Recently, on the way back home, we stopped at a very unassuming Mercure, on the outskirts of Chalon-sur-Saône in the French region of Burgundy.As is the case with the Mercure chain (more of which below), we did not really know what to expect. We were certainly pleased by the modern, if a little bit obvious, decoration of the restaurant. Unusually, this one even had a name “Millezim”, as if to emphasize its individuality. We were greeted with a smile and led to a small table next to the illuminated cellar. For, as the name of the restaurant might suggest, wine was a central focus there. I perused the extensive wine list and could not help noticing a 2007 bottle of Delas’s mighty Hermitage priced at 37 euros (I did not check if this was a typo, but finding this wine at this price in a shop would already be a bargain of sorts). We eventually settled for a glass of 2007 St Joseph from les Vins de Vienne which did not disappoint, with fruit, body and freshness. The food was equally good: capon and chestnuts for both followed by a chocolate cake and a nice millefeuille. With tea, the total bill came to a reasonable 49 euros.
This experience was preceded by an entirely different one, in a restaurant of the same chain, in the nearby Burgundy town of Beaune. Escaping the dreary motorway restaurants, we showed up for lunch hoping to enjoy the Mercure mix of reliability and individuality: I must have dined at about ten different Mercure restaurants and have rarely been disappointed with the food or the service.
That day in Beaune the dining room was almost empty (with the existing patrons all being dotty French pensioners, which we maybe should have taken as a bad sign) and I actually had to ask the receptionist to call a waiter, who was probably chatting in the kitchen. My course of beef bourguignon was dry and chewy, we cancelled dessert as a result of the poor quality of the main courses, and coffee was bad as well: what a let-down in a hotel that claims to be a 4-star one!
Looking for a place to lunch on a sunny day in the southern town of Nimes, we ended up in a local brasserie, the Café de la Bourse, which boasted a sun-drenched terrace. We were shown to a table by one of the numerous waiters and handed menus, which offered a selection of usual French brasserie staples.
When were allowed to order, my sister-in-law asked for her salad to be served with her meat. Because of the noise coming from the nearby road, where poorly maintained local vehicles circled round Nîmes at something close to the speed of sound, he probably could not hear the request at first, but we then made sure he did. To our amazement, the disinterested salad turned up a moment later, on its own. Would it not have been more simple, instead of acknowledging our request with a nod to say that it might actually not be possible? And that is even before I start mentioning the food, which was poor, and the prices, which were not.
Four Ferret Food and Wines fixes for French restaurants:
1. Employ enthusiastic, knowledgeable staff who care about what they do, even if this means paying them a decent wage.
2. Cook with fresh and, when possible, local produce. They don’t need to be that expensive.
3. Accept your limitations. Don’t offer fancy and expensive dishes if you have not got the muscle.
4. Assemble a wine list which looks it has been made by someone who actually likes wine, and does not expect to make a 200% profit on each bottle.
Millezim, AVENUE DE L’EUROPE – 71100 CHALON SUR SAONE – RESERVATION : 03 85 46 51 89
Mercure BEAUNE CENTRE, Avenue Charles de Gaulle
21200 – BEAUNE – RESERVATION 03 80 22 22 00
La Grande Bourse, 2 boulevard des Arènes,
30000 NIMES – RESERVATION 04 66 67 68 69