If you've read through my blog notes from my recent trip through the Northern Rhone, you may be wondering if I even have time to eat. I do, a little. To both survive and be able to get some work done, I do limit myself though, avoiding late hours and extra wine at meals and so on. (I do treat myself once or twice, I mean, it is the Rhône.)
I've listed a few of my favorite places before, including Les Mangevins, Bistrot à Vins de Serine, L'Atelier d'Antoine and others. You can read about these places from my dining out notes from November 2007 and July 2008. Following are some brief notes on places that are either new to the region or were new for me on this most recent trip.
Le Bateau d’Emile
65 quai Jules Roche
This simple bistro is located just off the main drag as you drive through Serrières. It’s a place where they must really dig their jazz as the walls are adorned with posters of Miles Davis, Duke Ellington, Sonny Stitt and more.
The day I was there for lunch, the 17-euro menu included a lentil salad with a tangy dressing followed by a large serving of chicken with wasabi peas, scallions and ginger over rice. It was good, hearty food which helped get the feeling back into my toes after my morning visits to some very cold cellars.
The front room with the bar is quite lively with locals having loud conversations across the room. The side dining room is a little more tranquil with couples or solo diners ensconced in their copy of L'Equipe.
The 50-selection wine list had a few choices scratched out but features local producers, heavy on St.-Joseph in the most recent vintage. I opted instead for the juicy Gilles Robin Crozes-Hermitage Albéric Bouvet 2007 for 29 euros. The only downer is the stemware; they use those silly little tasting glasses that you can barely get your nose into.
All-in-all though, this a good mid-week lunch spot for when you're on the go.
The new Restaurant Umia offers a lovely setting and ample wine list, adding diversity to the Northern Rhone's dining scene.
2 rue de la Petite Pierrelle
Route de Chantemerle les Blés
26600 Tain l’Hermitage
This restaurant is run by the husband-and-wife chef team of Rika and Frédéric Bau, who rent the recently-renovated manor house of Cave de Tain founder Gambert de Loche. Sitting at the foot of the hill of Hermitage, amidst the vines, it’s as lovely a setting for a meal as you’ll find in the region.
Inside, the restaurant features a bright, modern decor with Asian accents, highlighted by a glass-enclosed wine cellar between the dining room and kitchen.
Service was a little awkward, however, as dishes were placed without describing them, a hurdle if you order the trio of house appetizers. I had to feel my way through the cold potato, fish and roasted pepper salad that arrived in a small glass jar that reminded me of the slightly-odd presentation at Alain Ducasse’s former Mixx, but it had a nice, fresh, salty tang. The mixture of edamame, citrus, shrimp and scallop had a nice light mirin dressing but was a little tricky to eat as the fork is too big for the small dish and the third item, an herb-poached egg, could have used a spoon.
After the initial trickiness of working through the appetizer, the meal was soon saved by an excellent seven-hour lamb, richly sauced and very aromatic with a perfumy cardamom note. Served alongside steamed, yet still-crisp, vegetables and an airy polenta, it was a real mistral-beater.
The wine list is excellent, featuring not only the Cave de Tain’s selections, but a wide range of choices from the area’s best producers as well, such as Graillot and Vincent Paris. There’s also a nice selection of half bottles, and prices are very modest.
Restaurant Le Tournesol
44 avenue Maréchal Foch
Run by Cyril and Héa Jamet, this restaurant is well located on the main drag in the center of Tournon. The menu features salads and fish dishes with North African and Asian hints to start, while main courses are more traditional northern Rhône, such as a tenderloin of rabbit with roasted vegetable and mushrooms. The 80-plus selection wine list has modest prices and features recent vintages from most of the area’s top producers including Gonon, Coursodon, Graillot and more.
Note: This place is popular, so reservations are recommended.
Domaine de Clairefontaine
Chemin des Fontanettes
38121 Chonas l’Amballan
Normally when working in Ampuis and Condrieu I stay at Hôtellerie Beau Rivage, but I was unable to get a room this time around. So, I headed across the river to Clairefontaine, where I had eaten, but never stayed before. The extra 5- to 10-minute drive time to appointments was easily brushed off, thanks to friendly, attentive service and a delightful room. The property’s peacock served as a very efficient alarm clock every sunrise, cutting through the haze of my jetlag like a laser.
The restaurant, headed by chef/owner Philippe Girardon, turns out classic French cooking, modernized by fresh ingredients and clean, light preparations. My favorite dish was a velouté of carrot, ginger and coriander served with two ample poached eggs.
While there, I took the room and half-board option, which meant a separate dinner menu from the à la carte choices. The demi-pension menu had a choice of three appetizers and three entrées – and on my fourth night the maître d'hôtel, realizing I’d had everything on the menu by then, asked if I would like a special dish from the chef instead. Now, that’s service.
The wine list is excellent, with a superb listing of Guigal’s “La La” wines and solid vintage depth from numerous other northern Rhône producers. The cellar also has a few dozen vintages of chartreuse, for those who like to go that route. They also take their coffee seriously at Clairefontaine, an added bonus when either gearing up for a day of appointments or when in need of a nice digestif.
For those looking to tour the area, Domaine de Clairefontaine is highly recommended.
Restaurant Les Cèdres
Being a Michelin two-star restaurant, I was looking forward to eating here. Alas, it wound up being easily the most disappointing meal of my trip.
While I like the formal aspect of an aperitif in the lounge while perusing the menu and wine list, the service was a bit stiff to start, then way too casual afterwards. Choosing the tasting menu of four courses, I was not afforded any flexibility with the menu (say, two fish, one meat) but instead had to choose one dish from each of the three sections of the menu. After, at the table, each course was prefaced by a server asking, “Who has the orange mullet?” as if we were in a diner.
The wine list is extremely frustrating, as half the selections are listed as en vieillesment, or "aging in the cellar." Why list them if we can’t order them? And to add insult to injury, most of the older vintages are en vieillesment while most of the younger wines are for sale, which doesn’t make much sense.
The wines were properly presented and decanted, but after the initial pours, we were left to fend for ourselves, not easy when the decanter is over on the sideboard.
The final guffaw was the cheese course, normally the foolproof course for any French restaurant. There was nothing wrong with the selection or quality of the cheese, but the fromagier forgot to leave us with bread. After we flag down a waiter, the fromagier returns with three slices for me and none for the rest of the party. Don't worry, I can share.
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