In the picture above, can you identify the 2 features that definitively identify this as a restaurant of grand ambition?
It's not necessarily the fancy paper napkin wrapper on the table, or the carefully pressed table cloth, the flowers, or even the chic black slate “placemat.” In my experience, the best way to tell you're in a serious dining establishment in France is by the bread, or more specifically, by the bread accouterments. In this picture, the bread has its own proper place to sit, and it has friends.
In most restaurants in France, bread comes to the table in a basket, and when pieces leave the basket, they spend whatever time they're not being eaten on the table top itself, not on a bread plate, and definitely not on the edge of the dinner plate. And usually, the bread is eaten naked. Umm, for clarity, the bread is naked, not the eater, at least in the places I've eaten. The bread gets no olive oil or fancy spreads, and definitely no butter.
Since I'm a bread-for-bread's-sake kind of guy, that generally suits me just fine. If you've got flavorful, crusty, chewy, webby bread, why distract from its wonder? One of the most memorable meals I've ever eaten was simply a perfectly cooked piece of perfect pizza dough, right out of the wood oven, all puffy and lightly charred, the ultimate balance of crisp and chew, yeast and smoke. It needed nothing. I've always thought of butter for bread as akin to ketchup-- something you put on food that either needs flavor added, or worse, needs flavors covered up.
At least that's been the case until recently. The thing about butter in France is that it's really, really good. As a native son of America's Dairy Land, the startling inferiority of American butter is painful to acknowledge, but there's no avoiding that truth. At home, it takes us about a year to go through a pound of butter. It gets used a tablespoon at a time in pancake batter, to finish risotto, or swirled into a sauce just before serving. In France, we've (a handy euphemism for I've) eaten a pound and a half of butter in just 3 months. I put it in and on everything. The butter from the supermarket is very good, and so far I've avoided buying any of the artisanal butters from the fromageries. I have this premonition of sitting naked on the kitchen floor at 4:00 in the morning, spoon in hand, with a big bowl of softened lightly salted butter, big smile on my face-- it's not a dignified future.
So it's kind of a shame that you have to Eat Fancy to get butter with your restaurant bread in France, but that's the way it is. Neither the butter(s-- unsalted and salted, an even more addictive combination) nor the bread at this particular Eat Fancy establishment, the Michelin-starred l'Aubergade in Dury, disappointed.
I had occasion to eat there a couple of weeks ago while Karen was globetrotting. I had worked my way down through a host of decreasingly impractical potential cycling scenarios-- starting with spending a week in Italy or Provence with a friend, then riding 4 days to Bordeaux, then 3 days into the Loire or Burgundy-- ending up with a 2-day out and back 150 mile ride for dinner. The criteria for a destination were simple: it needed to be 70-85 miles away, with a good but affordable restaurant, open on Wed, and an affordable hotel within walking/easy public transit distance from the restaurant.
And so it was that I packed my messenger bag with street clothes for dinner and some food for the ride and rode up into l'Enfer du Nord, the region of France that was so devastated by trench warfare in WWI. Many of the attractions around Dury are WWI battlefields. The routes up and back were beautiful, mostly on tiny local farm roads that wended through quiet villages. I had a tail wind both days (for which I will probably pay for the rest of my life), and even though I had a spring cold that left me without a voice for a couple of days just before venturing out, I was able to croak loudly enough to order my dinner.
Happy thing, too, since it was a good dinner. I ordered from the 4-course menu du marché, quite a bargain at 39 euros, and an even bigger bargain considering the meal could be considered as 7 courses, (mostly) shown in pictures below. That sets a high hurdle for my fast-approaching next cycling dinner, destination yet to be determined.
I just hope there'll be butter on the table.
My room for the night, at the Chambres d'hôtes, about 200 m from the restaurant
Amuse bouche: since it was rattled off at lightning speed, I don't really know for sure. Cream of some type of greens, with dried tiny dice of beet, croutons, and some tiny pieces of cured ham. Very good.
Mosaic of seared tuna and foie gras, with horseradish cream, balsamic reduction, and edible flowers. At least I hope they were edible...
Chicken scented with Szechuan peppercorns, served in a foam with wild asparagus and fava beans. I really wanted the fish (I never eat chicken out-- it's just usually not that interesting), but it came with a shellfish mousse, and since I already had a room for the night, I didn't need a trip to the Dury emergency room. The chicken was very good, actually, but the 3rd option, a mille feuille of cabbage and foie gras/veal smelled unbelievably good when it arrived at the neighboring table (and the friendly regulars who ordered it let me know that I was missing something special-- I almost thought they were going to give me a taste). Next time.
I didn't get pictures of the cheese plate (3 excellent French cheeses) or the pre-dessert, a shot-glass filled halfway with rice pudding, topped by maybe the best tablespoon of chocolate mousse I've ever eaten, with a perfect raspberry on top. The pictured real dessert is a praline and green tea concoction covered with chocolate, with a citrus cream and cherries. Maybe a bit much going on for me-- my dessert tastes are pretty simple, just give me a good fruit tart (or the bucket of that chocolate mousse).
The mignardises, or little sweets that come with coffee, which I didn't order-- afraid to ruin the good run of food. In the glass are home-made marshmallows of lemon (good), religieuse (which is a pastry here sold in either chocolate or coffee-- I think these were coffee-chocolate combo, also good) and strawberry (amazing). The little cookies were macaroons, a passion fruit gelee, crisp almond tuilles, miniature cannelle (I adore cannelle), and little intensely dark chocolate rice crispy-like treats. Yes, I ate them all, except I couldn't bring myself to finish all of the marshmallows. The regulars told me to take them with me, but I explained they wouldn't travel well on the bike and left them on their table, instead, so that they'd have extras to take home. Wished I'd had them earlier to barter for a taste of their main course.