Beauty (and taste) on the plate in Sarlat

Having written several times about the Michelin-starred restaurant in Sarlat, Le Grand Bleu, I’ll be brief in this posting. But since my wife Jan and I had a lovely lunch there yesterday with our friend Joanne, and since all three of us were delighted with the beauty as well as the taste of the dishes, I simply had to show off the goodies created by Chef Maxime Lebrun.

(If you want to see previous reviews and more details, just type the name of the restaurant into the search box at the top right-hand side of this blog.)

After enjoying a selection of delicious amuse-bouches with our glasses  of Champagne, we started on the main meal. We had each chosen the Menu Découverte at 54 euros, which includes the mise en bouche, an entrée, either a fish or meat dish as the plat principal, and a dessert. To start, we had a bottle of Sancerre blanc, and later a Chinon rouge.

For my entrée, I had the pieds de cochon caramélisés. The meat from the pig’s feet had been finely chopped and spiced, and mixed with shards of crispy skin. Then the meat mixture was shaped into a square, and served with a  coulis of yellow pepper and rocket (arugula), a brunoise of red and yellow peppers, and an arugula sorbet. It was rich and delicious, and here it is:

An incredible combination, based on the meat from pig's trotters.

An incredible combination, based on the meat from pig’s trotters.

Both Joanne and Jan started with the lightly cooked langoustines, served with a déclinaison of carrots (carrots cooked in different ways), along with carrot sorbet. Here’s the dish:

Barely cooked langoustines, and a variety of carrot-based ingredients.

Barely cooked langoustines, and a variety of carrot-based ingredients.

The main course for Joanne and Jan was tenderloin of Aubrac beef, served with cauliflower and hazelnuts, with a coffee sauce and a tobacco (!) foam. Jan absolutely raved about the taste and tenderness of the meat. And here it is:

Jan said it was the best beef dish she's had in France.

Jan said it was the best beef dish she’s had in France.

As for me, I stayed with my old favourite at Le Grand Bleu — veal sweetbreads. They are always beautifully caramelized, and then served in unique ways. This time the sweetbreads had been caramelized in beet juice, and then served in a bowl with a deep layer of potato and nettle foam, which was both unusual and delicious. Here’s my serving:

My favourite -- sweetbreads -- done in an entirely new way.

My favourite — sweetbreads — done in an entirely new way.

Joanne’s dessert was, apparently, the only slight disappointment of the meal. It looked terrific — a macaron made of black olives, and served with local strawberries, an asparagus and basil cream, and black olive ice cream — but Joanne said she found it a bit low in flavour and a touch too dry. Here’s her plate:

Joanne's brilliant dessert.

Joanne’s brilliant (looking) dessert.

And here is Jan’s dessert — a plate of three apricots poached with rosemary, and served with a ganache and a compote of kumquat, plus a cocoa sorbet:

Jan's rich dessert , based on roasted apricots.

Jan’s rich dessert, based on roasted apricots.

My choice was this peach and cherry soufflé, served with crumble and a quenelle of
Madagascar vanilla ice cream:

My dessert was a wonderful soufflé.

My dessert was this wonderful soufflé.

After our coffees, it was time for another culinary adventure before heading back to Daglan. We headed off to Sarlat’s largest supermarket to buy three (live) Canadian lobsters, which we poached last evening and then enjoyed in a risotto for lunch today. Jan and I will, of course, be dining pretty lightly tonight.

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La Cantine’s fast, sure start

It’s a pleasure to recognize a hit, and it looks like Chef Fabrice Lemonnier’s new restaurant in Daglan, La Cantine, started fast, picked up speed, and now is approaching the village’s quiet season as a full-blown success. My wife Jan and I keep hearing good reports on it, from locals as well as tourists, and we’ve enjoyed many good meals there — including lunch yesterday with friends Tish and Bob.

Here’s a reminder, from my first posting on La Cantine as it opened this year (“Fabrice le Chef, reimagined,” March 25):

La Cantine is a reworked version of the shop where Chef previously sold meats, cheeses and his own creations, and which evolved into a casual place during the tourist season with meals served on the terrace outside the shop. It’s across the street from the post office, and next to Daglan’s primary school and the mayor’s office.

Now all the food shelves are gone; new tile has been put down; the kitchen equipment has been beefed up; and La Cantine is a cozy and comfortable bistro, with seats for 18 inside. (There are tables on the terrace already, but the weather will need to warm up a bit before it gets much use.)

At today’s inaugural lunch, there were just six of us — and that includes Jan and me. But we think that the quality of food, the price, and the location will bring in lots of diners, especially in the warmer seasons. Here’s a look at a table for four, in one corner of the restaurant:

One corner of the cosy restaurant.

One corner of the cozy restaurant.

During the summer, virtually every table on the terrace outside the restaurant was full during lunch. Sunday lunches were especially popular, as Chef added fresh oysters to the other entrées available. And many of our friends who’ve eaten at La Cantine for dinner report that they had excellent meals.

Speaking of which, my plat principal yesterday (after splitting a half-dozen oysters with Jan) was a nice piece of pork belly that had been roasted in Marsala, and then perched on mixed vegetables. The fat was nicely browned and crispy, the meat tender and sweet. Here it is:

The pork was moist and delicious.

The pork was moist and delicious.

Dessert was equally delicious. It was a poached pear (cooked in Monbazillac wine to a nice, soft texture, but not mushy) served with chocolate ice cream and chocolate sauce, and sprinkled with roasted almonds. Here it is:

A lovely combination -- soft, poached pear and chocolate ice cream.

A lovely combination — soft, poached pear and chocolate ice cream.

Prices and variety are right, I think. The lunch for Jan and me, with a generous amount of white wine, came to just under 70 euros. Each day, there is a choice of three entrées, three main courses, and three desserts.

The good news: I checked in with Chef today, and he confirmed that he plans to continue the same schedule for meals even in the non-tourist season (with occasional closings for vacation time and holidays). So that means lunch every day except Tuesdays, plus dinners on Friday and Saturday nights. For reservations, the phone number is 05-53-30-34-54.

The bad news: Over at Daglan’s popular tea room and restaurant, proprietor Judith Thomason confirms that the fish-and-chips night on Friday, September 30, will be Le Thé Vert’s final closing date — not just for this season, but forever — until the business is sold to a new owner. The village (and the countless cyclists who arrive each summer) will miss it.

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Dishes du jour — 08 – 09 – 2016

Today’s posting simply picks up where yesterday’s posting finished. We’re still at a Sunday lunch in Bergerac, a drive of about an hour and a quarter from Daglan, at a very good restaurant called L’Imparfait. To remind you, here’s an entrance to the restaurant, with tables set out in the laneway for summertime dining:

In the heart of Old Bergerac.

In the heart of Old Bergerac.

Today I’m simply highlighting two of the main-course dishes ordered by our group of four — my wife Jan, friends Elisabeth and Gerhard, and me. First comes a roast duck breast dish that  Jan and  Gerhard ordered. They both said it was excellent, although quite filling (after Jan’s entrée of foie gras and Gerhard’s fish and chips entrée, that I featured yesterday). Here’s Jan’s plate:

Well, it's just ducky!

Well, it’s just ducky!

As for the plat principal chosen by Elisabeth and me, it was particularly noteworthy because of all the perfectly cooked vegetables that came with the cod (dos de cabillaud). For some reason, vegetables don’t always appear very prominently on restaurant plates in France, but this was an exception. Have a look:

For a French dish, this includes a lot of vegetables.

For a French dish, this includes a lot of vegetables.

All four of us came away from the meal feeling that we’d been well treated and well fed, as we were also served an amuse bouche of excellent gazpacho, and some wonderful desserts — including an incredibly rich chocolate dish that I ordered and (believe it or not) couldn’t finish. Very little was eaten chez nous that evening.


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Dish du jour — 07-09-2016

In a break from tradition (sort of), I’m not going to devote this  blog posting to an exhaustive review of each dish that we recently enjoyed at an excellent lunch. Instead, in the interests of giving readers a quick taste of French cuisine, I’ll break down the lunch into a few sections, starting with today’s “Dish du jour,” which was an unusual entrée.

Educational moment: First, let’s deal with the word entrée. In French, it means “entry ” or “entrance.”  In other words, it’s how you enter a meal. So the right English translation would be “appetizer.” It is not, despite all the people who say otherwise (including most Americans, many chefs and even the Food Network), a main course. That would be a plat principal (in French) or main course or “main” in English. So, please, people, try to get this right.

Okay, enough.

Now on to the unusual entrée which was part of our Sunday lunch in Bergerac with friends Elisabeth and Gerhard. They were heading back to England in the later afternoon, so the timing was perfect for a lunch at L’Imparfait, in the heart of Vieux Bergerac. We ate outside the restaurant, in a little laneway, and this will give you an idea of our whereabouts:

The laneway with an entrance to the restaurant.

The laneway with an entrance to the restaurant.

The entrée or appetizer that was chosen by Elisabeth, Gerhard and me was — are you ready? — fish and chips! Usually it’s considered a main course, as you know, but in this case the portion was right-sized (as an appetizer), and it was served with a delicious little cup of velouté of peas, in place of mushy peas. Here’s my plate:

A cute-as-a-button serving of this classic.

A cute-as-a-button serving of this classic.

A few wedges of deep-fried potato, a couple of sticks of nicely breaded fish (crispy, perfectly cooked), and the rich soup. A nice start to an enjoyable meal.


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Summer ends, the best month begins

As we’ve moved into September, there are signs that summer is winding down. Day-time highs are still in the 30-degrees-Celsius range, but mornings are cool. A prolonged lack of rain has started to give a dried-out look to some of the trees and lawns. (Typically, our summers are dry enough to prompt fears of a major drought, but then the rains do finally come in the autumn each year.)

One of the surest signs of the end of summer is that the fields of sunflowers that abound in the Greater Daglan Area are in the drooping stage — just about ready for harvesting.

Late this morning, for instance, I was heading from St. Cybranet to Cénac for some shopping, and stopped at this field of sunflowers, already turning fairly brown. Here it is:

A field of formerly bright sunflowers, drooping in the heat.

A field of formerly bright sunflowers, drooping in the heat.

So the height of the tourist season has passed (in fact, today was the first Monday of the off-season season that the village’s convenience store was closed).  But to my mind, this is now the best single month for a visit.

I understand that for families with children, July and August are the prime months for vacationing here. Off from school, the kids can join their parents in camping, canoeing, kayaking, horse-back riding, and swimming in campground pools.

But if you’re free from that timing restriction, September is the perfect month to visit the GDA. Restaurants are open, the weather is lovely, traffic is reduced, and the pace seems to be just right.

So, what are you waiting for?


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A chef who keeps upping his game

My wife Jan said it soon after our first dish was served at lunch last Friday: “I think Chef has upped his game.” Then she said it several more times during the meal, and again, later that afternoon. This is pretty high praise, and I agree.

Our lunch was at La Table du Marché, a restaurant in Bergerac I’ve reviewed often. While I don’t want to keep going over old topics, this is a restaurant with a chef who  deserves attention.

To refresh you, here’s a quick description, taken from my posting of April 14, 2013, “Simply superb in Bergerac:”

La Table du Marché is a relatively small restaurant, just across the street from the covered market (hence the marché) in the centre of vieux Bergerac. The style is contemporary, but comfortable. The chef and owner is a Parisian, Stéphane Cuzin, who learned his craft at starred restaurants in France and Belgium — and learned it very well. His food is clever, creative, fresh, and delicious.

This most recent visit was with friends Elisabeth and Gerhard, who had just flown in from England. The timing was perfect, as we picked them up at the Bergerac airport and then whisked ourselves off to the restaurant in Old Bergerac. It was a hot and sticky August day, but we decided to sit outside because the tables were in the shade, and our lunch was actually quite comfortable. Here’s a look back at the restaurant from our spot (we ate relatively late, so the other diners were gone by the time I took this photograph):

The view from our table, outside the restaurant.

The view from our table, outside the restaurant.

Before the meal, we each had a glass of Champagne, sipping it while munching on several tasty treats (including gluten-free alternatives for Jan), and then ordered a nice Sancerre to have with our lunch.

Surprising combinations and artful presentations are a particular feature of the food at La Table du Marché, and here’s an example — our main amuse bouche of finely minced, refreshing zucchinis (courgettes), topped with cold marinated mussels, and then a creamy mousse:

Our cool, refreshing and clever amuse bouche.

Our cool, refreshing and clever amuse bouche.

The entrée of foie gras that both Gerhard and I ordered was another great example of combinations that really worked. The walnut bread sticks looked as if they would be dry and crunchy, but in fact were moist and delicious. Inside the slice of black truffle was a quarter of an artichoke heart. And the little puddle of sweet fruit sauce was perfect with the foie itself:

A delicious garnished serving of foie gras.

A delicious garnished serving of foie gras.

Perhaps the star of the meal was the entrée ordered by Elisabeth, which was (nominally) a serving of tomatoes and mozzarella. Usually the classic Italian dish consists of alternating slices of ripe red tomatoes and fresh mozzarella cheese. Instead, this entrée included a creamy sauce, slices of green tomato, and more. Here it is:

This dish probably took the prize for sheer inventiveness.

This dish probably took the prize for sheer inventiveness.

For our main dishes, both Gerhard and I ordered — and were delighted with — roast Iberico pork on a bed of puréed peas. Have a look:

Very happy to put this pork on my fork.

Very happy to put this pork on my fork.

My dessert was built around four poached apricot halves, topped with ice cream — refreshing and delicious:

A fresh, sweet dessert based on apricots.

A fresh, sweet dessert based on apricots.

Even the mignardises — the little sweets served with the coffee — are clever. Chef’s version included house-made marshmallow squares and little cakes, served on a bed of popcorn. The cannelés (a traditional little cake from the Bordeaux area) were as good as ever, but the real hit was the surprisingly intense blueberry flavour of the marshmallows. Here’s our serving:

The house-made marshmallows had surprisingly intense flavour.

The house-made marshmallows had surprisingly intense flavour.

And yes, of course we’re headed back to the restaurant. Jan’s birthday is coming soon, and La Table du Marché was her pick for a celebratory lunch. It’s a drive of about an hour and a quarter from Daglan, and the food is well worth the trip.


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The Sarlat Test, and a sad sign of our times

We are now over the hump — which is to say the peak of the Tourist Season, which in the Greater Daglan Area (GDA) runs roughly from mid-July to mid-August. You can see the cars heading back to other parts of France, the Netherlands and Great Britain, loaded to their roofs with all the possessions they hauled here a few weeks earlier.  And besides, I’ve confirmed this with the Sarlat Test.

The Sarlat Test is a simple way to measure the intensity of the Tourist Season in the GDA, and it works like this: If you can drive into Sarlat without going numb, as you inch forward in traffic, the worst is over. If you need to take a bedroll and food supplies to survive the traffic jam, the Season is still at its peak. The test is well proven (Liebstein and Stevenson, Oxford University, 2003), and our personal experience once again confirms it.

A few days ago, my wife Jan and I were foolish enough to venture into Sarlat for some shopping, and wound up having to inch forward in a traffic jam that stretched for what seemed like kilometres. But yesterday afternoon, when I drove into the town for an appointment, it was a relative breeze. So, the worst is over for 2016.

A sad sign of our times: I’m sure you’re aware of the kinds of signs that are plastered on the walls of hospitals, clinics, and doctor’s waiting rooms, whether in France or elsewhere. Generally they run to the benign and more-or-less informative: The need to keep your hands scrupulously clean; the need to cover your mouth if you cough; the need for getting your flu vaccine; and so on. But in Toulouse earlier this week, I came across a sign that was actually fairly troubling.

My wife and I were in the fourth floor waiting room of a well known (and excellent) clinic, waiting  to meet the (excellent) surgeon who had operated on Jan’s hand a few weeks earlier. (It all went well; she’s fine; thanks for asking.) But as I wandered around, I found a sign that I’d not seen before — with step-by-step advice on how to deal with a terrorist attack.

It seemed pretty sensible: Run away if you can; take cover if you can’t run away safely; call the police; raise your hands in the air to show you’re unarmed when the police arrive, and so on.

All very good. But quite troubling that in a civilized country, we need to be concerned with such things. Then again, not everyone here — and in much of this troubled world — is actually civilized.


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