Man, getting a plumber here isn't easy. First, there was the landlord's plumber, who lied about having come here. Then I was given the number and e-mail of an English-speaking plumber Chuck and Judi down at the Corner Shop knew. No word from him, but he eventually told them he didn't think he could fix my problem and anyway, he had too much work. Finally, a friend gave me the number of her guy, who she said was fast and honest. Forty-five minutes before he was due to show up, he left a message on my phone saying he hadn't realized my place was in the pedestrianized zone and he couldn't get his truck in. So I did what any sensible person would do: I went to get my hair cut. The woman who did the job lives near me -- I occasionally see her walking to work in the morning -- and said she had a plumber who only did the pedestrianized zone and gets around on a motor-scooter. It being Friday, I knew calling him today (he only takes reservations in the morning) would be useless, but I've got the number. And now my landlord says his plumber is coming...sometime.
So yesterday I took the advice of a friend and started clearing out the kitchen mess by doing the dishes in the bathtub. I'll tackle a second load in a few minutes after I write this, and I have to say, it's got me a bit worried about sanitation (although I did clean the bathtub thoroughly before I washed last night's load), but I simply cannot afford to eat out every night.
Still, there were two more nights out, so, as long as I'd spent the money, I should report to you folks, especially since I discovered a place that flipped me out.
The first night, I went to an old favorite down in Gourmet Gulch, a place where I've gone enough times that the folks there know me, le Chat Perché. Actually, I've been there enough that I was able to notice something: the menu hasn't changed since, oh, maybe a year ago. This is odd. One of the great things about this place was always their ongoing creativity, mixing Moroccan and Italian influences in with the French dishes. But, unlike during a lot of the most recent visits, my taste buds were working, so at least I got to see what I'd been missing. The brick au thon was a fine starter, brick being a deep-fried North African pastry made out of an extremely thin piece of dough folded into a square. The tuna and potato filling was unctuous, but the brick could have come out of the pan a few seconds earlier, I thought. The main dish was chicken breast with a Conté cheese sauce, devoid of the Moroccan thing, but, as usual, accompanied by little shaped vegetable sides: a ball of minty mashed potatoes, a cone of sautéed eggplant with raisins, and a little flan of...broccoli? I don't know; it was green, at any rate, nicely browned on the top. This was washed down with a new house wine, a Pic-St.-Loup I neglected to write down, but whatever it is, it's the one that's not the Puech Grand Dévot, their other house wine. There's another thing that hasn't changed, either: their house wines are fantastic, and their wine list is, well, close to one I'd choose myself, from what I've gathered from my forays there in the past. The roof garden was, of course, closed (it's pretty close to freezing here these days, with the wind), which meant that the crowd had to stuff itself into the cozy downstairs. Don't get me wrong: I still love this place. I just wish they'd either vary the menu from time to time or start experimenting with daily specials. Go if you're in town, and tell 'em I sent you.
The the day the plumber had called and told me he wasn't coming was when I made my last night out, so I was determined to spend as little as possible. To this end, I chose a very odd place I've been watching for a couple of years. The rue J.-J. Rousseau is kind of a very upmarket Gourmet Gulch, with at least two restaurants with €35+ prix-fixe menus, a couple of other restaurants, a bakery that looks like it has time-travelled from 1952, what appears to be a very fine hotel, Le Guilhem, now a part of the Best Western chain (which is very prestigious in Europe), and, down at the end, a kinda dumpy looking place that looks like an antique store. That was my goal: the prices were very low, and it was just funky enough that it might be good. Well, I was wrong on both counts, but it was my crowning experience of this whole every-night-out adventure. I walked in, and the front room, jammed with mismatched tables, with antiques and particularly antique advertising plaques, everywhere. A smell of garlic hit my nose and I rejoiced inwardly; garlic's certainly used in the local cuisine, but for some reason you don't often smell it when you walk into a restaurant. A tall, middle-aged fellow erupted through a door and welcomed me, gesturing towards the back room. His voice sounded like he'd been hollering all day, and now it was more like a foghorn. He seemed nervous and fidgety and sat me down at a table for two which was notable because it had an implement on it that must have a name, but which I'd never seen outside of an antique store. Both settings had one, each different. Mine was a metal pheasant, its elongated, thin body flat at the top, used as a place for the knife to rest. (Anybody know what these are called?) There was a teapot on the table, too, for some reason, but it could have been worse: one of the other tables in the room had a huge Remington-esque sculpture of a bull on it which must have weighed a hundred pounds. This room, too, was chockablock with stuff including piles of baskets, a stack of what looked like old coffee mugs, each printed with a logo that said Viande, and more enamel ad plaques. Before the foghorn could wait on me, though, he went to the cash desk/bar in one corner, picked up a bottle with some odd-looking wine-like liquid in it, shook it hard, and poured a thimbleful into what looked like a doll's wine glass, which he then sniffed, smiled widely, and swept out into the front room with it between his fingers. Finally, he came back and started explaining the menu to me. I admit, I was puzzled. It had categories, each with a price. But each category was prepared differently each night or so, so he had to explain what the salade paysanne du jour and the toast du jour were, how the marinated fish were done today and, finally, the "sauced dish," as the menu had it. It didn't take me long: there was a terrine that was made with -- could he have said crème de cacao? -- and the "sauced dish" was wild boar in a sauce made with blueberry liqueur? Okay, this I had to see. He went into the kitchen where another guy was working the stove and asked if there was enough boar left for me, to which the other guy said of course there was, he always made enough. So the order was placed, a quarter-liter of a fine VDP merlot was set on a rough ceramic plate I hadn't noticed on my table (I tell you, it was crowded in there), and I sat there listening to what I could make out of the repartee between the cook and the host, who, it quickly became obvious, were a couple of long standing.
At one point, three young men who knew the place well came in, and during the course of their listening to the spiel and asking questions, one of them said "that sounds good," and the host ran into the kitchen and hauled out the cook, who had a huge pot of something in his hands. He raised the cover, the guy inhaled, and then said, "You're a genius!" The cook replied "I'm no genius: I just cook the stuff. He dreams it up!" and went back into the kitchen. Meanwhile, my terrine had appeared, and I reflected on the gradations between meatloaf and terrine. This was a bit looser than terrines usually are, so closer to meatloaf, but wow, that strange dark note in the taste, somewhere around the nutmeg and green peppercorn...yup, that must be the crème de cacao. The accompanying bread was almost certainly from the nearby Fournil St.-Anne, whose baker, as I've noted here before, won second prize in the all-France baking contest a few years ago, thereby making him, that year, the second-best baker in France. Naturally, it's very good. More theater ensused as I was eating, and after I'd demolished the terrine, the plate was swept away and in a few minutes replaced with the best plate I've eaten in this city. There was a formidable quantity of chunks of wild boar sitting in a thick, wine-colored sauce. The sauce was tangy, fruity, and seemed to change with every mouthful. The boar was falling apart, yet pink in the middle. Accompanying this was some yellow stuff which tasted wonderful...but what was it? I finally figured it out: puréed pumpkin, into which a good deal of garlic-infused, high-quality olive oil had been stirred. By my way of thinking, this should have clashed with the stew, but somehow it didn't, perhaps because of the pumpkin's sweetness. A great big salad was also perched on the plate, winter greens, very light dressing. The whole thing was scary good. Scary because the thought occurred to me: in all the theater, I hadn't heard a price. Wild boar's not cheap. I only have so much money in my pocket and I hadn't wanted to spend it all. I had also just had one of the best meals of my life. What now? Well, I lived nearby, and I'm sure I could come by with whatever was lacking the next day. I called for the bill. €37.50. A lot. The boar was €24.50 all by itself. So the place really is cheap, or can be, but you have to pay attention. It was a fitting finale for two weeks of mostly eating out, and I'd found not only a good restaurant, but an entertaining one. By the time I paid, the cook had gone home. The host asked if I wanted an after-dinner drink, suggesting something I didn't catch, absinthe, or blueberry liqueur. The absinthe, too, was in an unmarked bottle, and could have been home-made, but I realized that the tiny glass of wine-like stuff I'd seen earlier must have been the blueberry liqueur with which the boar sauce had been made, so there was no question. It was dark, complex, and not at all too sweet.
So my curiosity had been well satisfied. I'm now very happy that the apartment next door that I'd looked at a couple of weeks ago had been too expensive, because if I had this place as a neighbor, I'd be getting takeout and going even broker than I was now. But I'll be back for some cheaper fare as soon as I can afford it: those marinated rougets looked good...
And the mystery of the place continues: I had a card which had come with the bill and stuffed it in my pocket. It bears the motto "Plein la lampe et les mirettes" on it, which doesn't make a lot of sense to me. The dictionary was no help, and Google Translate told me it was "bowled and jointers," which also makes no sense. Anyway, they do lunch, and here's what the place looks like in the daylight:
As you can just barely make out there above the door, it's called La Grange.
Le Chat Perché, 10 rue Collège Duvergier, 34000 Montpellier. Open daily 8pm-midnight, last orders 11:30pm. Phone: 04 67 60 88 59.
La Grange, 30 rue J.J. Rousseau, 34000 Montpellier. Open Mon.-Fri. 11am-3pm, 7pm-8:30pm, later if you resserve. Phone: 04 67 54 68 80.