Although it hasn't been all that warm, except for a brief spell last month, summer is indeed upon us. If you don't believe me, just look at the bounty from yesterday's trip to the market. (Don't look too closely: the kitchen's always a mess).
In the back is the bowl where fruits and vegetables wind up, waiting to be used, and there are a bunch of tomatoes which will become tonight's pizza. I got them on Tuesday from a vendor where two old ladies were debating whether to buy from him or not. "Isn't Eric le Tomatologue ever coming back?" one of them asked, and, from his website, it would appear that he does his local market once a week and that's it. Which is a shame: he has varieties you just don't find anywhere else, and I'm going to have to wait until the tomato festival in Clapiers in September to see what he's been up to. Unless he changes his mind.
Anyway, from yesterday there are, clockwise from front center:
* a bag of salad nuts and seeds. I like toasting these in a dry pan and letting them cool off and adding them to my salads. A trick I learned in Germany, believe it or not.
* a bag of pine nuts, which are ludicrously expensive, but there's some pesto to be made these days, so why not. Plus, they're essential for Sicilian cooking and for my roasted cherry-tomato pasta sauce.
* a bottle of wine, Indication Geographique Controlee (I have no idea where my accents have suddenly gone here, sorry), which is about the lowest classification you can get. These people are always at the market, and their reds are headache-inducing, but -- surprise! -- the rose is chewy and full of character. Their vinegar is mindblowing, too.
* a bag of Vietnamese rice from an African store I pass on my way back from the market. The little "Asia" store near me is closed for vacation, and I ran out. The Africans seem to be struggling, but they also have some really good-looking okra.
* a half-kilo "rose de Tarn" braid of garlic. This stuff rocks heavily. I need to get up to the Tarn some day just to see what's up there; it looks quite scenic.
* a melon. There will be melons from now on. Well, until it gets too cold. And boy, are they good.
* vicious eggplants. The smaller one has dried blood on it, but you can't see that. The spines on the green part are numerous, hard, and extremely sharp. They were so beautiful I couldn't resist them, and they'll be put to good use, but I keep getting stabbed by them. They're like the cactus of the vegetable world.
* wild blueberries, which have a season of approximately five minutes here. Yum.
* white peaches. The one I just had was bland. It's the luck of the draw: there are yellow and white peaches here, some are clingstone, some freestone, and some are just better than others. These weren't that good. The wet weather may or may not have had something to do with this.
Gotta say, though: living here in the summer makes me feel like Mr. Healthy Guy. I had a day last year when I felt kind of blah, and I realized that, in my zest to cook up all the vegetables and eat all the fruit, I hadn't had any meat in almost two weeks! A couple of steacks haches took care of that.
* * *
I can't remember when I was last at a new restaurant, unless it was during the plumbing crisis when my crook ex-landlord was taking his time fixing my sink last year. One place I've been looking at is the only place in Gourmet Gulch (aka Place de la Chapelle Neuve) that isn't open for lunch. I didn't even realize it was a restaurant, because it presents as an ice-cream shop unless you look closely. And it is an ice-cream maker, it's just that it also makes ice-cream in odd flavors to go with food. This isn't an unknown concept to me: two years ago when my sister visited (and my taste buds were pretty dead) I had a tomato crumble with thyme ice cream at another restaurant in the Gulch.
Anyway, I'd been wanting to try this place, and when a couple of newcomers to town, E and J, one Swiss, one American, contacted me through the blog, I suggested we get together on a Friday, hit the Estivales, and then go to dinner. And this was the place I'd been thinking of.
It was a fine night: the week's rain had passed, and we got to the Estivales early enough that the binge-drinking teenagers weren't around yet. We bought our tasting glasses (€4) and got our three free tickets. J doesn't drink but E does, and it turned out he knows nothing about the local wines or their terroirs. (He said he's mostly a white-wine drinker, but you just can't do that here: the local whites aren't very good). So we hit the roses, and he was, as people usually are, very impressed.
As you can see, the crowds are thin enough around 7:30 that you can actually get to the tasting bars (on the left) and even have a conversation with the winemakers. Best of show was a Montpeyroux Rose made by winemaker Virgile Joly, with grapes from the Domaine CJ Gilbert.
We then went up the hill to the restaurant, Soledad, for dinner, and got a nice table in the square. E and J were, however, seemingly unaware that this was all about me, and wound up splitting their appetizer and ordering the same main course! Harumpf! Even worse, their appetizer was made with goat cheese, to which, as some of you know, I'm pretty violently allergic. I had trouble figuring out what it was, but it appeared to be a faked pastry of eggplant slices with the goat cheese sandwiched in, topped by a whipped cream of some sort. Main course for them was a "Columbo" of fish, which appeared in a little pot with hunks of glutinous rice which had been pressed into a large spoon resting nearby. Columbo is a French term for a very mild curry (not at all like genuine Sri Lankan food, I can assure you!) which is blended for the French Caribbean trade. If you don't think of it as a curry pe se, it's a very refreshing taste, especially mixed with a bit of cream, as it was here.
For my part, I opened with a salad of smoked duck breast, thinly sliced, with tiny dice of dried apricots which were echoed by a small dish of apricot sorbet. I wasn't totally sold on the sorbet, but boy was that smoked duck breast somethign to write home about! My main course was a ballotine of chicken "1001 Nights style," with fig ice cream flavored with cumin. A ballotine is where you bone a chicken whole and stuff it, then carve it into slices, so I had these discs with stuffing -- and I'm afraid the wine from the Estivales had numbed me a bit, so I'm not quite sure what it was. The ice cream with cumin, though, was a brilliant idea and set off the chicken very nicely.
In the end, Soledad is a gimmick, perhaps best thought of as an avant-garde ice-cream place, but, well, it's a gimmick that works. In other words, I wouldn't go as often as I would some other places, but I'll certainly be back. It's got a €19.95 two-course menu, so it's certainly affordable, although I think the 1997 St. Chinian rose we had was a bit disappointing, and I'm not sure about the rest of the wine-list. But on the whole, a nice discovery. I think I'll go "like" them on their Facebook page!
(Restaurant Soledad: 4 rue des Ecoles Laiques, Montpellier. Open Mon-Thu 7pm-10:30pm, Fri-Sat 7pm-11pm. Reservations: 04 67 60 26 19 or 06 50 88 51 21.)
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