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.
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:
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:
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:
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.