Yesterday morning my wife Jan and I were headed to Brive-la-Gaillard, about 85 kilometres north and east of Daglan, to do some shopping. Before we left home, we had decided that by lunchtime we would be ready to try L’Imaginaire, a restaurant that a friend had mentioned because it boasted a Michelin star.
So at precisely 12:30, after being shooed out of a store in Brive that was closing for lunch, I phoned L’Imaginaire, which is in the grandly named town of Terrasson-Lavilledieu, about 20 kilometres west of Brive, back in the direction of Daglan.
Sure enough, they could accommodate us, and the experience turned out to be delightful. Not only was our meal perfectly reasonable in terms of price, but the food, wine, service and atmosphere were all reasonably perfect. As for price, Jan and I both chose a set-price menu with the standard threesome of entrée, main course, and dessert. As you read the descriptions that follow, see if you can guess what the price was; I’ll reveal it at the end of this posting.
As it happens, Jan and I now agree that we have much preferred our experiences at the one-starred restaurants in the GDA (like Le Grand Bleu in Sarlat and L’Imaginaire) to the meals we’ve eaten in the past year at much better known two-star restaurants in Paris (Taillevent and Carré des Feuillants). So here’s a detailed commentary on yesterday’s lunch, with photos.
We start with the surroundings. The restaurant is part of a hotel (Hostellerie l’Imaginaire), which is on Terrasson’s main hill, up from the Vézère River. Back in the 17th century, the building was a residence, and the vaulted ceiling and limestone walls of the restaurant clearly reflect that age. Here’s a view of the restaurant as you enter it:
The restaurant was nearly empty as we arrived, and in fact our presence boosted the total number of diners to seven. (This is what happens when tourist season in the Dordogne ends.) Our hostess directed us to a table, and here is our view once we were seated:
Once seated, we had the almost-mandatory kirs delivered to our table, and then came a beautiful serving plate of amuse-bouches for each of us.It was only at this point that we remembered that we hadn’t let the restaurant know that Jan is allergic to gluten, and so our hostess immediately identified which of the amuse-bouches Jan should avoid.
From left to right, there was a glass of foamy soup based on chestnuts, then a gougère (the French cheese puff), a small spoon of whipped fromage frais (also known as fromage blanc) and an amazing deep-fried ball with liquefied foie gras in the centre. Here’s my dish:
Around this point, our hostess brought a tray of fresh rolls to our table, and offered them only to me, and not Jan. A mistake? Not at all — the hostess had not only heard but fully understood Jan’s comment about her gluten allergy, and believe me, that is surprisingly rare in even some of the best restaurants we’ve visited. (Jan has often been advised to avoid a particular sauce or coating because it contains flour, after which the server offers her a tray of bread.)
Now came a surprise — a second amuse-bouche. This time it was a small serving of a very rich but clear beef-based broth, treated as a miniature version of the French classic, pot-au-feu. In the bowl was a small slice of slow-cooked beef tongue, a tiny carrot, and a tiny spring onion, topped with a thin slice of chorizo sausage. This was really excellent:
For our first “real” course, the entrée, we were both having salmon. To accompany the fish, I chose a half bottle of Chablis, a wine I particularly like with seafood because it is (usually) such a fresh expression of the Chardonnay grape, not messed up with too much oakiness. This was a 2010 Chablis, made by a noted female winemaker in the region, Clotilde Davenne. Here it is:
Our entrée consisted of two relatively small pieces of salmon that had been barely poached, served with a light sauce and accompanied by florets of different coloured cauliflowers. Here’s my plate:
Our main course, the plat principal, was to be roast lamb. To accompany that dish, I went a bit more upscale than usual, and chose a 2006 Clos des Menuts Saint-Émilion Grand Cru. (For anyone interested in wine details, this is a typical Bordeaux blend of 85% Merlot, 10% Cabernet Sauvignon, and 5% Cabernet Franc.) Here it is:
The wine turned out to be wonderful, but then so was the lamb dish. Small, perfectly cooked, perfectly tender slices of lamb had been arranged on a purée of celeriac, and accompanied by a tangle of black trumpet mushrooms — also known by the wonderful name, trompettes de la mort. Here’s my plate:
Finally (almost), came dessert. Our server had described it simply as roasted bananas, but in fact it was a banana that had been baked inside a spiced phyllo pastry and served with a scoop of intensely flavoured almond ice cream. Here’s my dish:
Once we had finished our desserts, we were asked if we would like to have our coffees in the salon at the entrance to the restaurant. We did, and so we moved to the comfortable seating area and received not only our coffees but also a tray (each) of mignardises, those sweet little morsels that are absolutely not necessary but are still absolutely delicious. In this case, the servings included a small glass of warm spiced cider (nice idea!), small meringues, and a few small pieces of caramel and brownies. Here is a serving:
Finally, here’s one more example of a how a good restaurant should be run (and any restaurant which has earned a single Michelin star is a good restaurant). You’ll remember that we told our server just once, at the beginning of the meal, that Jan is allergic to gluten. Then, when our desserts arrived, Jan’s dessert looked a bit different from mine, and at first we weren’t sure why. Here is Jan’s banana dessert:
Our server explained that Chef had prepared Jan’s dessert separately, roasting the banana in its skin, without any pastry. In other words, the server had been truly paying attention to what we said, had been transmitting the information properly to Chef, and Chef was being clever in meeting Jan’s needs.
So, what’s your guess for the cost of the set-price meal? The answer: Just 31 euros, or just over $38 (Canadian or American). Considering the quality, as well as the quantity, that seems perfectly reasonable to me.
I’m pretty sure we’ll be heading back.