Though work comes first (breakfast is usually skipped and lunches are light), I do get time to take in a few meals during my semiannual tours in the Rhône Valley. For those of you looking for a decent meal in the region (sometimes tougher than you might think), here are my casual thoughts on a few newcomers, as well as some more established faces. The restaurants are listed roughly north to south in terms of location.
Bistro à Vin de Serrine
16 Boulevard des Allées
This small restaurant located on the main drag right in the middle of Ampuis may now have the best wine list in the northern half of the valley, outside of the Michelin-star restaurants La Pyramid, Maison Pic and Domaine de Clairfontaine. That's because it was bought a year ago by the Four Musketeers, François Villard, Yves Cuilleron, Pierre Gaillard and Pierre-Jean Villa, along with Jean-Michel Gerin of Côte-Rôtie. The vignerons have turned the downstairs portion into a wine shop while the upstairs remains a restaurant with access to the store's full inventory. The vignerons' own wines are well-represented of course, but there's plenty from other producers, particularly those in Côte-Rôtie and St.-Joseph, as well as good representation from the Loire, Alsace, Champagne, the Languedoc and Provence. There's breadth and depth, with vintages ranging back several years. Prices for wine in the restaurant are just a few euros above the retail price downstairs.
In addition to the wine, the food has improved greatly here as well under the new ownership. The lunch menu runs just 19 euros, which on my my recent visit included a rabbit terrine with lentil salad followed by a côte de bœuf and a selection of goat cheeses made in neighboring Condrieu. If you need a few bottles for a make-your-own picnic, or want to refuel before a set of afternoon winery visits, this is the place. And they're now open on Mondays, a traditionally sleepy day in France.
2176 Mas de Gerbey
Chonas l’Amballan 38121
Open just a year, this restaurant is located off the D4 right on the eastern bank of the Rhône, just across from Condrieu. Chef and owner Antoine Amalou worked eight years in the Ritz-Carlton, London (along with chef Tony Esnault of Adour Ducasse) before returning back to France to open his own place. Located in an old auberge, the interior dining room is oversized but warm and inviting, with high ceilings and exposed beams. Outside, the back patio is casual and airy, surrounded by lush trees.
The cuisine is modern French, with brightly detailed flavors and thoughtful presentation. A "maki roll" features thick slices of raw, smoked tuna over nori-wrapped rice. The firm dos d’espadon is laid gently over a bed of coriander lentils and fresh vegetables. A roasted pigeon is delightfully gamy and classicaly matched with a sliced summer truffle. Showing his modern bent, Amalou also lists the purveyors of his cheeses, vegetables and fish on the menu.
Menus are prix-fixe and range from 17 to 42 euros. The wine list is moderate in size and features wines from the area’s top producers, including Yves Cuilleron, François Villard and more. There are also some gems from outside the Rhône, including the 2001 Jean & Jean-Louis Trapet Latricières-Chambertin.
Auberge de la Source
Tupin et Semons, 69420
|Locals flock to Auberge de la Source for the great view and solid French comfort food.
Tucked up above the town of Tupin-Semons, this restaurant draws in a very local crowd for lunch and dinner. Perched on the top of the slope, the resulting view from the dining room of the vineyards, valley floor and the Rhône itself is terrific.
Ordering a la carte, it costs only 20 euros for a fresh salade Lyonnaise that was liberally dressed with a snappy vinaigrette, along with a juicy pièce de bœuf
served with a piping hot side dish of au gratin potatoes. What’s not to like?
There are prix-fixe menus available as well. Portions are big but not overwhelming and the food is comfort style, but not overly heavy. Prices are moderate. The wine list is on the short side with local emphasis.
Restaurant Régis et Jacques Marcon
(Closed annually from January through March.)
A three-star Michelin, Marcon’s new restaurant and hotel is now housed in a new building at the top of the village, overlooking the expansive, heavily wooded valley that stretches below. The older restaurant a few hundred yards down on the front side of town has been turned into a bistro. The rooms in the older facility have an underground feel from being set into the mountainside. They are a cross of Adirondack lodge (stunning views out over the gorge), 1970s Alain Delon chic (remote-controlled shutters and Technicolor room-separating drapes) and Japanese bento box (dark gray and wood colors set around a central square layout). You will need to book a room here if you plan on having dinner; though just an hour from Condrieu, the road up the mountain is long and winding.
Marcon is famous for specializing in mushrooms, particularly ceps when they are in season. Menus are offered both prix-fixe and a la carte. The seasonal chef’s tasting menu is six courses that show flashes of brilliance—the omble chevalier
with mousseron is superb; a baby lamb chop dusted with a ceps powder is sublime—alternating with dishes that show less focus, such as a salad of haricots verts with langoustines and assorted mushrooms that came off as fairly standard.
The wine list is long and equals our Best of Award of Excellence
in quality, with a few hundred selections from all major French regions. It’s not Grand Award level (which you would expect at a three star) though there is plenty to choose from, including good breadth of half-bottles. Service is formal and professional.
On this night (my first experience at Marcon) I found it to be a very good, but not magical experience. More of a two-star than a three-star experience such as what I have always had at Maison Pic in Valence, for example. I think the restaurant may be boxed in a bit by their mushroom-centric mantra, which is difficult to pull off in spring when there is less variety to choose from. The setting is gorgeous however, and I'd like to give it another try in Fall when ceps and more are fully in season.
Place Saint Andéol
Located in Gigondas, this restaurant’s reputation continues to grow, thanks to its precise, modern cooking based on typical Provençal ingredients. Locals are buzzing over the rumor that it’s in line to earn a Michelin star soon.
Cold veloutés of asparagus or tomato set the stage for savory meat and chicken dishes that beg for wine. Desserts are ambitious, highlighted by an olive clafoutis that I can still taste, but still haven’t decided if I liked or not. The dining room is small and hushed in atmosphere, and you’re likely to see a local vigneron or two at lunchtime. The wine list is not big, but solid, with local emphasis.
Rue du 19 Mars 1962
Restaurant Alonso is located off the main square in Sorgues, less than 10 minutes from Châteauneuf-du-Pape. Owned and run by the husband-and-wife team of Gérard (kitchen) and Josette (front of house), the restaurant features a comfortable, well-shaded front patio perfect for a lengthy mid-day meal.
Cuisine is classic Provençal combined with a Spanish hint and given a modern flair in its clarity. A tomato confit tart is topped with shaved summer truffles; sliced lamb loin is served over a soft polenta with sweet chanterelle mushrooms. The cheese cart here is top flight. Open for just a few months, this is a welcome newcomer to the region.
Auberge de Cassagne
450, allée de Cassagne
In June, dining in the open-air garden at Auberge de Cassagne means you’ll be surrounded by as many Americans as well as British, French and other European vacationers. The staff is fully bilingual and friendly. Cuisine is classic French, along with a wine list deep in Rhône with the emphasis on the south (plenty of Beaucastel and Rayas for example).
A fillet of rouget is served with a stuffed zucchini flower, and a ragout of Provençal vegetables. A stuffed loin of rabbit accented with citrus flavors provides a nice foil for a bottle of Domaine Raspail-Ay Gigondas 2004. It's hard to go wrong here.
Since our coverage of Cassagne in our Châteaneuf travel story
, the hotel has added rooms, renovated the spa and expanded parking, all of which are welcome improvements on what was already an excellent place to stay. Now, if only my expense account covered massages.