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Yes, I Do Sometimes Eat While in the Rhône

Photo by: David Yellen

Posted: Nov 11, 2007 9:26am ET

Contrary to popular belief, the life of the wine journalist on the road is not that glamorous. I’m not much of a breakfast person, so I typically skip a formal meal and instead struggle to get a handful or two of granola down while I drive to my first appointment. I’m usually tasting wine by 9 a.m., followed by a second appointment before lunch. I try to keep lunch as light and simple as possible – though the French are stubbornly holding the line against offering a ‘business lunch’ anywhere. With another two or three appointments after lunch, I probably tasting an average of over 100 wines a day (multiply that by 10 straight days, as I work weekends, and you get the idea). At the end of each day I get an hour or two in my hotel room to crank out a 1,500-word blog before dinner. Then if I’m lucky, I get some moderately jetlag-influenced sleep before starting all over again. I know—you’re all making that small violin gesture right now ...

I do try to keep dinners sane, but there are invariably a few big meals along with some older bottles of wine, and I’d be remiss if I didn’t relate a few of the gustatory highlights from my trip.

At Maison Pic in Valence, the bistro is top notch. It offers traditional favorites, such as a civet de sanglier or cuisse de lapin, presented in a well-defined, modern manner. The wine list is short but solid with wines from Chapoutier, Graillot, B. Gripa and more (you can order from the main list as well with a little advance notice). Hands down, the gastronomic restaurant at Pic is the best in the region. But if you can’t make the commitment to a meal there (and trust me, it requires a commitment, one which I am making tonight!) then the bistro is a great alternative.

In Tain, the recently opened Le Mangevins is the kind of place the valley needs more of – you can read about it in my previous entry here. Working off a tip and good word of mouth, I tried to check out Auberge La Source, up on the hill above Tupin-Semons, but it was closed for lunch on Wednesday, the only day I had available.

In Tain, Le Mangevins is a small bistro aimed at wine lovers—just what the Rhône Valley needs more of.

In Ampuis, the local favorite has always been the Bistro de Serine for its simple fare. It’s undergone a change – it’s now owned by Yves Cuilleron, François Villard, Pierre Gaillard, Pierre-Jean Villa and Jean-Michel Gerin (he’s the quiet, fifth Muskateer), and gone is the gruff, scruffy, chain smoking host of old. The new owners have turned the downstairs portion into a wine shop and for just eight euros over the retail price of the bottle, you can take it upstairs and have it with a meal. That makes the 30 euro bottle of Côte-Rôtie a value, as you can have it for just 38 euros, when it’s normally 60, 70 or more on a formal restaurant wine list. The food is simple and hearty.

One other casual spot if you’re looking for a quick bite is the Auberge St.-Michel, located on the winding road leading up into the town of St.-Michel-sur-Rhône. This is a simple bistro, with moderately priced dishes - a tasty salade Lyonaisse (poached egg and lardons over greens) will only run you eight euros. The wine list is simple, with a few local producers such as Domaine du Colombier. Service is friendly and the atmosphere familial.

At Beau Rivage in Condrieu, service is formal and professional. The kitchen continues to turn out classic French fare, with heavily sauced dishes that can hit the spot at the end of a brisk November day. A salad of cuisse de grenouilles is brightened by fresh fennel, and it makes an ideal match with Condrieu. Both marcassin (wild boar) and daim (venison) get an earthy, mushroom treatment, with generous amounts of the chestnuts, black trumpets and ceps that are in season at this time of year. The wine list is heavy on Côte-Rôtie and Condrieu, along with well chosen wines from Burgundy, Alsace and more.

Across the river in Vienne, La Pyramide offers a high-end dining experience in a beautiful gilded dining room. The foie gras here is superb, and the entire menu, from delicately grilled scallops to a tender saddle of lamb is refined. The wine list is one of the best around, deep in Côte-Rôtie (Guigal, Ogier) and Hermitage (Chave, Chapoutier), as well as St.-Joseph and more. Menu prices are expensive, but the wine list affords some great buys for savvy consumers, like the 2005 Gilles Robin St.-Joseph Cuvée André Péleat for just 50 euros. A new team of sommeliers is in place – they’re friendly and knowledgeable, and the front of the house is always extremely gracious.

As mentioned in a previous entry, Domaine de Clairefontaine is tucked up in the hills and can be difficult to find, but it’s worth the effort. The dining here is on the quiet, formal side, with several small dining rooms wrapping around the first floor of the hotel. Classics get an inventive twist, such as a brochette of quail filets with foie gras. The wine list is a step ahead of La Pyramide’s, with an extensive collection of Guigal’s La La wines, along with ample depth in J.L. Chave Hermitage. Burgundies from Domaine de la Romanée-Conti and more round out the high-brow list.

At Restaurant Schaeffer in Serrières chef and owner Bernard Mathé reminds me a little bit of Guy Julien at La Beaugravière – he’s down to earth and is a good friend of the vignerons. Last night with Stéphane Ogier, Mathé sat down with us for a few minutes to enjoy a glass of the 1985 Michel Ogier Côte-Rôtie that Stéphane had brought along for dinner (it was a beauty, with rich notes of truffle, coffee, olive and currants). The cave at Schaeffer is really well stocked with a broad range of producers in Côte-Rôtie, Hermitage, Condrieu, Cornas and more. Mathé’s mix of classic dishes with modern techniques is really food friendly – the lièvre royale (roasted wild hare stuffed with foie gras) was dynamite with a bottle of 1995 A. Clape Cornas. The list has depth and breadth, and is very fairly priced.

Though top restaurants aren’t numerous in the Rhône, the best are excellent. If you’re willing to make the sacrifice of a few pounds gained by the end of a trip, and if you like the classics, then eating in the region is for you. (Note: I didn’t get to Michel Chabran this trip, but I have eaten there several times in the past, and it is also excellent. He has recently opened a more casual bistro nearby his namesake restaurant.)

As I head home, I’ll file the last few entries of my blog in the next couple of days, including reports on Jean-Luc Colombo, Laurent Combier and Paul Jaboulet Aîné.

Bruce Evans
November 12, 2007 7:47pm ET
PIC is one of the best restaurant experiences in the world. It took way too long for a woman to get a third michelin star. Who hasn't had their best meal cooked by a woman? And the wine list is full of rhone valley gems.
Karl Mark
Geneva, IL. —  November 13, 2007 8:05am ET
I'm willing to bet that there are a lot more people than you think that can appreciate your work schedule. Still, you do get to taste the La La's so that's one small difference. In your abundance of spare time is there any chance you could explain demi-muid? Cheers.
James Molesworth
November 13, 2007 9:21am ET
Karl: A demi-muid is a wooden storage (or fermentation) vessel, barrel shaped, that is more than twice the size of a typical barrel - usually 600 liters (barrels are typically 225 or 228). Because of their larger size, the oak to juice ratio is less, and thus the influence of oak on the wine stored within it is lower.

Because of this, demi-muids are becoming increasingly popular with vignerons who like the stability and structure oak aging provides a wine, but don't necessarily want an overabundance of oak flavors.
Scott Siegner
sacramento, ca —  January 30, 2008 6:31pm ET
This is a off-the-subject question for Mr. Molesworth regarding his review of 2005 Domaine de la Mordoree Chateauneuf du Pape la Plume du Peintre:Your review says to drink "now through 2009". Is this the correct drinkable time for this CDP?Thank you for your help.Scott

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