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June in France: Part 1
A Burgundian Warm Welcome v. a Passé Paris
Restaurant 's Coldness
First, I would like to say that there are
hundreds of Paris restaurants which offer a wonderfully warm welcome, and that
the title of this piece refers to just one establishment in a city overflowing
with superb eating places.
Occasionally I feel that a restaurant deserves an extra star or to lose a star in the Michelin Guide, a guide which I learned to trust when I was eleven years old and began annual trips to France with my family. Other resources have come and gone, but the red Michelin has remained a constant companion, both for pre-trip planning and in my suitcase.
On my latest trip in June 2002, the dining room at La Côte Saint Jacques in Joigny, was the one deserving another star. Father and son chefs Lorain and Lorain will surely soon re-gain the third star lost in 2001 while the hotel was under renovation. This Burgundian hotel-restaurant, hugging the banks of the Yonne River, is a fine combination of a family-run operation, with its warm welcome for guests arriving at the hotel and a top class hotel with a full staff to pay attention to every detail. We were greeted with smiles and a wine glass of mixed fruit juices served from an elegant cart next to the reception desk. Having begun the day driving through Paris traffic, we were delighted by this friendly, relaxed atmosphere.
Request a room overlooking the river. The restful view is well worth the extra cost and there is a range of prices even on the river side. The hotel was once entirely on the other side of the road, but gradually it has moved over. Most of the bedrooms are only a year old. The dining room, too, now has a view. Michel Lorain or his son, Jean-Michel Lorain, preside in the kitchens while their wives receive guests. At dinner time Jean-Michel's charming wife, Brigitte, invited us onto the sunny balcony where we enjoyed our apéritif, kir vin blanc, and little nibbles. While perusing the menu at leisure, we looked between geranuim-filled urns to the river below. It is light until late at this time of year.
A quail egg in a light pea foam, a tiny toast with foie gras and a morsel of mackeral tempted us to order the menu gourmand at 128 euros. Michelin-starred restaurants are never cheap, but choosing a prix fixe menu alway gives one more variety. Also it is almost always a better buy than ordering à la carte.
An amuse-bouche, a special treat not on the menu, was delivered to the table while we pondered the wine list. Two small slices of blood sausage (the only one I have ever liked) were garnished with a little dollop of creamy mashed potatoes and two small dice of sauteed apple. We chose Michel Lorain's own Bourgogne Clos des Capucins (42 euros) which went particularly well with the lamb. The menu gourmand consisted of small, exquisite portions of the following:
Gazpacho de Langoustines à la crème de Courgette, (tender langoustines and mini egg shapes of airy zucchini mousse arranged in a light, creamy gazpacho).
Fine crème mousseuse, Jambonnette de Grenouille et foie gras aux Girolles (a frothy soup, enriched with foie gras, coating tiny morsels of frogs' legs, chanterelles and other unusual mushrooms).
Foie gras de Canard poêlé, Pousses de Blettes et Oignons rouges, Jus de Pommes réduit du Pays d'Othe (warm Duck foie gras nestling on baby chard and red onions with a touch of reduced apple juice, whose acidity complemented the unctuous liver).
Carré d'Agneau du Quercy, Petits Farcis et Jus à la Sauge (3 young lamb chops roasted as a rack, with three different packages: tiny dice of lamb's kidney wrapped in woven zucchini slices, liver puree sandwiched between two sage leaves and fried, and a two-bite- sized house-made sausage. A delicate sage sauce added contrast in its color and smooth texture).
Fromages de France. Even after such a meal, I could not resist a small slice of perfectly ripe triple cream Brillat-Savarin and a mini local fresh goat's cheese from the well-stocked cheese tray.
Suite de Desserts et Friandises (an amazing succession of beautiful and delicious sweet dishes, all small enough so that one was not overpowered). These included a demi-tasse made of chocolate filled with mousse and topped with a cappuccino-like froth; rose ice cream in a sugar tulip with crystallized rose petals surrounded by red fruits in a fruit soup; two cape gooseberries each filled with a tiny ball of sorbet, each with a surprising flavor: tarragon and sage. House-made chocolates, caramels, and crystallized strips of melt-in-the-mouth pumpkin and fennel completed this magnificently well-balanced meal.
M. and Mme. Lorain graciously said good night as we went very happily to bed.
On the day we arrived we had enjoyed the indoor pool overlooking a lawn where we sat afterwards, reading in the sun and looking at the river. The next morning, the sky being overcast, we received our breakfast tray, adorned with a single perfect yellow rose, in our room rather than on the balcony.
Before leaving I looked at the following rooms, all with a view of the river and all very pleasant. There are more expensive suites, but the largest room, number 29 (305 euros) is very large and light, has two doors leading onto the private balcony and a large bathroom with separate tub and shower. The w.c. is in a separate room. The room safe in the closet enables one to stow passport, wallet, etc. , exchanging a roomy day handbag for something a little more elegant. Room 37 (215 euros) although much smaller, is very attractively decorated. The tub and shower are combined. Room 40 is bigger and lighter with an optional adjoining room (not included in the 256 euro rate), useful if travelling with children. Room 41 (256 euros) is also very attractive and larger than room 37. All the rates include tax and service. I would be perfectly happy in any of these rooms.
La Côte Saint- Jacques in Joigny and the Tour d'Argent in Paris both have two stars in the Michelin, but the experience is very different. As you enter the Tour d'Argent from the quai Tournelle on the Seine, you are passed from person to person, six including the uniformed doorman, the elevator operator and the waiter who takes you to your table, none of whom seem to care much about you. No one smiles. On this occasion the table was around a corner at the back with a view of scores of chimney pots - on dull roofs, not charming ones. When asked if there was a table with the famous view of Notre Dame (all such tables were empty when we arrived), the waiter replied unsmilingly and unapologetically that all those tables had been reserved three months before. He immediately looked away. It did not seem worth telling him that we, too, had reserved three months ahead because he did not appear to care. It is now obvious that one should request a view table on making the reservation. The waiter's unsympathetic attitude, which we did not encounter anywhere else on this trip, prevailed throughout lunch. The kitchen is good, but not exceptional. Having had similar experiences in the past at the Tour d'Argent I was trying to give it another chance, since it was my husband's first visit to this well-known eating place, but it will be a long time before I return. It transpires that several friends sadly share my opinion of this formerly venerable institution.
La Côte Saint Jacques, 89300 Joigny, telephone: 03 86 62 09 70, fax: 03 86 91 49 70.
Read part 2 for information on some great stays, including the charming, small hotel in Burgundy owned by Leslie Caron (remember the movies Gigi and An American in Paris?), and a château dating from the fourteenth century, painstakingly restored by a team of artists.
Elizabeth Cawdry Thomas is a graduate of London Cordon Bleu; she is a freelance writer living in Berkeley, California and taught French, British and American cooking classes for twenty years.