measure led us to choose it: “The famous restaurant of Jacques Le Divellec has treated itself to a makeover. At the helm is the starred chef Mathieu Pacaud (Hexagone and Histoires in Paris), who channels his considerable talent into impeccable fish and seafood cuisine. The delicacies come thick and fast. Le Divellec is back with a vengeance.” Well, that sounds promising, yes?

We began by toasting Jan’s birthday with a bottle of Champagne. Then we placed our orders and sat back, waiting to be dazzled. What we received was a single amuse-bouche, which was a small bowl containing a piece of grilled octopus sitting atop some bean paste (which I wrongly thought was hummus).

Now the octopus-and-bean-paste was fine — but frankly not much better than I would expect as an appetizer at one of the Greek restaurants on Danforth Avenue in Toronto. Contrast that with what I wrote about Le Petit Léon (September 1): “We began with a generous selection of amuse-bouches, including minced fresh oysters served on the half-shell with a tart sauce. The variety and number of the little taste treats were so stunning that I forgot to take any photos of the dishes!”

Then, at Divellec, came our entrées. For Jan, it was a tuna tartare, served in a bowl, with an accompaniment of mashed avocado. Once again, it was fine — but certainly not particularly creative. Have a look:

Tasty, but not really exceptional.

The one “creative” dish of our meal, in my view, was my entrée — a “carbonara” with thinly sliced squid rings instead of pasta, topped with an egg yolk. It was delicious, although in all honesty the creamy pasta I had enjoyed at Romantica Caffé was better, simply because the squid has a more firm texture than pasta, and so was somehow less satisfying. Again, however, I give the Divellec creation full marks for being creative and also yummy. Here’s my serving:

The pasta was, well, not pasta. Pretty yummy.

And now we come to the real heart of the problem: the main course. Jan, Kathy and I had all ordered the sole — cooked with butter in the classic way for Kathy and me, and grilled for Jan. (Keith, ever seeking la différence, even in a seafood restaurant, had Bresse chicken.)

And when the fish arrived, and was de-boned (skillfully) by our waiter, we were stunned. The only word I can use for our portions was “huge.” In each case, we had a whole fish, and while all three of us are reasonably hearty eaters, this was simply too much. I’m not sure the following photo will really convey the size of each serving:

Well prepared, well cooked, quite delicious — but huge.

My sole was perfectly cooked. The butter sauce was delicious. So was the fish itself. But I could eat only about a third or a half of it. The same problem was faced by Jan and Kathy. So when we were “finished,” the waiter returned, took away our plates, and that was that. No question, such as “Didn’t you enjoy your sole?” or “Was there something wrong with the fish?” Nothing, as if it was completely normal that diners would return half or two-thirds of their main course to be dumped in the garbage.

And then, just to be finished, we had coffee and some not-very-inspiring mignardise, of which I had none. No dessert — just please order a taxi for us.

When we returned home, we received an email from the restaurant, asking us to complete a questionnaire regarding our experience. And that I did, with the same sort of tone I’ve used for this review. But, obviously, my comments and ratings were pretty unfavourable.

Follow-up: Another day passed, and we received a phone message from the manager of Divellec, asking us to phone — which I did. We had a rather long conversation, in which I again spelled out why we were disappointed in our lunch. In a nice way, he apologized, expressed surprise that we were taken aback by the size of our fish portions, and said to call him personally if we wanted to return. He also acknowledged that, given our reaction, we probably wouldn’t be returning. And of course he was right.

Final thought: Although it’s not stated on the menu, the manager told me that the restaurant sometimes offers sole to be shared. I could be wrong on this, but I think the three of us may have been served — each — a fish that was meant to be shared between at least two people. We’ll probably never know.

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A few tastes of Paris

Paris is our feel-good city, so Jan and I were feeling good when we headed off by train for the City of Light last Saturday. We were travelling there to celebrate Jan’s birthday, to enjoy some culinary delights, and to spend time with great friends from Toronto, Keith and Kathy, who had braved the transatlantic crossing for some biking and sight-seeing in France.

With this post, I’m just going to show off some of the dishes we really enjoyed — even if they weren’t always in fine-dining restaurants.

One dish that may seem surprising for a Paris restaurant is the lobster roll. Yes, it’s the New England classic that consists of cold chunks of lobster in a mayonnaise, served on a sprinkling of crisp chopped lettuce and placed in a soft roll. (This being Paris, the bun is a delicious brioche.)

Jan and I each had the lobster-roll-and-fries special, at 32 euros each, at the Café Tourville, a short walk from our hotel. In fact, we had this meal twice — once on the Saturday afternoon of our arrival, and once on the day we left. It’s absolutely wonderful, which you might tell from this photo:

Cool lobster, hot fries — an absolute favourite.

The Café Tourville has been one of our favourite haunts in Paris for years, and so has the Romantica Caffé, an authentic Italian restaurant where we’ve lunched many times. On this trip, we enjoyed lunch at Romantica on Monday, when Jan had pasta with clams, and I had a creamy pasta that had been stirred in a large, hollowed-out wheel of Parmigiano Reggiano. Have a look:

Jan’s clam-and-pasta dish, and my creamy, cheesy spaghetti.

In addition to the high quality of the food and the friendly service, the location of Romantica Caffé is also a plus. The restaurant is located on the Boulevard de la Tour Maubourg, right across from Les Invalides, the impressive building that houses Napoleon’s tomb. Here’s a view from our table:

From our table, a view of the top of the Invalides.

Our friends enjoy oysters as much as we do, and so on Monday night we all repaired to Huitrerie Regis in the Saint-Germain-des-Prés district. This restaurant specializes in oysters (quite obviously) and is also notable for being incredibly tiny. At our table for four, it seemed as if we were taking up most of the restaurant’s inside space. Here’s our tray of slipperies:

Oysters at perhaps the smallest restaurant in Paris.

We did have two disappointments on the lunchtime front. First, we were looking forward to Sunday lunch at an Indian restaurant that Jan and I know and love (Chez Raja, on the rue Surcouf) and had our reservation confirmed by an online service. However, the online service had missed the rather important fact that the restaurant would be closed on Sunday, and so when we arrived we were greeted by a locked front door. (We ate at a not-very-special café around the corner.)

The other disappointment was Tuesday’s lunch (for Jan’s birthday) at a Michelin-starred restaurant. I’ll cover that in a future post.

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More Kiwi magic in France — up a notch

It had been two years since we enjoyed lunch at Le Petit Léon, a restaurant in the secluded village of Saint-Leon-sur-Vézère. Although the place itself is fairly casual, the food is definitely in the fine-dining category — and this past Friday, we discovered that the chef and his team have moved the dishes (and the prices) even further upscale.

My initial review of the restaurant was called “Kiwi magic in a lovely French village” (posted August 15, 2019). What makes this place particularly interesting is that the chef is from New Zealand (where he is, evidently, a well known celebrity) and he flies his entire team to France for the summer, to operate this seasonal restaurant.

When Jan and I ate at Le Petit Léon in 2019, we were offered a three-course menu, with four choices for each course, at 30 euros. When we ate there on Friday with friends Helen and Roy, we were surprised to find that the menu had changed dramatically — with a four-course lunch for 50 euros, and a seven-course meal for 65 euros. If you opted for wine pairings, your bill would go up by 35 euros for five glasses and 50 euros for seven glasses.

Four courses seemed like more than enough, and seven courses seemed a bit over the top. What was also striking was that there were virtually no choices — the dishes for the four-course lunch were all set, and it was almost impossible to choose one of the other dishes, which were destined for the seven-course lunch. (Although I did talk my way into getting one change.)

In any case, all four of us agreed that the quality of the food was exceptional, and the quantity more than sufficient. We began with a generous selection of amuse-bouches, including minced fresh oysters served on the half-shell with a tart sauce. The variety and number of the little taste treats were so stunning that I forgot to take any photos of the dishes!

With the amuse-bouches polished off, it was time for our entrées, which included small pieces of trout, a saffron sauce, a slice of smoked tomato, and pine nuts, all topped with a rice cracker — into which some sort of designs were baked, with finely powdered charcoal. Here’s my serving:

The trout entrée with a rice cracker on top.

As he served the entrées, our waiter noted that the designs in the crackers had been modeled on the pre-historic animals that are painted on the famous caves at Lascaux; but he conceded that they were hard to make out because the crackers had curled while being baked. However, the animal designs on Helen’s cracker were fairly easy to see, and she kindly let me photograph it. Have a look:

Animal figures like the cave paintings at Lascaux.

Then came my first plat principal, a delicious dish of tender beef cheek with a poached langoustine, thinly sliced truffle, and a sauce périgourdine. This was the dish I was technically not supposed to have, because it was part of the seven-course menu, but I talked my way into it — finally declaring that I had an allergy to the type of fish they were serving as part of the four-course lunch! The simple fact was that I didn’t want to eat a main course of fish immediately after a trout entrée. Anyway, the beef-cheek dish was as delicious as it was visually appealing, as you can see:

A delicious, rich main course.

Then came the second plat principal (the dish was part of the four-course menu). I have to say that it was particularly clever, because it was listed on the menu simply as pintade (guinea fowl) with black garlic and a jus. The guinea fowl consisted of two rolls of white meat, generously sauced and decorated. Behold:

So good that I did manage to eat it.

The dessert on the four-course menu was listed as banoffee (traditionally, a pie made with a caramel and slices of banana), but of course this version was deconstructed. Again, I think I was too surprised by the non-traditional presentation to photograph it. However, I had regained my wits by the time our waiter brought our table a large selection of treats (as the menu described them) or mignardises. The photo below shows only a few of the choices; the “blackberries” were actually jellies, and the walnuts were not just lightly glazed with chocolate but actually had quite thick coatings of dark chocolate. Have a look:

Finally, just to give you an idea of the place, here is a photo of the front entrance; I copied it from my 2019 posting:

The front of the restaurant.

When we first lunched at Le Petit Léon, in 2019, rainy weather at the start of our meal meant that we had to eat indoors, and we wound up at a fairly cramped table. This time, the weather was great, and we were seated outdoors. Quite the lovely meal, all in all.

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Our stealth festival

In the past, Daglan’s annual summer festival — known officially as the Fetes de la Saint-Louis, but known in this blog as The Festival of Heat and Noise — was advertised well in advance. For several weeks ahead of the festival’s start, for instance, pennants would be hung all through the village, celebrating the themes of previous festival parades.

This year, the festival has sneaked up on us, appearing out of the clear blue sky like a huge stealth bomber (okay, that’s probably a bit excessive).

Anyway, for some time, Jan and I had heard from some particularly well plugged-in friends in Daglan that yes, the festival would take place. But there was literally no publicity — even the email newsletters we receive regularly from the Mayor never mentioned it. So we were skeptical.

Then yesterday (Saturday), I finally saw a poster for the event, located at the quite busy intersection where the road from Daglan joins the road to Bouzic. Frankly, a busy intersection is not a great place for cars to slow down and read the details. Not even as I drove into the village did I see a single other poster.

Then, thankfully, I found a poster on the front window of the convenience store on the main street through the village, and was able to get a photo. And here it is:

Well, well — it starts this coming Friday.

It turns out that most of the events will be concerts of one sort or another, starting this coming Friday. Then there will be a fireworks show late on the evening of Sunday.

The biggest news is that there will be no Sunday parade this year, and it was the parade that we felt was the true highlight of the festival. So we’re less than impressed. And we’ll be downright irritated if the dodge-em car ride is set up in the village’s main square, because it would mean that Jan and I would be subjected to loud music late into the night. We shall see.

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Dish du Jour — July 16, 2021

Yesterday we enjoyed yet another wonderful lunch on the terrace of O Moulin, the fine-dining restaurant in Carsac, less than 30 minutes from Daglan. This time it was with good friends Helen and Roy, who were celebrating a special anniversary.

Since I’ve gone on (and on) so often about O Moulin, I’ll keep this posting to a minimum. (If you ever want to read earlier reviews, just type O Moulin into the Search box at the top right of the page.)

To kick off our celebration, we each had a Kir Royale. Then it was on to the meal, which we accompanied with a couple of bottles of Tavel rosé.

My entrée was an incredibly fresh salad comprising small chunks of varied tomatoes, served with a herb-infused dressing and with a mound of creamy Burrata cheese in the centre. My meal ended with something called at Fraicheur Limoncello, which consisted of a light, lemon-flavoured mousse surrounding a scoop of lemon sorbet. A splash of Limoncello finished the dessert.

But for me, the real star of my lunch was the plat principal, what the menu described as Croustillant de canard confit, légumes de saison et jus aux épices tandoori. Have a look:

Small but surprisingly satisfying.

The confit of duck had been shredded, and was resting on a pastry bed. The vegetables included carrots and mushrooms, as well as the three swaths of puréed carrots you see on the left of the plate. It wasn’t a large serving, but it was surprisingly satisfying — and rich. I loved it!

Chef, you’ve done it again!

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