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Archive for August, 2009

interior of Tacos Por Favor in Santa Monica, California

interior of Tacos Por Favor in Santa Monica, California

Jon and I are in SoCal right now, and although I’m an East Coast girl, I must confess I’m enjoying the sea and sun around these parts.  And I’ve definitely been loving all the great Cal-Mex food.

Our fave Mexican fix so far has been at the divey Tacos Por Favor, which is just a dozen blocks east of the ritzy bits of Santa Monica.

huevos rancheros at Tacos Por Favor

huevos rancheros at Tacos Por Favor

Being jetlagged, we were counting the hours until the place opened at 8 am for breakfast.  And once in, I had a sinfully-good plate of huevos rancheros.  It doesn’t look like much, but I assure you there’s no better way to start your day than with fresh corn tortillas, smoky, spicy salsa, sour cream and an oozy poached egg.  The sides of fluffy, sweet tomato rice and creamy beans was a bit overkill at 8 am, but I’m on holiday, you know?

breakfast burrito at Tacos Por Favor

breakfast burrito at Tacos Por Favor

Jon opted for the breakfast burrito, which he felt was more 8 am appropriate, and maybe I’d be convinced he had a point if he hadn’t also wolfed down all the freshly-fried tortilla chips on the side.

The perfect accompaniment for all this heavy “I’m-ready-now-to-work-the-ranch” food were the light and refreshing watermelon agua frescas, the original flavored water.

With both our main dishes costing about $6 and all our food being made on the spot only after we’d placed our order at the cash register, I don’t know why we ate anywhere else while in Santa Monica.

Tacos Por Favor, 1406 Olympic Boulevard (14th Street), Santa Monica, CA 90404. (310) 392-5768.
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Caphe House on Bermondsey Street

Caphe House on Bermondsey Street

Last Friday, Jon and I had tickets to see Romeo & Juliet at the Globe (and obviously, Jon was very excited, because what man doesn’t love R&J?). And because the show started at 7:30 pm, the challenge was finding a quick, tasty, nearby place to eat dinner. (Much as I love the South Bank, it’s a bit of a culinary wasteland around the Globe, and Friday nights around the always-packed Borough Market area are a major hassle that I prefer to avoid).

The stars aligned when my friend at work, Val, who lives on Bermondsey Street, told me about the new Vietnamese cafe that opened on her block: Caphe House. Sitting next to me at the office, Val is familiar with my love for banh mi and immediately noticed that Caphe House advertises banh mi in its window. So the plan that formed in my head was to drop by for a sandwich after work and eat it on my walk to the Globe. That Charmaine gave it her stamp of approval in TimeOut a few days after Val shared the news set my plan in stone.

a (half-eaten) pork banh mi from Caphe House

a (half-eaten) pork banh mi from Caphe House

The cafe is small and pretty. In keeping with the neighborhood, it’s simple, but much more upscale than Banzi in Surrey Quays. When I showed up just before closing time at 7 pm, the cafe tables were still filled with Aussies (who appreciate a good Vietnamese cafe, I suspect). I ordered two of the pork banh mi, which were £3.50 each, and the friendly guy making the generous-sized sandwiches explained that Caphe used “special” bread that was extra crispy. [Irony alert.]

Well, as Charmaine wrote in her blurb, the banh mi fillings were great: *tons* of pickled carrots and daikon; superb creamy pate with a strong offal flavor that held its own; good chili kick; and pork slices that still had bits of meaty aspic clinging to them.

But can you guess what was wrong? Indeed, it was the bread. Sure, it was crispy. But it was also *thick*. And there was butter slathered on it. Though the butter must be a nod to this being England, I much prefer a quick swipe of mayo.

Ah well. Good to know banh mi is popping up all over London, and always nice to find a cheap, pleasant place on the South Bank. But call me when the baguette is finally thin *and* crispy.

Oh, and as for the play: I want those three hours of my life back. How anyone could produce a Romeo & Juliet so devoid of chemistry between the title characters is beyond me. At least I had a decent dinner beforehand.

Caphe House, 114 Bermondsey Street, SE1 3TX; 020 7403 3574; closest tube station: London Bridge (plus a 15-minute walk)
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contemplating yet another beautiful chateau (Chateau de Cheverny)

contemplating Chateau de Cheverny

On 21 August 2005, Jon and I moved to London thinking we’d be here for two years. But we loved this city so much that we’re still here, four years later.

I started this blog on our first Londoniversary, mostly as a way to spare my friends and family a never-ending stream of emails about places we’d visited and food we’d eaten. You can tell I had no clue what the hell I was doing. Those early posts make me cringe. I still consider deleting them.

And now, of course, I realize this blog is so much more than just an exhibitionist’s journal. For starters, blogging has proven to be (1) a nice way of meeting like-minded people; (2) something interesting and creative in my otherwise-dull life; and (3) a way of making sure I never stop visiting new places and eating new things.

Over the last 12 months, I’ve had 205,783 page views, which makes me happy (query the long-term psychological health of tying happiness to blog stats). I hope that number keeps growing thanks to readers like you, because it turns out that I really love an audience. So I guess you can add “teaches you about yourself” to the long list of blogging benefits. (Yes, I’m dying to see the Julie & Julia film).

Because I’m a sucker for annual traditions, I’m now going to indulge in a bit of looking back:

August 2008: Jon and I visited Vienna and ate our weight in schnitzel. We also paid our first visit to two restaurants that are now among our favorite places to eat in London: The Ledbury and Leong’s Legends.

September 2008: We visited Nantucket and ate our weight in lobster rolls.

October 2008: Jon and I clearly dropped the ball on travel planning because we didn’t leave the UK that month. But we paid another visit to the Ledbury and I discovered Rosa’s, which, now that my office has moved to Spitalfields, I visit often for lunch. (The green curry there is wonderfully spicy and packed with tender pork).

November 2008: We paid our final visit to Paris for 2008 and fell in love with neo-bistro Itineraires. Although the much-hyped Bistro Paul Bert disappointed, we did find a gem of a hotel in the same neighborhood — the Grand Hotel Francais, where the irrepressible master hotelier, Syad, makes every stay a real pleasure. Missing the beauties of Paris, I visited Le Cassoulet in Croydon and met a ton of food bloggers baking macarons at L’Atelier des Chefs. Then, feeling homesick and a little masochistic, I froze my ass off to get some pizza at Franco Manca in Brixton.

December 2008: I enjoyed an outstanding-value £25 lunch at Murano and a beautiful and delicious – but much pricier – lunch at Petersham Nurseries before heading back to the U.S. for the holidays. Obviously, while back in the US, I decided I ought to eat more French food, with one especially-memorable lunch with old friends at No. 9 Park in Boston.

January 2009: Recovering from the holidays and needing to cheer myself up in the dead of London’s dark, rainy winter, I attempted to list my five favorite London restaurants in 2008. I also made another trip back to New York, sadly, for a funeral.

February 2009: This was a huge month for my blog (and, by extension, for me). An American in London was nominated for the Lonely Planet Travel Blog Awards, and even though I got a total beat-down by my worthy blog-adversaries, the nomination was, as Martha would say, a Good Thing. Requiring a bit of warmth and escape from London, Jon and I spa’d it up in Bath and spent a week in the Ribera del Duero in Spain, where, of course, we drank great reds and ate our weight in cochinillo (roast suckling pig) and lechazo (roast suckling lamb). And yes, I do like to “eat my weight” in lots of things.

March 2009: In March, Jon and I had to turn our passports in to the Home Office to get new visas (because in case we lost our jobs, we didn’t want to be deported), which meant no foreign travel that month. So instead, we splashed out on a weekend at Barnsley House in the Cotswolds. The Cotswolds, as many Brits know, are beautiful and supremely easy to reach by train from London. I also had a memorably-crap experience at Gordon Ramsay-owned Maze.

April 2009: We were in New York to celebrate Jon’s grandma’s 95th birthday (95, and she still lives on her own!). Of course, while there, Jon and I couldn’t resist paying a visit to David Chang’s much-publicized Momofuku Ssam Bar.

May 2009: With a wedding anniversary and two bank holidays, May was a ridiculous month of traveling and eating. A return to Paris, our first trip there in 2009. A return to Barcelona, where I fell in love with bistronomic restaurant, Gresca. And then I ended the month with a trip to Istanbul, where Furran Balikcilik and Muzede Change reminded me once again that great food comes at all price points.  (Sadly, the Kempinski Ciragan Palace restaurant reminded me that expensive food can be total sh*t and Ciya Sofrasi that even locals can have bad taste in food).

June 2009: Suffering banh mi withdrawal after May’s trip to Paris, I was thrilled to find a passable version in at Banzi in Surrey Quays after Charmaine Mok tipped me off.

July 2009: We made not one, but two trips to Paris in July, as well as a brilliant week-long cycle ride through the Loire Valley. During our first of the Paris trips, we revisited Itineraires and were glad to see fame hasn’t gone to its head. Sadly, the same couldn’t be said for Le Comptoir. On our second Paris trip, we avoided French food and tried Cambodian food in the much-over-hyped Canal St.-Martin neighborhood.

And now we’re back to the present, and I’m off to La Jolla, California, where my favorite brother (who also happens to be my only brother, so har har) will be marrying his wonderful fiancee.

I feel lucky to live in London, and even luckier to have readers who make this blog worth all the blood, sweat and tears. Cheers.

For posts in a similar vein, see also “One Year” (August 2006) and “Three Years in London” (August 2008)

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pretty excellent tiramisu at Princi bakery in Soho

pretty excellent tiramisu at Princi bakery in Soho

I’ve been on a theater kick lately (the second half of Arcadia is a stand-out, by the way), and one of the major challenges associated with theater-going is finding a place to eat that’s quick, tasty and near the theater. So I finally got around to trying Princi, the Alan Yau-backed London branch of a Milanese bakery chain.

First, the pros:

  • The decor is super attractive — all beige marble and sleek water fountains.
  • The displays of hot food and baked sweets are similarly attractive.
  • The food is inexpensive (e.g., you can choose a cold salad plate that includes generous portions of two dishes for £6.50).
  • The tiramisu was deliciously creamy, not too sweet, and zippy with coffee flavor. Good value for £3.50
  • The service is fast and efficient, despite the crowds (see “cons” below).
lasagne at Princi - eh.

lasagne at Princi - eh.

arancini at Princi - attractive, but still eh.

arancini at Princi - attractive, but still eh.

Now, the cons:

  • The place is a total zoo. Even at the early hour of 6:30 pm, it was almost impossible to find a space for two.  So don’t even think about going with a group for a sit-down meal.
  • The food Jon and I chose tasted so-so despite favorable appearances:
    A beetroot-and-blue cheese salad was skimpy on blue cheese.
    A tasty-looking slice of pizza for £2.50 was strangely flavorless (the biggest flaw being the sauce with no zing).
    A lasagne, which Jon loves (because he goes to Princi somewhat regularly for lunch), but which I thought was ridiculously salty.  To be fair, I always prefer a tomato-sauce-based lasagne over a béchamel-based one like Princi’s.
    Arancini and ricotta-filled pastry puffs that, again, looked lovely, but tasted stale.  Given the crowds of diners, you’d think rapid turnover would prevent this sort of “sitting around for a while” issue.

Including a £15 cheap-and-cheery rose, our tab totaled £40 for two people. If the place had been 95% calmer and quieter, I think our meal would’ve counted as a good value on the basis of stylin’ decor and quality ingredients, but £20 a person for what is essentially high-end cafeteria dining was unimpressive.

Everything about Princi *looked* great, but if there’s a next time, I’ll pick up only desserts and only on a takeaway basis. For future West End pre-theatre dining, I’ll stick with a quick bite at Leong’s, which remains a trusty standby.

For other views and photos of Princi, see Gourmet Chick’s and Tamarind & Thyme‘s posts.

Princi, 135 Wardour Street, W1F 0UT; (0)20 7478 8888.
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San Marzano tomatoes and burrata at Murano restaurant in Mayfair

San Marzano tomatoes and burrata at Murano restaurant in Mayfair

Last December, I tried Murano’s £25 lunch menu, which was outstanding value. I knew I’d be back, but as a testament to how slow I am to put words into action, I didn’t return until just last week. In the meantime, Murano picked up a Michelin star in January this year, and I can see why. Dinner at Murano was delicious and high quality (a bit like eating at the Ledbury, but with more formal service).

Murano offers two menus at dinner: a three-course a la carte menu for £55, and an eight-course tasting menu for £75. Encouraged by the same lovely freebies that I remembered from my £25 lunch – the fragrant white-truffle arancini, the melt-in-your-mouth coppa – Jon and I chose the tasting menu, which, interestingly enough, offers two options for most of the courses.

grilled foie gras with sweet and sour tomatoes

grilled foie gras with sweet and sour tomatoes

Apparently I was lying when I claimed to be foie gras‘d out after a week in the Loire Valley:  the instant I saw grilled foie gras among the tasting menu options, it was a no-brainer. One of these days, I’ll try cooking foie gras at home, but for now, I remain in awe of how one grills it. It’s got to be like grilling butter, no? I mean, how do you keep it from melting on the grill? In any event, Murano’s grilled foie was silky, creamy-meaty, and beautifully complemented by the intensely-sweet tomatoes, which had a caramelized flavor despite not showing any signs of having been caramelized. Quite a mystery but delight of a dish.

swiss chard and Sairass ricotta tortelli

swiss chard and Sairass ricotta tortelli

rocket and pecorino risotto

rocket and pecorino risotto

Generally, I’m rarely interested in pastas or risottos in high-end restaurants, but both dishes at Murano were intense and cheesy in a way that I could never duplicate at home (probably bc I’m not heavy-handed enough with the butter), and I loved them both. (Jon and I each ordered different ones and then did the old switcheroo so we each ended up eating a half portion).

pan-fried seabass with garden peas

pan-fried seabass with garden peas

I didn’t get too excited about the fish course, which was cooked just past raw and just shy of tough. In other words, it was cooked just right. But still, I find fish to be nothing special unless it’s sushi or I’m sitting by a large body of water while eating it.

herb salad with apples and cider vinaigrette

herb salad with apples and cider vinaigrette

Herb salads. Indulge me in a pet peeve rant: I know it’s intended as a palate cleanser, but what was wrong with the good ol’ sorbet? When I eat an herb salad, I feel like I’m eating an ingredient, rather than a meal.

Gressingham duck breast, carrot puree and white asparagus

Gressingham duck breast, carrot puree and white asparagus

roasted Cornish lamb served with neck bolognese and grilled courgettes

roasted Cornish lamb served with neck bolognese and grilled courgettes

Things were back on track with the meat courses. Duck was tender and sliced paper-thin. It really did melt in your mouth. Jon’s lamb was similarly luscious. There are moments when you’re sure you could never be a vegetarian, and this was one of them.

pistachio souffle served with warm chocolate sauce and macaron

pistachio souffle served with warm chocolate sauce and macaron

Feeling quite full after tiers of fun-flavored, jewel-like ice creams were served, I didn’t think we’d make it through dessert. But never underestimate the power of a *perfectly*-baked pistachio souffle. Just digging into the pillowy top was a treat, and I was so impatient to dig in that it was hard to let our server first pour liquid chocolate into it. The interior was yielding and moist without being liquidy. Brilliant. And is there a more perfect flavor marriage than that of pistachio and chocolate? I think not. The macaron was a nice visual accompaniment, but tough and crunchy (and altogether forgettable).

Service at Murano was friendly and attentive. The dining room is small and discreetly luxe. Factor in the tasty, easy-t0-love food, and it’s no surprise Murano earned its first Michelin star so soon after opening. I won’t be surprised to see it earn a second.

Murano Restaurant, 22 Queen Stret, W1J 5PR; 0207 592 1222; closest tube station: Green Park

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foie gras 4 at La Botte d'Asperges in Contres, France

trio of foie gras at La Botte d'Asperges in Contres, France

In my last post, I described Loire Valley dinners in Chartres, Blois and Bracieux. In this post, I include notes on our meals in Contres, Chaumont-sur-Loire and Amboise.

CONTRES

From Cheverny castle, it was a 10 km cycle ride through shady, quiet park land to reach La Rabouillere, which was one of the best B&Bs of our trip. I say this despite our mixed feelings about La Botte d’Asperges, which our B&B had recommended.

The Michelin guide notes that La Botte d’Asperges is high on charm, which it is. But you can’t eat great charm. Feeling hungry, we made the mistake of trying out the 50-euro tasting menu. Instead of getting a nice sampling of dishes, we were served a series of full-sized starter and main courses that seemed chosen solely because they were easy to serve. It was way too much food to finish (towards the end we just asked them to serve one portion of each dish), and while a few dishes (the trio of foie gras and the quail in Perigord truffle sauce) were tasty, all the fish and seafood dishes were over-cooked and tough. A tasting menu was too ambitious for this place. We should have stuck with the typical three-course or a la carte menu. And avoided anything with langoustines or scallops.

La Botte d’Asperges, 52 r.P. H. Mauger, 41700 Contres; +33.2.54.79.50.49.

CHAUMONT-SUR-LOIRE

Tomato-chevre millefeuille at La Chancelliere in Chaumont-sur-Loire, France

Tomato-chevre millefeuille at La Chancelliere in Chaumont-sur-Loire, France

La Chanceliere was the one place listed in our Michelin Green Guide in Chaumont-sur-Loire, and yet I spent hours searching high and low in Chaumont for something else, convinced that we could do better than what was in our guidebook. The thing is, Chaumont-sur-Loire is a one-horse town. Most people arrive in Chaumont-sur-Loire, see the fairy-tale castle, and leave. Jon and I, having decided to spend the night at the eh Hostellerie du Chateau across the street from the castle, found that our immediately-obvious dining options were either the hotel restaurant or the kebab places next door.

Covertly following a large French family, we walked as far away from the castle as possible, and at the edge of town, they turned into La Chanceliere. Of course they did. All this effort spent on avoiding the guidebook place, and where do I end up? The guidebook place.

We sat upstairs, which is decorated with junky posters and old instruments, neither of which detracts from the views of the Loire sunset. The service was cheery and fast. The menu was simple and old-fashioned (think vegetable terrine, quivering in its gelatinous glory). And we were relieved we weren’t eating in our hotel or in a kebab’n’pizza joint.

Feeling foie gras‘d out, we had the foie-free 21-euro menu, and my tomato-and-chevre mille feuille turned out to be the best salad of our trip. The tomatoes sweet; the chevre was sharp and creamy; and the greens were crisp and perfectly dressed with a tangy vinaigrette that was sweetened and textured with pine nuts. I loved it. And then my emincee du porc (bite-sized pieces of tender pork in a barely-there sauce of slightly-thickened pork juices), while nothing to look at, was outrageously tender and juicy. I was pleasantly surprised.

The cheese course met the standard of French bistro generosity: a platter at least 2 feet in diameter that was packed with local chevres. We felt super lucky. La Chanceliere is so much better than it has to be (given the touristy nature of Chaumont and the total lack of competition). If you’re visiting the chateau, you will definitely want to drop by La Chanceliere. Our tab for two, including coffees and wine, came to 80 euros.

La Chanceliere, 1 Rue Bellevue, 41150 Chaumont-sur-Loire; +33 2 54 33 91 71

AMBOISE

prawn tempura at Restaurant L'Alliance in Amboise, France

prawn tempura at Restaurant L'Alliance in Amboise, France

Arriving at the outstanding Manoir du Parc in Amboise late on Friday, Jon and I hadn’t made any restaurant bookings in advance. But the incomparably-warm and generous owners of the Manoir recommended Restaurant L’Alliance, which was nearby and had a pretty back terrace.  As was usual in the Loire Valley, there were three or four different prix fixe menus, most of which served traditional dishes (more foie gras, anyone?).  Still feeling a bit over foie gras’d, we chose the 29-euro touristique menu because it listed a few “exotic” items like prawn tempura and an Italian-style tuna.  Ugh.  Tragic error.  The prawn tempura were awful:  tough, flavourless and entombed in a thick dough batter shell.  And served with what appeared to be sauteed dill and coriander.

As for the tuna . . . expecting something quickly seared and raw in the middle (after all, this is the country that prepares steak so beautifully for the raw food lovers among us), I was again proven wrong.  The tuna was classic doorstop material.  Again, tough and flavourless, and no amount of tomato sauce was going to save it.

Keep in mind that I’d cycled over 50 km that day and would happily have eaten anything as long as it was half-decent.  But I couldn’t finish the tuna.  In the past, I’ve often wondered what people meant when they said something tasted like cardboard.  And now I know.

L’Alliance seems to have a lot of fans if you google it.  And our B&B owners – who serve a fab breakfast and do an amazing job running their manor house – also highly recommended it.  Maybe the key to success is to stick with the French food (but if that’s the case, why is L’Alliance offering dishes it can’t prepare?).  The service at L’Alliance was attentive and the decor was pretty enough.  With wine, our meal came to 91 euros, which, it’s safe to say, was about 91 euros too much.  Avoid.  Go to Le Pavillon des Lys instead (see below).

L’Alliance, 14 rue Joyeuse, 37400 Amboise; +33.2.47.30.52.13

foie gras 5 at Le Pavillion de Lys in Amboise, France

foie gras no. 5 at Le Pavillon des Lys in Amboise, France

The Michelin guide rates the charm factor at Le Pavillon des Lys as off the charts.  Still, we’d learned at La Botte d’Asperges that charm doesn’t necessarily mean good food.  So we were wary.

But we needn’t have worried.  The restaurant is in a old-fashioned manor hotel that’s been gussied up inside a la international sleek boutique style.  Because it was raining that night, we couldn’t sit in the lovely-looking front garden.  But the small dining room was fun.  The crowd was pretty yuppie-dominated, including a good number of French-speaking yuppies (perhaps out from Paris on a p’tit weekend), as well as an elegant French grandma taking her willowy granddaughter out for a birthday dinner.   I liked the feel of the room, and overall, we had a great time.  The food was ambitious and generally “worked,” and the service was attentive and helpful.

Only two menus are offered:   a 39-euro tasting  menu and a 29-euro vegetarian menu.  Highlights were the tourteaux (crab) soup, which was packed with rich, seafood flavor and served with a thick crab-stuffed ravioli.  Foie gras was good once we added salt to bring out the meatiness, and the roast pintade (guinea fowl) was moist and juicy.  Although there were a few misses (a few of the desserts were just all cream and the mignardises were gross), at 39 euros, the menu was a strong value.

We spent 120 euros for two, including wine and a 9-euro supplement for cheese course.  Definitely worth a visit when in Amboise.

Le Pavillon des Lys, 9 rue Orange, 37400 Amboise; +33 2.47.30.01.01

And that was it.  The end of our Loire Valley cycling-chateau’ing-and-eating trip.  We lugged back bottles of white from Cheverny and Vouvray, and we’ll be reminiscing every time we open one.  If you’ve ever wanted to try a cycle trip, the Loire Valley would be a good place to start.  The logistics for an independent traveler couldn’t have been easier.

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strawberry soup a Le Rendez-vous des Pecheurs in Blois, France

strawberry soup at Le Rendez-vous des Pecheurs in Blois, France

I spent weeks scouring French and English-language newspapers and sites, trying to find good recs on where to eat while cycling in the Loire Valley. Most sources were outdated (i.e., more than three years old). Chowhound, SlowTrav, eGullet, Lonely Planet, google blog searches . . . all my usual on-line sources let me down, and our (admittedly few) Parisian friends were not much help when it came to the Loire Valley.

So, on-line food tips being a wash, Jon and I kicked it old school and relied heavily on our Michelin Green and Red Guides, as well as on B&B recs. In the hopes of making some future Loire Valley eater’s life a bit easier, I include below a few blurbs on our six days’ of eating in the Loire. This is the first of two posts, with the other one coming on Monday.

CHARTRES

foie gras 1 at Le Madrigal in Chartres, France

foie gras 1 at Le Madrigal in Chartres, France

Not quite in the Loire Valley, Chartres was the first stop on our trip because, having indulged a few years ago in the guilty pleasure that is Kate Mosse’s Labyrinth, I wanted to see Chartres cathedral. LeFooding.com had an appealing description of Brasserie Le Madrigal, which also happened to be in our hotel, so we gave it a try. (Incidentally, the cathedral was cool, but so were the giant plastic rabbits in the Place des Epars).

If you ignore the occasional tour group dining in the place, Le Madrigal’s open-air courtyard is a pleasant space for a well-executed romp through bistro basics. Baguettes were crackly; butter was creamy. Great sourcing of those items – as in most of France – and a sign that we wouldn’t be starving as we headed into central France. My slice of foie gras terrine (the first of what was to be many) had a good, meaty flavor, but you could still see where multiple lobes had been fused together and it was served straight from the fridge, so it was a bit too hard at first.

Jon and I stuck with a classic entrecote with Bearnaise and were rewarded for our conservative ordering: the steak was charred on the outside and saignant (medium-rare) on the inside. We should’ve skipped the 6.50-euro cheese course when we learned it would be a brie (after all, we were entering chevre country, so what’s with the brie?), but overall, a good-quality meal at a reasonable price. Starters were 6-7 euros; mains were 17-20 euros. Still, it’s in a hotel, so maybe look around old Chartres if you want more atmosphere.

Brasserie Le Madrigal, Hôtel Le Grand Monarque, 22, r. des Épars, 28000 CHARTRES; +33 2.37.18.15.07

BLOIS

foie gras 2 at Le Rendez-vous des Pecheurs in Blois, France

foie gras 2 at Le Rendez-vous des Pecheurs in Blois, France

Despite having a Michelin star, Le Rendez-vous des Pecheurs was small, quiet, and except for us, filled with native French speakers (which was great). Although there are several good-sounding resto options in Blois, none of them were open on Monday night except Le Rendez-vous des Pecheurs.

Wanting to be able to see the 10:30 pm “son et lumiere” show at Blois castle (if you haven’t experienced a son et lumiere, you should. They’re a cross between fireworks and a grade-school film strip), we chose the 49-euro seasonal menu rather than the 69-euro tasting menu.

The menu was ambitious and the food was good. I was relieved, because I never know if a Michelin-starred place is going to be resting on its laurels or tired, etc. But Rendez-vous des Pecheurs is still gunning (for a second star), I suspect. The menu was heavy on seafood and refreshing sorbets. Solid summer entries.

That said, the generous, silken slab of pan-seared foie gras alone went far to justify the 49-euro price tag. The service was smooth and polite, and the food was interesting but still regional enough that we felt we were in the Loire (as opposed to those Michelin-starred places that could be anywhere in the world). With an excellent Cheverny white for 40 euros, our tab totaled 138 euros. Worth a visit if you’re in Blois. (Note that the other Michelin-starred place in Blois, L’Orangerie du Chateau, looked like bus tour hell with its enormous size and location across the street from Blois chateau. I know you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, but still . . . ).

Le Rendez-vous des Pecheurs, 27 rue Foix, 41000 Blois; +33 2.54.74.67.48.

BRACIEUX

foie gras 4 at Le Rendez-vous des Gourmets in Bracieux, France

foie gras 3 at Le Rendez-vous des Gourmets in Bracieux, France

Bracieux is a tiny town, similar to many towns we cycled through in the Loire Valley. There’s a main street and a town square with a hotel de ville and not much else. If you believe in competition bringing out the best in businesses (as I do – tres Americaine, je sais), you’ll expect the worst in Bracieux. For example, our hotel, Hotel du Cygne, was by far the worst place we stayed during our trip. Still, the town is handily located if you’re cycling from Chambord to Cheverny with a stop in between at Villesavin.

Given the town’s small size, we were lucky that Bracieux offered a one-Michelin-starred restaurant, Restaurant le Relais de Bracieux. Alas, Le Relais is closed on Tuesdays, which was the one night we were around. But the chef-owner, Bernard Robin, graciously recommended that we try the Rendez-vous des Gourmets down the street, run by one of his former chefs.

Rendez-vous des Gourmets is a Michelin bib gourmand (good value) and has a back garden, which was relaxing on a warm, July evening. It took 15 minutes, though, before we could flag someone down and ask for menus. And then another 40 minutes for us to place an order. The service was just overwhelmed. Good thing we were on holiday.

As became familiar to us in the Loire, there were four or five prix fixe menus to choose from. Jon and I chose a middle-of-the-road Menu du Gourmet Allege at 29 euros a person, which includes a starter, a main, a cheese, a dessert, and several amuses. A lot of food for 29 euros, no?

After a few forgettable haddock-mayo and goose rillette-based amuses, I attacked Jon’s very large and tasty slice of foie gras terrine. Again, it had come straight ouf of the fridge, so I waited a while until it was more easily spreadable. A mussel-and-cream soup (which appeared on several menus in the Loire), was the best version we had on our trip.

Roasted quail (caille) and hanger steak with shallot sauce (onglet a l’echalotte) were juicy, huge, and delish, especially with buttery, fragrant girolles. The cheese course was unnecessary but irresistible. Nutty, aged chevre, I salute you!

And because we’d cycled 30 km (20 miles) that day, we each polished off a red-berry gratin hot out of the oven. With wine, we paid 83 euros total for a generous quantity of food, as we found was the way in the region. Rendez-vous des Gourmets is a charming restaurant and worth a stop if you’re touring nearby Chambord or Villesavin. But be prepared for a slow, long meal.

Rendez-vous des Gourmets ; 20, rue Roger Brun, 41250 BRACIEUX. +33 2.54.46.03.87.

And that’s it for now. In my next and last post on the Loire, I’ll summarise our eating in Contres, Chaumont-sur-Loire and two nights in Amboise. Bon weekend!

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