Restaurant Review: Le Maison Pic, Valence, France Thursday, Jul 31 2014 

You’d expect to find restaurants with three Michelin stars – and, indeed, you do – in major world capitals. London, Paris, New York, Tokyo…

But you also find them in more out-of-the-way places. How about Bray in the UK or Alba in Italy? Yountville, USA (with its grand total of around 3000 inhabitants)? Or why don’t you try Valence, France for size? As a Franco-British couple living near Paris, we have in the past found that you can pay a lot in France for dated or substandard food, served in places where the main aim is to see and be seen while paying €25 a crêpe. However, if you push the boat out enough, there is such thing as friendly and accommodating service (yes, I just used the word ‘friendly’ in relation to the French) and excellent food in divine settings. Le Maison Pic, whose bistro Le 7 we had already tested, certainly lived up to the standards set by its Michelin stars.

foie gras bruleeThis was not just down to the staff’s considerate and discreet attitude (for example, asking if it would be more convenient for them to speak to us in English after hearing us speak it at the table), or the luxurious décor (such as crystal water glasses and chandeliers), but also the innovative vision and high-quality ingredients that have clearly gone into the food itself. The amuse-bouches were prime examples of this, exemplifying delicate yet intense flavours, as well as textures that both complement and contrast each other. The foie gras crème brûlée was served with an apple mousse that cut cleanly through its creamy richness, and the peanut marshmallow, foie gras pearl and snail that were served on a single plate were surreal versions (in a positive way) of their traditional counterparts.

carrotsCrucially, even simple things were done well and with an emphasis on local produce. The bread (four different varieties: olive oil, black olive, buckwheat, and cereal) lives up to the excellent levels expected of the French, while utilising the olives for which the region is famous; meanwhile, local water from Vals-les-Bains is available for consumption throughout the meal. With these basic components in hand, we went on to the meal itself, which after the amuse-bouches, kicked off with carrots served three ways: in the form of a purée and a jelly, as well as raw, and complemented by a yoghurt flavoured with orange flower water and Voatsiperifery pepper. The latter’s potential to be overpowering was instead well-tempered, and even those who aren’t the biggest fans of raw carrot will appreciate the artistry involved in both presentation and in the combinations of flavour and texture.

berlingotsPerhaps Anne-Sophie Pic’s greatest achievement on this menu (the Menu Harmonie – one of three menus offered. More of which later…) was the goat cheese ravioli, served with a cress, bergamot and ginger soup. One cannot only chalk this achievement up to the fact that the dish is beautifully fragrant and spiced, but also the noteworthy presentation, which makes the ravioli look like leaves thanks to the dark green pasta and the pool-like illusion created by the soup and accompanying leafy herbs.

Perhaps after this triumph the next courses would seem to fall a little flat. The langoustines (served with green tomato and verbena soup) seemed just a little conventional and forgettable by comparison, and while the presentation of the ratatouille on the fish plate makes one feel like you have stepped straight onto the set of the eponymous film, the entire dish – from the fish to the vegetables – tasted overwhelmingly of dill, which is likely few people’s favourite herb to begin with. This lack of variation in seasoning (which naturally obliterated the camomile that was also allegedly included) was a little disappointing compared to the balance achieved by previous courses, but luckily the meaty punch of the Bresse chicken that followed, and its accompanying stuffing and sauce (made with brown rice tea, Tonka bean and parmesan as well as the chicken juices), was enough to wipe it out.ratatouille

Further to this, the Brie de Meaux foam (which in fact had a more mousse-like texture) was sublime, thanks to the elevation provided by the added Bourbon vanilla. This was effectively our pre-cheese course, with the cheese trolley itself being covered by an unusual (and large) wicker basket which drew the attention of the whole room (effectively stunning them into silence, literally, as the waiter explained the trolley’s contents). It’s possible that few people take the cheese course at Pic as the most basic menu doesn’t include it, charging you an extra €25 to add it separately. As we’d gone for the second menu, it was included, and if its sheer size and unusual presentation wasn’t a good enough advertisement to everyone in the room, it’s difficult to know what would be. Sadly, no wines are available by the glass in case you fancy matching a different tipple with your cheese – or indeed your dessert.

pre dessertIn this regard, there were also pre-desserts: one was an aduki bean concoction with a cherry centre, served with caramelised sugar discs and Clairette de Die (another local drink) ice cream. This again benefited from its contrasting textures, which ranged from a fine, slightly biscuity sponge base to a runny cherry middle. The other pre-dessert was a small series of petits fours, ranging from more traditional flavours (coffee and raspberry) to more experimental ones (green tea, pistachio and bitter lemon; white chocolate, poppy seed, orange, and Lapsang Souchong). All were stunning and delicious. This, in a way, leads to even higher expectations for your real dessert: our menu gave a choice of four, from which we ended up with a chocolate and beeswax tart, and a white millefeuille (built with vanilla cream and halva). Sadly, the latter was rather large, and by this point in the meal, one begins to struggle after so much food, particularly given the desserts’ creamy richness. The jasmine and Voatsiperifery pepper just disappeared under the weight of the millefeuille’s sugariness, although the chocolate option seemed better (thanks to its inclusion of pine and forest honey to counteract the chocolate’s bitterness and beeswax’s creaminess).

All of this was consumed with a white Château de Fonsalette, which proved a rounded wine with a spicy woody background. This matched virtually all of our courses well, without being too rich; the Clairette grape used in this Châteauneuf blend adds freshness against the power of the Grenache Gris and Marsanne varieties. The €150 paid for this exclusive wine can make it worth it thanks to the good vintage (2007) and the wine’s overall rarity.

IMG_0284After this came high-quality coffee and Pic-branded chocolates, which we were able to enjoy in the luxury of the restaurant’s separate lounge, where appropriately calm mood music is played to signify the end of your night. All of this eating and drinking took four and a half hours, and while going to Pic for dinner is a romantic and luxurious experience, you can’t expect to sleep well afterwards while your body tries to digest that amount of food. The people who go for the next menu up – L’Essentiel – need to find room for two additional courses: lobster later on, and a tomato dish in the early stages of the night. This blockbuster menu costs €320 per person, not including drinks. The lighter Découverte menu excludes our fish course, and only includes the Brie de Meaux course cheese-wise (as mentioned, the trolley is extra), for the price tag of €160. Our menu, therefore, unsurprisingly cost something in the middle: €240 per person. With drinks, we ended up paying a little over €600 in total, which is roughly in line with other Michelin-starred restaurants, and may even be considered a little on the ‘cheap’ side, seeing as the cost of the beverages is up to you (nobody ‘has’ to spend €150 on a bottle of wine). However, this is what overtime is for, and is without doubt an experience to savour.

285, avenue Victor Hugo 26000 Valence

telephone: 04 75 44 53 86

http://www.pic-valence.com

Restaurant Review: Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons, Oxfordshire Friday, Aug 9 2013 

ruralness...

ruralness…

After working my butt off for Edexcel doing some extra marking this term, I decided the time had come to spend a proportion of it on something really cool. And that something was a meal for two at Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons – Raymond Blanc’s Michelin-starred establishment in rural Oxfordshire. When I say rural, I really do mean it: you either have to drive there yourself (and eschew the drink – which may not be a bad thing, as I’ll go on to explain), fork out the necessary £60 for the taxi round trip between Oxford railway station and the restaurant (adds expense to an already expensive day), or get the bus from Oxford town centre to the Manoir (which only runs once an hour, and not even from Oxford station, so is most inconvenient time-wise). The most expensive option would be to stay at the Manoir itself (having driven yourself there) to give yourself a chance to sleep off the various excesses that you’re about to indulge in. Luckily, an alternative was available to us: the mothership always enjoys shopping at Bicester, which is about a forty-minute drive from where she lives, and as we were staying with her, she offered to drive us there and entertain herself at the shopping village until we were done. GOOD TIMES.

(Sorry for the preamble, but getting yourself there really is a faff and is something you need to consider.)

Getting the actual reservation itself was not difficult (perhaps because of the difficulty of getting to the location, fewer people want to go there). We rang up a mere 2-3 weeks before wanting to go there and were able to get a table easily, even though we were going at the end of July, at what I thought would be high season (surely more people want to enjoy the Manoir’s beautiful gardens in July than they do in February?). Anyway, this is reassuring for potential diners.

a light dig at our froggy friends

a light dig at our froggy friends

Staff behaviour was virtually impeccable throughout proceedings – from the friendly yet professional way with which they took our reservation and directed us around the grounds and restaurant, to the flawlessly formal service with which they served us on the day. The only slight letdown was that my (French) husband overheard some of the waiting staff insulting a couple of the diners once away from them (in French). WHOOPS. Never assume when working in service that the general public will not be able to hear your comments, even if you make them in another language.

The staff also put up with my enquiries as to whether Monsieur Blanc was in the house that day – a question they must get all the time. (I asked twice – once at the beginning of the meal and once at the end, to two different members of staff – just to be sure.) Sadly, he wasn’t – but this will be just one reason to go back another time, I’m sure, to try my luck again.

However, I don’t only suggest a return visit in order to try to meet Raymond Blanc (or even his long-suffering associate, ADAM!). The food was quite simply beyond reproach – which you’d expect after paying £79 per person for 5 courses (plus cheese, for an extra £24 per person – so make that £103 per person). The menu changes monthly thanks to its seasonality, and as a result the fresh flavours of the ingredients used simply burst onto your tongue. This extended equally to the canapés (taken outside prior to the meal) and to the petits fours (taken with coffee at the end). There is of course the opportunity to sample the drinks menu before eating, but we chose to just have tap water. And to be honest? The staff seemed fine with that. There’s no feeling of being looked down upon because you’ve effectively ordered something that’s free. And frankly, when you’re paying that much, you ought to be able to squeeze out every free thing you can get :p

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe first course took the form of a stunning gazpacho, made using Blanc’s method of hanging cherry tomatoes in a muslin sheet to extract the juice. We’ve seen him do this on TV, and not only is it time-consuming (it takes around 3-4 hours for every 2kg of tomatoes used), but it’s also expensive (only cherry tomatoes are used). However, I’m happy to report that you get what you pay for. IT WAS DIVINE – beautifully clear and providing an intense hit of flavour.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe next course promised two things that I don’t normally enjoy: salt cod (which to me tastes of nothing) and octopus (whose texture I often find rubbery and displeasing). However, experience of other Michelin-starred establishments tells me that you sometimes just have to put yourself in the hands of the chef, even if you don’t usually ‘like’ a particular food. Was I ever glad I did when I saw and tasted this…

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA…which, needless to say, provided a delightful combination of flavours and textures thanks to the firm yet NOT rubbery octopus, the reliable neutral background of the salt cod, the sheer variety of fresh herbs and vegetables, and the innovative addition of the olive oil jelly. Quite simply a revelation.

This was followed by something arguably more prosaic: a poached egg on a bed of spinach. Nonetheless, it was simplicity done well, with arguably the most notable aspect being the preparation of the spinach itself. This green leafy vegetable can so easily be stringy or gritty, but thanks to it being so finely chopped and beautifully cooked, it was the best spinach I’ve ever eaten.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAll this was topped with crispy bacon bits, microherbs, and chopped nuts. SIMPLY YUM.

We consumed all of this with a bottle of Fleur de Savagnin, which is a white wine from the Jura region of France. While it was a high-quality wine with an intense, oaky, mineral-like flavour, it seems a bit cheeky to charge £75 in the restaurant for a wine that can be bought for £15 online (yes, we checked). A 50% markup is normal – so it would have been perfectly usual to have been charged, say, £30 for the wine. Sadly, the price tag of £75 reflects the high markup that Le Manoir imposes on all of its wines. However, recognising that it wouldn’t go brilliantly with the meat course, we chose a glass each of a red wine from Tuscany, which we enjoyed slightly less than the white (which was just as well, I suppose). As for the meat course itself:

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThis lamb, on a bed of vegetables, was the ultimate in freshness, seasonality and technique. The mixed vegetables were beautifully crisp, and the lamb was perfectly cooked (you can see it’s quite pink) according to the French style of cooking. Much is made in the restaurant of the general Frenchness of the outfit, which fits in well with the whole Raymond/Maman Blanc story that the place is constructed around. By this I don’t mean that the waiting staff wear berets and your food is brought out to the tune of La Marseillaise, but more that the menu is written bilingually, your food is introduced with a polite “Madame, Monsieur…” and the waiting staff even at times speak to each other in French (even when it is clear that they are not French), which all means that formality has a slight edge over friendliness. A few baby roast potatoes, or even a miniature Yorkshire pudding, would have completed the Anglo-French fusion of this dish.

We also added cheese to our menu, and while £24 seems like a lot to pay for a plate of cheese (and I didn’t even photograph it, because cheese just looks like cheese, right?), what you pay for is the knowledge of the maître fromager, and the sheer selection of cheese on offer. Naturally there was more of a leaning towards French cheeses, but there were English ones on offer too, and the range was sufficiently vast as to cater for every taste under the sun: whether you like your cheeses strong, oozy, mild, hard, peppery, fruity or whatever else, it was all there. And of course, everything we chose was delicious.

After this came dessert. And WHAT a dessert: chocolate for luxury, and raspberry to cleanse:

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

While I don’t like the combination of chocolate and raspberry itself much (in the left-hand picture), it proved an excellent complement the opulence of the dark chocolate (Blanc, like Blumenthal and several other top chefs, uses Valrhona). The crisp chocolate disc contrasted the soft mousse and crunchy base brilliantly, while the raspberry sorbet was impossibly smooth, with not a hint of graininess, served atop fresh raspberries.

I chose hot chocolate to end my meal, but delicious though it is, I wouldn’t recommend this: you’ve already eaten a large meal and the hot choc is a bit too rich as a follow-up (not helped by the fact that you literally get enough for 2-4 people when you order just one). Definitely go for coffee afterwards – it’s of good quality (although still not the best we’ve tasted) and you’ll enjoy the petits fours it comes with so much more:

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA(Him indoors says the lavender nougat that you can just about see at the back of the tray was DIVINE. He snaffled it while I was using the toilet facilities, which are all very nicely furnished. Use the disabled toilet downstairs if all the vino is getting the better of you.)

All of this set us back a little over £300, and despite the expense, we would revisit, although we would probably just have two separate glasses of wine each, rather than a whole bottle between us plus an extra glass each. It is, after all, Le Manoir aux QUAT’Saisons…which means that while visiting in the summer is worthwhile just for scenes like this:

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA…we still have three seasons to go. Nous attendons avec impatience une autre visite alors 🙂

Restaurant Review: The Royal Oak Paley Street, Maidenhead Saturday, Nov 10 2012 

Before I moved to France, I lived in Bray, a tiny village described on French television as being “in the heart of the English countryside”. This description is not really believeable, as it’s right next to an unassuming town called Maidenhead. This town looks like just about any other slightly grubby town in Britain, with its high street featuring such retail monoliths as McDonalds, Ernest Jones, and Wilkinsons (as well as a truckload of empty shopfronts).

However, there is one thing that makes this area different to others in the UK, and that’s its unusually high density of Michelin-starred restaurants. In Bray you have the Waterside Inn (owned by the Roux brothers) and The Fat Duck – and Heston Blumenthal’s other restaurant, a gastropub named The Hind’s Head, has also been awarded its first Michelin star recently. This intense concentration of high-quality restaurants, beautiful riverside location and proximity to London also ensures the presence of a number of celebrity residents, including Uri Geller and Rolf Harris – and another of those notable denizens has opened his own restaurant in a bid to match the culinary opportunities already available.

Television presenter Michael Parkinson opened The Royal Oak in 2001 with his son Nick, and it has gradually crept up the rankings to obtain a Michelin star itself. Naturally, we were keen to visit, and were lucky enough to spot the man himself during our lunch (he dines there most days, so this was likely not an improbable occurrence, but still).

So did the experience match our expectations? Traditional decor and impeccable service was combined with a whole host of tempting choices, with us both plumping for the 2 courses for £25 option (even though we probably could have stuffed more in thanks to the glittering list of temptations on offer). Having fallen in love with the humble Scotch egg, it was painful for my husband to pass up Parky’s version, and I would have loved a starter (in retrospect, I should have gone for this). However, costs here could rack up extremely quickly: 3 courses cost £30, so with wine, water and coffee, you could easily end up paying £100 for 2 people even at lunchtime.

As a starter, my better half opted for the Fried River Exe Sand Eels, which were tiny and came deep fried in batter. These were stood up vertically in a tiny dish and came with mayonnaise in a diminutive dipping bowl. Although fried, these weren’t greasy at all, proving light and delicate and making an unusual starter.

For the main course, we both chose the Devonshire duck breast, which came with caramelised endive and an impossibly creamy celeriac purée. Served with hazelnuts and the meat’s roasting juices, this was definitely a traditional roast with a twist. A range of side orders were also available, but we decided against these, and didn’t feel any the worse off: the duck was cooked to perfection, with the whole ensemble being packed with flavour and presented divinely.

We matched this with two glasses of red wine, which proved decent value for money at £7.40 for a mature Bordeaux (Château Arnauld, 2005) and a young whippersnapper from Argentina (Malbec, 2011). These delivered on flavour and had had a chance to develop before arriving at the table so that we wouldn’t miss out on their possible nuances.

The most disappointing aspect was arguably the dessert: I chose the Cambridge Burnt Cream, and it sounds naïve now, but I had been expecting something more than what was essentially just an ordinary crème brûlée. While tasty, it lacked the innovation of the previous courses, and in fact, this was true of the whole dessert menu, with perhaps the only exception being the greengage tart. From this point of view (and the fact that we did go for coffee and petits fours afterwards, which were superb), I think a starter would have been preferable – if I were to return, the wild rabbit lasagne, Cornish lobster linguine or wood pigeon salad would all be highly desirable dishes.

We would definitely return, in spite of the expense, for the mix of innovation, cosiness, tradition, quality, good service, and general Englishness – although we would advise going for the starter/main combination to profit the most from the experience, steering clear of the slightly duller desserts. However, I’d say that Heston and Michel definitely need to watch their backs.

http://www.theroyaloakpaleystreet.com/

The Royal Oak, Paley Street, Maidenhead, Berkshire SL6 3JN

01628 620541

Restaurant Review: La Cachette Sunday, Jun 26 2011 

It’s tricky, frankly, to imagine any restaurant, let alone a Michelin-starred one, as being located next to a busy dual carriageway and with only a modest public car park for extra company. But that is where La Cachette is, bordering one of the few free car parks in France on one side and the busy road leading to such gastronomic epicentres as Tain l’Hermitage and Montélimar on the other.

Thankfully, they have very good windows, with the restaurant inside being a haven of serenity and general noiselessness (apart from, of course, the usual ‘good restaurant’ sounds of civilised conversation, clinking glasses, and the footsteps of discreet serving staff). The effective air-conditioning system would also normally be appreciated on a Friday in June, were it not for the fact that the day we went was in the midst of one of the coldest, wettest, crappiest Junes on record (although saying that, it did brighten up after lunch).

From the moment you sit down, even though the surroundings are quite conventional, you are made aware that the Japanese chef, Masashi Ijichi, will be doing things a little differently, thanks to the round, sun-like sweet biscuit served as an aperitif on a stick coming out of a small glass, complete with cocktail umbrellas. This was also served with more traditional crudités and amuse-bouches (caramelised cherry tomatoes, radishes, raw red cabbage leaves and carrots with anchovy cream, and Parma ham on toast), but the cracker/biscuit hybrid was easily the most intriguing for its sweet start and slightly salty finish on the tongue, leaving the diner not quite sure what this was supposed to be.

The set lunch menu then kicked off for real, beginning with a crab risotto, served with split peas and crab foam. This packed a powerful punch of flavour, bringing the saltiness and meatiness of the crab alive on the plate, contrasting with the quiet background of the al dente risotto and split peas.

This was neatly followed by a progression into veal steak, served with roasted Mediterranean vegetables (aubergines and round yellow courgettes), potato cakes, and a red wine reduction. This representation of France on a plate was a pleasure to eat thanks to the contrasting textures and flavours, and the quantities were right too, perhaps proving the age-old myth and stereotype that the French are prepared to eat little and well (although the glut of processed food seen at your average French supermarket checkout sadly quickly disproves it again). Well-seasoned and flavourful, diners are left excited by what is to come.

Thankfully, disappointment does not come to dine with you and share your dessert: the sweet course, for us, consisted of roasted apricots with pistachio cream, strawberries, coconut cream, small honey biscuits, and a quenelle of vanilla ice cream. If the main course was France on a plate, this had to be heaven.

All of this was accompanied by a white Crozes-Hermitage (keeping things local) from the extensive and slightly expensive wine list, and finished with coffee. The expensive wine list, however, was balanced by the overall price of the meal: €28 a person for all food (cheese was also available, but at a supplement), €8 per glass of wine, and €3 per cup of coffee. All very reasonable for a restaurant with one Michelin star.

Afterwards, you feel full (but not stuffed), relaxed, happy, rested, and as if new taste buds that you weren’t sure you had before have just woken up. An experience to be repeated over and over.

16 rue de Cévennes
26000 Valence, France

04 75 55 24 13