My friend Brent, in Austin, is a lover of good food and wine, and also a guy who gets invited to various rock festivals around the world in the course of his work. Unsurprisingly, his wife Kristen would like to attend some of these, but there's the factor of their young son, who's 4 1/2. But when Brent got invited to this year's Printemps de Bourges, he figured this would be a good occasion for a family vacation. I urged him to come visit here after it was over, but he wasn't sure he could, for some reason. Then the volcano blew.
It was hard enough getting to Paris, because at the same time, there was a rail strike and the beginning of one of France's staggered spring school holidays. They managed to get there, though, and 24 hours later, Brent was in the Gare de Lyon buying tickets for Montpellier. He figured it couldn't be worse than Paris, and it was a damn sight cheaper.
So last week, I met them at the train station, got them to their hotel, and started showing them around. There was only one aspect of this I was dreading: the fact that we'd be getting some fairly spectacular meals that I wasn't going to be able to fully taste. (For those who don't know, I have a sinus condition which occasionally allows me to taste lunch, but shuts down around 4pm, effectively killing any taste sensations which involve the nose. This especially affects wine tasting, as you might imagine).
Until you're presented with one, you don't think about the boundless energy and insatiable curiosity of a child -- and the need to keep him interested and not whiny. I'd long noticed the playground in the Esplanade, with its music-themed constructions, and of course there's a carousel on the corner by my house, but there are loads of other things around here for kids. Probably the most important thing, though, is attitude. People here are okay with kids being kids. In Germany, there was always the disapproving glare, the muttered comment. No wonder German children look so unhappy. (And heaven help you in Germany if you're a mixed-race couple with kids...)
Our first meal was at Le Chat Perché, of course. It's the restaurant I take everyone to first, because it's such a great introduction to the food and wine of the region, and it's affordable. The weather had just started turning gorgeous, so we sat upstairs and got to watch the roof being rolled back. As always, too, I ordered a 2007 Mas de la Serranne Les Griottiers, the kind of big, complex red which always blows people away. It certainly got Brent's attention and suddenly he had a raging curiosity about the local wines. Because taste is so intertwined with memory, I can't remember exactly what else was on the table, although my dinner was a sort of deconstructed chicken cordon bleu, with a hefty breast filet sitting atop some melted Comté cheese and a slice of Serrano ham, flavors which come through faintly, but recognizably.
After a morning in Paris, a train-ride, and dinner, my friends were understandably exhausted, and we stopped by an alimentation génerale, one of the little after-hours markets, for a bottle of wine for them to finish in their hotel room. The guy sold it to us, but gestured and whispered that we should stick it under someone's shirt, quickly, with mutterings about the police. That's how I found out about Montpellier's new law against selling retail alcohol after 10pm, of which I'd been unaware, and which not only makes very little sense, but is going to imperil these little stores, which, as far as I've been able to make out, depend on beer and wine sales late at night for the majority of their business.
Nobody got busted, though, and the next day my friends took a tram down to the aquarium, an experience I recommend to children up to the age of 100. They're about to start enlarging it, although it's still by far the biggest one I've ever seen, as well as the most intelligently-presented. In a kind of welcome-to-France move (as if they hadn't already seen enough of those), the trams went on strike while they were hanging with the fish, which was unfortunate, because the aquarium's right on the tram line. Not finding a cab, they walked back into town, which, as I noted last year in one of my epic walk posts, is one of the dullest walks available here. Kristen and the kid pooped out, but Brent and I went (after calling for reservations: I'm not making that mistake again) to Le Grillardin in what I've now come to think of as Montpellier's Gourmet Gulch around the Place de la Chapelle Neuve. There are three other restaurants there, plus a place selling wraps during the day, and the Chat Perché is sort of on the corner. Oh, and there's a pizzeria which also looks good, and a wine-bar with snacks.
At any rate, we had a superb meal, as I sort of figured we would. The centerpiece was grilled lamb with a garlic sauce atop what was advertised as a galette de mais, which sure sounded like a tortilla. Looked like one, too, except it was a flour tortilla. A very tiny glitch; the lamb was as tender and juicy as one could ask for, although that was about the only quality of it which came through to me. The thick wine list was filled with interesting local bottles, and because I told him it had a great reputation, Brent ordered a 2005 Chateau Puech-Haut "Tête de Bélier" which he pronounced magnificent. There is a certain amount I can discern from good wines, but it's sort of like hearing the bass-line of a good record playing in the next apartment; I'd love to hear it all. Afterwards, we retreated to Mesdames Messieurs, the all-organic wine bar where I'd been just before Vinisud this year, where we had the same wine I'd had with them. Brent was getting more and more impressed.
I had work to do the next day and, not being a fool, I did it, but when dinner loomed, I took off on a walk all over town looking for some places I'd always wanted to try for one reason or another, and then came back and did some research to see what the Internet had to say. Unsurprisingly, a few of them seemed to be all hat and no cattle, including one in what used to be the old public baths behind the Opéra Comique where I'd eaten some years back and been underwhelmed. There were also a bunch of new places in districts where there hadn't been any businesses at all before. But on my way back to my place, I passed Les Caves Jean Jaurès, down a narrow street leading off the square of the same name, which was crowded with students.
It looked homey, the menu looked interesting, and there was a menu enfant, which you almost never see. We decided on it, and it proved to be a great choice. Not only was the enfant happy with his chicken, but his père was most impressed with the wall of wine you get up and choose from after you've ordered. We wound up with this:
which is from Fitou, one of the premium Languedoc wine-growing areas, and one of the few that's always enjoyed a great reputation. As you can see here, this moderately-priced wine shows up in tons of Michelin-starred restaurants, and from what little I could discern, I really want to try this again when my senses are back in order. There was a lot of duck on the menu the night we were there, and I had a duck cassoulet, since I realized that this would be the last night in some time when such fare would be appropriate. And to make the dinner even better, there was a Canadian couple with a 5 1/2 year old daughter a couple of tables away, and she and the kid hit it off well, so that the adults could socialize some.
Brent and I repaired a few steps away for a nightcap at L'Acolyte, a perfectly wonderful wine-bar and restaurant which I was told is a huge favorite during Vinisud.
Isabel, the proprietress (seen on the right) is quite a character, and when she discovered Brent was from Texas, she confessed her love of riding horses among the cattle in the Camargue here and wondered if such a thing were possible there. Well, as it happens, Brent knows someone who puts together tours doing just that. We discussed this with her over a nice bottle of Mas Conscience l'As, from the eccentric Terrasses du Larzac district, which produces some of my favorite wine here.
I'd been hoping they'd want a drive in the country, but by noon the next day it appeared that was not to be. Instead, we went shopping for a picnic in the Halles Castellanes, the covered market at the top of the hill, grabbed a baguette to eat with the cheeses (a tomme from a very local cheesemaker, and a nice hunk of Roquefort Carles, which blew everybody away with its earthiness and light touch), as well as some cherry tomatoes (too early in the season), raspberries, red currants, and radishes. This we consumed sitting in the Peyroux park, only occasionally getting hit on by the fake deaf-mutes (is it possible that all the deaf people in France are Romany? I didn't think so...). After that, a leisurely stroll down the hill brought us to the Jardin des Plantes, Europe's first botanical garden, and again, stuff wasn't really up and running yet (I'll head down there with a camera once it does, trust me) and, after years of neglect, there's finally some renovation going on, and over half of it is closed to the public while that happens.
"I want to hit a home run on our last night here," Brent declared, so it was back to Le Grillardin, which is another of the rare restaurants which offers a child's portion of anything on the menu (as well as take-out service, which is not only rare, but downright weird for a restaurant that fancy -- although we saw a guy leaving with a paper bag which obviously had just that in it). Brent insisted Kristin try that incredible lamb, and he and I went for a piece of beef that, unlike most French beef, was tender and juicy, even though it wasn't a steak, but a, well, a hunk. The nightcap was a couple of glasses of '07 Chateau Capion le Juge at l'Acolyte, as Brent mused on the next day's train trip to Paris and the departure the day after that.
As we met for the short walk to the train station, Kristin handed me a bag of all manner of stuff they weren't going to take home, most of which resides in my kitchen, including the red currants, the raspberries (long gone), the cherry tomatoes (not so hot in person, but perfect on a pizza a night or so later), those Cheerios, and a perfectly hideous lavender corkscrew bearing an elongated Eiffel Tower and the word Paris on it. It was murder getting back to my own cooking after a week of vittles like that, but I learned so much, and had such a good time that I've now got a backlog of to-do stuff once I have this operation and get my nose back.
Brent and Kristin have been following this blog since its inception (as well as some of the others linked here), and Brent, after being here, gave me the very valid criticism that although I'm great at photographing my hauls from the market, I'm really not so great at showing how beautiful this city is. I appreciate that criticism, and will be doing something about it shortly.
Meanwhile, I just know they're plotting how to get back here sometime soon. Some of the rest of you might think about it, too...