I mentioned the opening of the Korean place, Omija, a while back, but I hadn't eaten there. The Other Ed suggested we meet there for lunch, and the first lunch was good, but not spectacular. A second lunch, however, more than made up for it.
We had bibimbap, which I imagine is quite the versatile dish in Korea. I used to get it all the time at the Korean place near where I lived in Berlin, and there it was a bunch of rice in a big iron bowl, which had been heated very hot in the oven, and a bunch of stuff, including an egg, slapped on top of it. The pleasure came not only from the mixing-in of all the stuff (which the waiter urged you to do immediately) but from the way the rice crusted onto the sides of the bowl. I didn't see how Omija was going to do that, given that their chief source of heat is a microwave. Well, the answer is that they didn't. Nor did they use an iron bowl. But the dish was very nicely topped, and a wonderful hot sauce was served on the side. We also got bowls of miso soup, which I always like. With the bibimbap coming in at €7.50, it's not the kind of lunch I can have very often, but the second time we ate there, The Other Ed opined that he was no longer concerned for the place's existence, as a throng of people came in, ordered, sat down at the communal table, ate, left, and made way for more people. As they note on their menu, Korean food is way low in fat, and this seems to appeal to their young, multicultural clientele. I wish them luck, and, well, with their skills, they don't really need to rely on luck. I should also note that the Korean/Japanese groceries seem to be flying off the shelves, although I was sorry they didn't have any panko. A couple of weeks, I was assured.
Omija, 8 rue Boussairolles, 34000 Montpellier. Open Mon-Wed 10am-7pm; Thu-Sat 10am-9pm.
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My friend John's visit in November took us to restaurants old and new, with two brand-new ones for me. The first was when he was waiting for the hotel room to open up, and we were wandering the neighborhood and he asked if there was a place serving seafood. In fact, wandering around by myself a few days earlier, I'd noticed a lot of new restaurants in that part of town, incuding one that was all fish and shellfish. That's how we wandered into Chez Toto.
Chez Toto is tiny, and very specialized: there are a dozen warm dishes, and lots and lots of build-it-yourself coquillages, assortments of shellfish. Those can get expensive quickly, although the quality of what they had on hand was excellent, from what I could tell. We settled for brandade de morue, a local specialty made from desalinated salt cod and mashed potatoes and...other things, and stuffed mussels, in which the mussels are cooked with a pork-based stuffing. Both were excellent, and the brandade, at €7.50 for the lunch special, was a particular deal. Service was excellent, the guy spoke English, and the business card says there's a shaded terrace somewhere for dining, noon and evening. That said, those of you familiar with Japan have probably figured out that not many Japanese will venture into this place, excellent shellfish notwithstanding. I'm going to check this out again on a summer's evening, with some cold rosé and shellfish.
Chez Toto, 20 rue du palais des Guilhem, 34000 Montpellier. Reservations or orders to go: 04 67 92 53 37 or 06 82 00 32 43.
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One evening, inspiration struck and I suggested we try something that was right out in plain sight, so much so that I'd never even considered eating there although I'd passed it a million times. Le Bouchon St. Roch is at the confluence of a couple of streets just below St. Roch church, in a weird V-shaped space with lots and lots of outdoor dining which spills over into the St. Roch Bar's space. The St. Roch Bar is Montpellier's version of Memphis' Peabody Hotel lobby (minus the ducks and the player piano, of course): sooner or later, everyone in town has a drink there. Me, too. But while doing that with a woman who'd studied here, she said that in her day, the Bouchon was the student eatery.
It still is, in the evening, and at noon, all manner of locals fill the place up. As I stood shooting that second photo there, the smells of cooking steak, duck fat, and potatoes rolled out the door, almost driving me nuts. This isn't a place to go for daring new takes on traditional recipes or to see what cuisines are influencing today's young chefs. It's a place to get down-home traditional French food, cooked the way they've always cooked it. There's a hell of a lot to choose from, too, and a small, okay wine-list. Prices are very reasonable -- a two-course dinner can be under €20 -- and the decor is pretty garish. The confused signs are due to its having finally consolidated itself in one building; the former place across the street I'll deal with in a second. As a neighborhood place, and an inexpensive neighborhood place at that, Le Bouchon St. Roch isn't going to be the best restaurant in town, not with a menu as long as the one posted there by the door, but it most likely hits the mark enough of the time to keep 'em coming.
Le Bouchon St. Roch, 14 rue de plan d'Agde, 34000 Montpellier. 04 67 60 94 28. Open daily noon to midnight.
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Stand where that first photo was taken, rotate 180°, and you'll see a very welcome addition to the Montpellier bar scene: the Beehive.
It's not an Irish pub, like other bars with English names here, but a very faithful reproduction of an English pub. And not only does it serve English beer (mine's an Abbot, please), but it also serves burgers (beef and veggie), full English breakfasts, and fish and chips. With the recent change of management at the Vert Anglais putting their status as serving the second-best burger in Europe at risk, the Beehive is in good stead to grab the title, although if they cleave to the authenticity of the rest of the place, maybe they'll miss. One place they definitely win is with their fish and chips, which even outdid the last batch I had in London. I went with a native, who delighted in the brown edges of the fish, and the chips were fresh, not frozen, and served with excellent malt vinegar. There was a little pot of what my dining companion called "parsley sauce," although it was more like a mayonnaise with horseradish to my taste, and there was also a small lump of the inexplicable mushy peas, served tepid, which is apparently also authentic. There's a daily special every day, and happy hours and all the rest. I'm ready to go back in the evening so I can have the fish and chips again and sink a few pints of Abbot. it's been a while!
The Beehive, 15 rue du plan d'Agde, 34000 Montpellier. 09 66 94 53 71. Open daily noon - 1am.
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And, as Woody Allen once observed, frequently there must be a beverage. I've been trying to find new sources of inexpensive but excellent wines around town (easy enough if you go for a drive, of course, since there are caves cooperatives and individual wineries offering stuff you can't get in stores out there), and I've lucked out. First, there is the Caves des Arceaux, which I walk past twice a week as I return from the market (or I do if I take a particular way home, anyway). I'd had the perception of them as being really upmarket and out of my range, but the other day I went in and discovered that, while they have some wines that are far more expensive than any other place I've found in town, there are also, tucked away here and there, some magnificent bargains. A couple of St-Chinians proved it to me: La Grange Léon was a place E and I had driven past in Berlou, and they produce two wines: L'Audacieux, which has a fascinating nose not unlike exploded gunpowder, and a whole bunch of fireworks of the fruity and earthy variety on the tongue, and L'Impudent, which I almost bought, but was put off by the label. L'Audacieux shows a guy casting into a stream, but L'Impudent shows a kid pissing into it! Only in France. But now I'd like to find the one I haven't tried, which is even cheaper. Of course, it's been sold out every time I've checked since then. As you'll recall, when E and I went on that drive, it began as a way to find the winery that had produced the wine we'd had at the restaurant on his birthday, Les Eminades. We'd had the Cuvée Cebenna, and it was mighty. Their less expensive wine, La Pierre Plantée, is just as good, with a haunting, aromatic but not flowery nose, and a big, complex mixture of fruit and earth on the tongue. One thing the Caves des Arceaux does is stock fewer wineries than I've been used to, but a deeper range of their wines. This is why I'd perceived them as expensive: they had the €60 bottles of the same folks they also had €7 bottles from.
The problem, though, is that they're not all that close to the house. That's why I was intrigued when I noticed a place called Les Vins de Charlotte opening in the lunch-joint ghetto behind the Musée Fabre just before Christmas. It's kind of an out-of-the-way place for a wine-shop, but my curiosity had been piqued, and so I went in the other day to look around.
I was impressed: one wall is solidly Languedoc wines, excellently chosen in a wide variety of price-ranges with a good range of little-known wineries mixed in with Languedoc's Greatest Hits. The proprietoress, Charlotte Isabello, is extremely knowledgeable (and speaks fluent English), and guided me towards my purchase of a modest bottle of Domaine Chazalon le Gouletier, a Pic St. Loup that was somewhat light for that area, but full of the deep fruit I've come to expect from our neighboring mountain. The best thing about the shop is its intelligent design. allowing a lot of wines to be stored in such small quarters, and the equally intelligent labels looped around the display bottles with accurate, un-hyperbolic descriptions of each one. Charlotte and her business partner Jean-Michel Davidou clearly have a plan going here, and I do hope it succeeds. I'll do my bit: they're practically around the corner.
Les Vins de Charlotte, 4 rue Glaise, 34000 Montpellier. 09 53 80 73 41.