A leisurely Sunday lunch with good friends, enjoying fine food, is both a treat and a tradition for us here in the Greater Daglan Area. However, I do make a distinction between plain-old leisurely and so-much-time-between-courses-that-you-could-learn-how-to-play-contract-bridge leisurely.
Unfortunately, the latter sort of leisurely was what we experienced on a recent Sunday at Le Saint Martial, a restaurant at the main crossroads in Saint-Martial-de-Nabirat. That’s a village just a short drive from Daglan over lovely country roads, through farm fields and woods.
I’ll return to the subject of slow service at the end of this posting, but for now let’s take a look at the restaurant and Chef’s generally excellent food.
Le Saint Martial is a handsome restaurant, set in an old limestone building that’s been polished up and refurbished inside. What was once a bar at street level and a tiny restaurant on the lower level is now a full-fledged restaurant devoted to fine dining at both levels. The interior is modern, well furnished and comfortable. Here’s how it looks from the front:
The restaurant as seen from the village’s main street.
And here’s the rear of the restaurant. For our recent Sunday lunch, we were seated in the lower level, at a table for six just behind that large picture window:
We were seated near that large ground-floor window.
There were six of us for lunch, celebrating the birthday of one of our friends, and we all began with a Kir Royale (Champagne flavoured with black currant liqueur). About the time that I’d finished my drink, the amuse-bouches were delivered. We each received two small tastings — a dish of foie gras crème brûlée, plus a glass with tartare of tuna covered in a rich sauce. Here’s my serving:
Our amuse-bouches — foie gras with a sugary crust, and tuna tartare.
As my entrée, I chose foie gras mi-cuit, done in a sort of en croute style. This was a twist on the French classic of a meat terrine, which has foie gras in the centre; this version had a (delicious) meat filling down the centre, surrounded by layers of the foie gras. The sauce (with pieces of fruit) that accompanied the meat was fine, but the crust atop the meat was tough and difficult to cut, and not the least bit flaky. Still, the rich taste of the foie and the meaty filling made the dish a stand-out. Here’s my plate:
I especially loved the meaty filling between the layers of foie gras.
My main course, or plat principal, was the star of the meal. In a pastry crust sat pieces of the claw meat from an homard bleu — Brittany’s blue lobster — with the tail meat on top. Around it were seashore greens, mushrooms and a few not-very-successful gnocchi that incorporated seaweed. Save for the dense gnocchi, the dish was wonderful — and here it is:
This lobster dish was the star of the show.
For dessert, my wife Jan and I each ordered a peach dish that was supposed to be in the style of a tarte tatin. Both of us thought that the peaches lacked the caramel “punch” that’s typical of a tarte tatin, and actually did not have a lot of peach flavour. So the dessert was fine, but not exceptional. Here’s mine:
A good dessert, but not a great dessert.
Now we come to our reaction to the service we experienced not only at our recent Sunday lunch but at a dinner we had at Le Saint Martial with a group of friends earlier this year. At the dinner, there was one awkward period near the end of the meal where we were ignored for something like 20 minutes.
At our lunch, we never experienced a wait quite that long, but the delays between courses were both noticeable and sometimes uncomfortable. And this occurred despite the fact that we were the only people in the lower part of the restaurant, and only one or two tables were occupied in the upper level.
Le Saint Martial is a family affair, as it happens, with Jean-Marc Réal as the chef and his wife Valérie as hostess — and the one and only server.
Before writing this, I checked TripAdvisor, to see what others thought. Overwhelmingly, the results were positive — out of 103 reviews, 76 gave an Excellent rating, while 23 said their experience was Très bon, or very good. That’s a total of 99 positive reviews. There was just one Mediocre rating, and three ratings of Moyen, or average.
As it happened, the one Moyen review that obviously struck a nerve — because it received a long reply from Mme Réal — was called “Cuisine oui! Service non!” In her reply, Madame recognized that lack of staff was an issue, and said she regretted that the restaurant cannot afford another server.
In the restaurant’s defence, she wrote, tables are brought whole baskets of bread (instead of individual pieces), so customers can munch on bread while waiting for the next course. And guests can pour wine for themselves between courses, once she has opened the bottle and let them have a taste.
Sympathetic as I am to small operations and their tight budgets, it seems to me that adding a not-terribly-costly young man or woman to the team during lunch and dinner services would be a good investment.
He or she could learn the restaurant business while delivering water, bread, and plates of food to the table. And I’m pretty sure that more of the tables would be full of customers if the level of service came a bit closer to matching the standard of the food.