Starred restaurants, head-to-head

You may think that my wife and I eat at wonderful French restaurants every single day, but that would be just silly. Why last week alone, we ate lunch at home on Thursday! And only two of the four restaurants where we lunched during the week carried Michelin stars. So there.

I’ll admit that last week’s lunching was a bit of an aberration, caused by the need to see friends we would have missed otherwise. But it was great fun (as well as the chance for some excellent food), and it gave us the opportunity to rate two Michelin-starred restaurants head to head. So let’s recap.

Monday’s lunch was at the cheap-and-cheerful Diabolo-Fraises in Nabirat, about 10 kilometres east of Daglan, with on-the-go friends Tish and Bob. (For my review of the restaurant and its super-value menu ouvrier, see the posting of July 10 this year.)

Thursday was that unusual lunch at home, and Friday saw us at La Petite Tonnelle in Beynac, with friends Helen and Roy. (La Petite Tonnelle is a “regular” for us, quite good and dependable, and often reviewed in Radio Free Daglan. To find a review of this restaurant or any other, just type its name into the “Search” box at the top right of this blog.)

In between, on Tuesday and Wednesday, we had our Michelin-starred lunches with friends from Toronto, John and Jill. They were staying with us during their first visit to the Greater Daglan Area, and wanted to try the best of the best restaurants the GDA can offer.

So on Tuesday we lunched at Le Vieux Logis in Trémolat, and on Wednesday it was L’Essentiel in Périgueux, capital of the département of the Dordogne. Both restaurants are in the 2013 Michelin red guide (hotels and restaurants), with a single star — sign of “A very good restaurant,” in Michelin’s understated prose. (I would have preferred Le Grand Bleu in Sarlat to L’Essentiel, but the dates and times didn’t work for us.)

Before I get into more detailed comparisons of the two restaurants, let’s have a quick look at the food.

For Le Vieux Logis, I’m showing just one dish  — the fish course that formed a small part of the”tapas” lunch. That lunch, costing 46 euros, includes three starters, two main courses, one cheese course, and three desserts — all in “tasting” portions. As you can see, the fish was as beautifully presented as it was beautifully cooked. Because I’ve reviewed the tapas lunches at Le Vieux Logis several times, I’ll leave it at that.

The fish course for our "tapas" lunch at Le Vieux Logis.

The fish course for our “tapas” lunch at Le Vieux Logis.

Now we come to the lunch, the following day, at L’Essentiel in Périgueux. Each of us ordered the three-course menu at 42 euros, and Jill began with this attractive dish — a terrine of cèpe mushrooms with garlic and parsley,  served with browned scallops:

An entrée at L'Essential -- a terrine of cepe mushrooms.

An entrée at L’Essential — a terrine of cèpe mushrooms.

Meanwhile, Jan and I each started with oysters enclosed in a vegetable gelée, with crab meat, and topped with a tartare of langoustines, seated on a sauce of fennel and saffron. Here’s my entrée:

Oysters in gelée as an entrée at L'Essentiel, Perigueux, France, October 2013.

Oysters in gelée as an entrée at L’Essentiel.

For our main courses, both Jill and I opted for the pork — a thick  cut of meat that had been slow-roasted to an incredible state of moist tenderness, and served with girolle mushrooms and whipped potatoes with truffle butter. I thought it was the best dish of the day, and here it is:

A main course of tender pork at L'Essentiel.

A main course of tender pork at L’Essentiel.

Obviously, the chefs at both of these fine restaurants can cook, although the four of us thought that the food at Le Vieux Logis had the edge — perhaps deserving a 10 on a 1-to-10 scale, versus 9 or 9.5 at L’Essentiel. But how do the two places stack up overall? Let’s do some comparing:

Comfort and décor. The Michelin guide uses stars (one, two or three) to indicate the very finest restaurants, but it also uses couverts or place settings to indicate “comfort.” L’Essentiel gets just one set (in black), while Le Vieux Logis gets three place settings in red, given to “the most pleasant restaurants.” Certainly the reaction of our friends John and Jill to the décor at Le Vieux Logis (which includes tapestries on the dining room walls) made it the clear winner.

Comfort and size. Easily the most striking thing about L’Essentiel is just how small it is. Our table was shoe-horned into the space between a wall and the front desk, but none of the other tables in the restaurant had much room either. By contrast, the tables at Le Vieux Logis are substantial and well-spaced. (With a chef as skilled as Eric Vidal, surely L’Essentiel deserves to be moved to a larger location.)

Service. At face value (friendliness, promptness, and so on), the service at both restaurants was very good, bordering on perfect. So we can call that a tie. However, there was another aspect of service on which Le Vieux Logis shined, while L’Essentiel failed quite miserably — namely, looking after a special need. In this case, the special need was the fact that my wife Jan is allergic to gluten (which, in day-to-day terms, means she cannot eat dishes that contain wheat flour). When I had made the reservations — many days in advance — I notified both restaurants of this allergy. And funnily enough, when we got a phone call from L’Essentiel to confirm our reservation, the caller specifically noted Jan’s gluten allergy. So what did each restaurant do about it?

  • Gluten-free at Le Vieux Logis. From the start, Jan was looked after. When the appetizers arrived with our apéritifs, Jan had her own special goodies, replacing any of the regular appetizers that contained gluten. When the bread basket was offered, there were no breads that Jan could eat — until the waiter arrived, moments later, with two absolutely delicious (and hot) gluten-free rolls. And so it went: If there was anything that Jan couldn’t eat, a perfectly wonderful substitute was offered to her.
  • Gluten-free at L’Essentiel. From the start, Jan’s allergy was noted — and that’s about it. The appetizers before the amuse-bouche included a dish of nearly tasteless taramasalata offered with toasts — but no gluten-free bread. “You can eat the olives,” the waitress told Jan, with an icy smile. Rather than offering any alternatives, the restaurant had decided to let Jan know what she could not eat. That may be fine in “your average restaurant,” but not in one that has earned a Michelin star. (Interestingly, this experience was on a par with a dinner we had in Paris some time ago at the famed restaurant Taillevent, which has two stars.)

The final tally. The verdict of the four of us was identical: our lunch at Le Vieux Logis was the clear winner against L’Essentiel. The score? Let’s make it 10 to 8.5.

As for this week, it looks like lunch at home every day. But that’s no hardship. Today’s main course was wonderfully fresh cod from the weekly fish truck, which Jan coated in Indian spices and then pan-fried. Delicious.

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17 Responses to Starred restaurants, head-to-head

  1. Caitlin and Albert Woodbury says:

    Nice review, Loren. I’d like to add that Le Vieux Logis was a huge winner for our little group that day. We didn’t have any known food allergies or issues that we told them about in advance, but the server actually asked us about that after we were seated. My son’s girlfriend did then announce that she does have a bad reaction when she eats figs or mangos…this mentioned with a little smile, as she didn’t expect that to be a problem. But lo and behold, one of the special “tapas” desserts that day was some sort of figgy delight…and Alicia was served a lovely alternative, which I can’t recall now. All I can remember was that her substitute dessert was just as creative and amazing as the “regular” desserts. And this, with no advance notice! High standard of service.

  2. loren24250 says:

    That’s a great addition to my review, Caitlin. Much appreciated! And by the way, we really enjoyed meeting your son and his girlfriend.

  3. Paul says:

    Enjoyable reviews, Loren. I know things are tough in Europe — good to see you’re at least finding something to eat.

  4. Double D's says:

    All the dishes look really tasty along with this weeks Blog picture of the rather large escargot plate.

  5. loren24250 says:

    Thanks Double D. Did you read the updated “About” page? (I update it each week when I change the blog header photo.) It reveals that the escargots are topped with minced confit de canard. Yummy!

  6. John Ison says:

    Loren … another great review. Le Vieux Logis was a rather special experience. Food elsewhere during our 24 days “may” have been in the same league but, combined with atmosphere and service, it was at the top of a long list of terrific food. Many thanks.

  7. Susie says:

    Interesting. I can’t imagine scallops and mushrooms together — but it sure looks good.

  8. loren24250 says:

    Susie, I know what you mean. The combo wouldn’t occur to me either. But Jill seemed to like it!

  9. Deborah Laing says:

    Hi,
    I’m new to your blog, I was told about in the Deli shop in Daglan. Enjoy reading your blogs especially when we are at our home in North Wales. We now also have a house close to Tish and Bob so it was interesting to see them in your blog. They introduced us to Diablo-Fraises and we are now regulars there. Our favourite local restaurant is “St Martial” we always get a superb meal there and can’t understand why they don’t have a higher rating in Michelin. We are back in November for a short visit, but have already booked Christmas lunch at St Martial. Have you reviewed it?

    • loren24250 says:

      Hi Deborah, and welcome to Radio Free Daglan. I’m delighted you’re enjoying it. As for St. Martial, my wife and I ate there a few years ago — I believe it was just before their big renovation — and for some reason haven’t returned. Yet I do keep hearing good things about it, so we must give it a try.

  10. Gaynor Black says:

    There is a documentary movie that might interest you — “Three Stars” about Michelin-starred chefs from three continents. We watched it on Netflix recently and immediately thought of you!

  11. loren24250 says:

    Thanks, Gaynor. I’ll check it out. Cheers!

  12. Fiona Coombs says:

    We’re going to be on holiday near Daglan next week and my daughter is unable to have gluten. Can you recommend nay places reasonably nearby that cater gluten free as I read that your wife was also unable to have gluten. Thank you!

    • loren24250 says:

      I’m not aware of any restaurants that specialize in gluten-free meals, but we’ve found that restaurants here are well aware of the problem, and willing to work around it. At the top end, Le Grand Bleu in Sarlat and Le Vieux Logis in Trémolat, for example. But also Le Petit Paris and Le Thé Vert in Daglan, as well as Diabolo-Fraise in Nabirat. The “bio” (organic) store in St. Cybranet (just six or so kms north of Daglan) has a wide range of gluten-free products as well. Hope that helps!

      • Fiona Coombs says:

        That’s great, thank you! I stumbled across your blog doing a search and hoped you might have some first hand local knowledge. We were hoping not to be confined to eating at home as it were the whole holiday!

  13. loren24250 says:

    One more suggestion for Fiona Coombs: It’s best to make reservations beforehand, and to mention your daughter’s gluten allergy. I’ve found that smooths the way, and gives the chef(s) time to prepare, if needed.

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