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Posts Tagged ‘The Loire’

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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Chambord (photo from Facts About France)

Chambord (photo from Facts About France)

I’m sitting across the street from Chateau de Chaumont in the Loire Valley, happy to finally have Internet access for the first time in almost a week. I’d intended to try my hand at daily “sort of live” blogging, but of course I underestimated the rural-ness of central France.

Jon and I are cycling our way through the Loire Valley at a modest rate of about 30 km a day. The last time I came to this area was in 1999 (as a no-frills backpacker). Now, while we’re not traveling in the lap of luxury – choosing to cycle independently has its challenges – we’ve been *extremely* lucky so far. Sunny, breezy weather; no equipment problems; incredibly well-marked trails and scenic roads (courtesy of the brilliant Loire a Velo and Chateaux a Velo programmes), and a flawless luggage transport service arranged through Detours de Loire (for about 160 euros, our bags are moved from Point A to Point B five times this week).

In the evenings, we’ve been eating at as many Michelin-rated places as is possible when you’re constrained by velo (cycling at night is not ideal). My impression so far is that Michelin is a bit over-generous when it comes to rating places in central France, but prices have been reasonable and the food has generally been good.

Although the Loire is the heart of foie gras country, I think I’ve actually hit my limit after eating foie gras four nights in a row. Tonight I’m going to try to pass, but we’ll see.

In any event, tomorrow we cycle from Chaumont to Amboise via Chenonceau (aka the super-cool castle that’s actually built to straddle the Cher river). I have a few restaurants booked already, but of course if you’ve got a fave in those towns, leave a comment below. A bientot!

If you’re interested in the Loire Valley, you might also enjoy reading:

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