Less than 3 kilometers north of Jullouville, just off the coastal road, is this lovely little restaurant where we celebrated the birthday of the mayor’s granddaughter. Needless to say, we started with champagne. Perhaps that is France’s greatest gift to the world — the invention of champagne, and the wonderful idea that it should be drunk often. Americans see champagne as a festive drink, to be consumed on special occasions, and we are partly correct. But I am going to redefine what a special occasion is. From now on, it means dinner time. And lunch time if I can get away with it.
Lest you think that all I did was drink champagne, I drank other stuff too. We had a lovely Cheverney from the Loire Valley that reminded me of some of the fruitier Sauvignon Blancs from Napa, only better. And it went very well with the first course, which was a very interesting paté of langoustine. I don’t think that I have ever had anything like it, and I am happy to report that it was worth the wait. It was served with wedges of very small tomatoes that were nonetheless quite flavorful.
As you may have detected, I like fish, and we were in a region of France that is known for its seafood (and butter, and cream, and apples, and Calvados, and…), so what else does one eat? We had an absolutely spectacular fish that the French call St. Pierre, and we call John Dory. I hope to meet this John Dory fellow one day and thank him for inventing such a wonderful tasting fish. I have had it before, but this preparation was decadent, and the best I have had. I think it was sautéed briefly, and then finished in the pan with a large quantity of butter and cream. It seemed almost poached because of the richness, but with the firmness of a dry cooking method. It was accompanied with a dizzying variety of great tasting stuff, just a few bites of each. The wildest was the sautéed seaweed. But it wasn’t the typical stuff that we see in Japanese salads; it seemed like the stalks and buds of a different variety. It was mild in flavor, but with a great texture, almost like thin string beans that had been blanched for just a few seconds to retain their crunch (I saw them a few days later in a little fruit and vegetable shop in Holland, so they obviously are not unique to Normandy). Then came the spinach purée — can you guess how it was cooked? Wow! Fantastically rich flavor with an incredible texture and mouth feel. There was a reason that the serving was small. I don’t think that I could have eaten more than a few bites, but those bites sure were good. Next came a few pieces of squid ink pasta, just penne cooked al dente, which was fine, but nothing special. It did add some great color to the plate, which is obviously why it was there. But I ate it anyway so as not to be rude to the chef. He finished off the plates with a scattering of nice fresh fava beans, peas, and some slivers of carrot. All were cooked nicely, with beautiful bright colors. It was an elegant and successful attempt at getting me to eat my vegetables. The whole thing sat in a delicate beurre blanc. The meal ran late, and the kitchen began to run out of bread because everyone was sopping up the sauce. I wonder how a chef, cooking in a hot kitchen for hours, must feel when the plates come back looking as if they had been licked clean?
Because the meal was on the light side, our host ordered some great cheeses, none of whose names I remember. But that is typical of me and cheese. I love cheese, eat it as often as I can, and routinely forget the names of the best ones. But that is okay, because it seems as if new cheeses are being invented every day, and many of them are delicious. So all I need to do is point and grunt, and I usually do okay. But these cheeses were excellent, and went interestingly with the Chateauneuf-du-Pape that we drank with them. Now, I think that most cheeses kill the flavors of most red wines, but this was an austere, crisp version and it went fairly well with the cheese.
The dessert was birthday cake (Happy Birthday, Anne Sophie!) and it was a nice version, but not a Norman specialty. I ate all of it, and I’m not thrilled by most cakes, so that should give some indication of its quality.
Once again, a small neighborhood restaurant, in a part of France that is certainly off the beaten path for most tourists, and many Frenchmen, produced an excellent, interesting meal with local ingredients and regional specialties. And that’s good cooking, and how it is supposed to be done.