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Archive for August 10th, 2009

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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