After visiting the weekly market in the medieval village of Issigeac this past Sunday, as reported yesterday, my wife and I were to meet our friend Janice for lunch. Meeting her was excellent. Where we met was not.
How shall I describe the service at Chez Alain on Sunday afternoon — Unpolished? Un-directed? Un-coordinated? The Three Stooges?
It’s a shame because the restaurant is well located (literally across the street from the main section of Issigeac, where the Sunday market takes place). It has a nice terrace with well-spaced tables. And the young chef (Christian Borini) seems to know how to cook. To give you an idea of the place, here’s the view from our table:
Things were fine at the start, when my wife Jan and I arrived a few minutes early. Rather than walking with us, the hostess pointed across the terrace to our table (we later figured out that she was doing as little walking as possible, since she was quite pregnant). So we seated ourselves, and a server showed up and gave us the wine list (but no menu). Jan and I each ordered a kir, which arrived reasonably promptly. So far, so good.
A few minutes later, as Janice arrived, a different server showed up at the table, and we ordered a large bottle of mineral water. At this point, the server chose to confirm that Jan and I had ordered kirs, which were sitting in front of us. Then Janice, Jan and I got up to inspect the buffet tables, since it turns out that the format for Sunday lunch is that you choose your own entrées from the buffet.
When we returned to our seats, a timid young server was carefully putting another two kirs and another bottle of mineral water on the table. Evidently someone had thought that the confirmation of our previous order was a new order, and so we had to send the server back with the drinks — looking genuinely puzzled.
And so it went — confusion about the two choices for plat principal (duckling and tuna), and an incredibly long delay before we received our main courses. We were losing track of time, but I think it took something like an hour for our meals to arrive. The saving grace was that we were enjoying our animated conversation with Janice, and so we managed to stay calm.
Eventually the main courses did come, delivered by the chef himself, and the food turned out to be quite good. Here’s a look at the duck breast, served with an orange sauce and some balsamic reduction:
The strawberry-based dessert was very nice as well. Here’s how it was served:
Aside from the patchy, slow service, I do have a basic quibble with the restaurant’s approach to lunch — and that’s the buffet at the beginning of the meal. I’ve never been a big fan of buffets, since they usually entice you to eat too much, and to mix together foods that are quite good on their own but are simply weird when in combination.
That’s why you wind up with a plate of oysters on the half shell, several slices of sausage, a few bits of sardines, a stack of beet-and-goat-cheese salad, and a little pile of escargots. If the restaurant is offering only two choices for the plat principal, why not two or three simple choices for the entrée? For example, a paté served with a sauce or a chutney of some sort; a plate of attractive cold vegetables with a dipping sauce; and a hard-boiled egg with mayonnaise and a few greens.
The cost for a lunch at Chez Alain is 30 euros, which is probably about right for fairly good food. But I find it hard to believe that the restaurant isn’t losing money on the buffet, since many diners were attacking it as if they would starve if they couldn’t get it all on their plates.
Paying for the meal proved almost as challenging as much of the service. We couldn’t convince anyone to bring us the bill (l’addition), and finally one server brusquely told us to see the hostess inside the restaurant. Eventually I found the pregnant hostess seated in a corner handling the bills, and not being the least bit friendly or apologetic about the delays in our three-hour lunch.
As you can imagine, Jan and I won’t be driving back to eat at Chez Alain any time soon. On the other hand, if a tourist were staying in Issigeac, I think the restaurant would be worth a try — in the hopes that someone has managed to train the staff.