Just had a flying visit from my sister, who arrived Monday at about 1:30 and left early this morning, and she was interested in seeing the market and checking out the local food (see, she really is related to me), so I was happy to oblige.
On Monday, we had lunch at the Bar Vert Anglais, whose new lunch menu and evening special I'm going to write about very soon, and Monday evening we dined at what must be my favorite restaurant here, a place I'm saving up to write about.
But yesterday, we ate at two places that couldn't be further apart -- both excellent.
Since I had a tourist in hand, one with very little time, I decided that it might be a good thing if we took the absolute silliest guided tour of Montpellier, Le Petit Train. This is, as you might suppose, a small engine which pulls a bunch of cars through the Centre Ville, while the passengers listen on headphones to a recorded commentary in one of eight languages. The English commentary is very badly translated, and the French woman delivering it has enough of an accent that she's hard to understand , while some of the time, the incredibly bombastic classical music in the background, which is on a loop, drowns her out. Still, it's something I wanted to do once, just to see what it was like.
We had time to kill, though, so we went looking for a sandwich, and walked down the Esplanade Charles de Gaulle in search of it. We wound up at Le Kiosque à Malice, which offered a number of different options, and I settled for the Sandwich Malice, described as ground beef and grilled onions, topped with cheese, with, as my two sauce options, harissa and mayonnaise. This turned out to be a belly-buster, well worth the €3.80 it cost, with a nice durable small baguette cut open on the top and jammed with the beef, then covered with a slab of cheese and toasted. I was about half-way through it when my sister, who lives in Philadelphia, remarked "That looks like a cheesesteak."
Now, I've been to Philly a lot, and had a lot of cheesesteaks there and no, actually, this isn't that much like one, but it's enough like one that it goes a long ways towards dispelling the stereotype of the French as people who consume delicate bits of this and that. This thing is a grease-bomb, but a really tasty grease-bomb: junk-food of the highest order. I won't be back any time soon, but not because the sandwich was bad. It'll be because that was an awful lot of grease, and that's just not my style. But as a guilty pleasure, you bet I'm happy to have found it.
Le Kiosque à Malice, Esplanade Charles de Gaulle (second from the end; I'm sure there's an address just as I'm sure there's a phone in there somewhere), open lunchtimes, Tues-Sat.
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Somehow, I managed to digest the Malice and be hungry again six hours later. Don't ask me how I accomplished this, but I did. "This is the last night I can take you out for dinner," my sister reminded me, so I thought about what to do. There are a lot of restaurants around here I've been wanting to try, and I don't know if your brain works like this, but when someone says "let's go" I just freeze up. Where? So I figured a kind of random stroll around places where I'd seem some of these places made sense. We wandered all over the hill, looking at this and that, and I decided I didn't want to go anywhere I'd been before. Then it struck me: by the place we'd been the night before, there was a big square with what appeared to be outdoor tables for four or five restaurants. We'd just head over there.
Sure enough, there were competing menus on chalkboards in the street, but there were a couple of other places back away from the street, which also looked good. I only got as far as one called Bistrot Gourmand, an uninspiring name if ever there was one. But...something about the menu on the chalkboard was giving off good vibes.
The menu looked good, the wine selection was the area's greatest hits. And the price was definitely right. So we sat down.
The meal started with a bang. My sister had a cream of cucumber soup, cold, with mint in it and a few croutons floating around with a sort of dried tomato in the middle. It was good, but we both agreed that I totally scored with something described as tomato crumble with thyme ice cream. The French love what the British call "crumble," and we call either brown betty or cobbler, enough that they've just adopted the word. Chunks of crunchy pastry are mixed with the fruit and baked, essentially. So why not do it with savory ingredients, especially with the vast number of tomatoes in the market just now? And topping it off with a small scoop of barely sweet, thyme-flavored ice cream with a stick of fresh thyme standing straight up was pure inspiration. I was very happy that my taste, which was, as usual, fading in the evening, lasted that long, and long enough also to get a basic idea of the wine, a 2007 Domaine Henry Paradine from the Grès de Montpellier terroir in Saint-Georges-d'Orque, which was a bit tight at first, but eventually opened into its round, full-mouthed goodness.
I didn't see anything quite as adventurous on the main-dish menu, so I ordered an onglet, one of the dozens of words for steak, with pesto and home-made fries. The fries were just like I make them, and the pesto was too subtle for me to taste when the dish came. My sister oohed and aaahed over her carpaccio with shaved parmesan, though, and, although she offered me some, I had the feeling the offer wasn't 100% genuine. Not that, if my taste had been all the way on, I'd have turned her down.
Service was amazingly friendly, and exactly balanced between attentiveness and benign neglect. The atmosphere, in the square, with old limestone buildings looming over us and the chatter of happy diners at a half-dozen places' tables eating everything from flaming crème caramel to pizza to high-end stuff was a welcome relief from piped music. I'm not only going back to this place, I'm going to see what some of these other places are like, too.
Bistrot Gourmand, 7 place de la Chapelle Neuve, 34000 Montpellier, phone 04 67 66 08 09, open daily including Sunday from 10am til midnight.