We take our seats. Me, the adventurous eater, brimming with excitement. He, the cautious connoisseur, a culinary skeptic.
I glance at the menu. I can barely interpret a word of it. I’m thrilled. This is the second day in a row I have come anticipating my afternoon meal with a curiosity that supersedes my hunger. This restaurant has roots. I feel called here. I want to feel the old world charm on my tongue and between my teeth.
My husband examines the menu. Despite his trepidation, he is determined to find something he might enjoy. He wants to please me. He knows how much I love these food adventures. He spots Risotto aux Gambas.
“Do you think the prawns will have eyes?” he asks, remembering our trip to Barcelona where he was so excited to see shrimp on the menu, then horrified when the plate arrived with multiple eyes looking up at him.
“Let’s ask,” I say, hopeful.
I approach Madame. I point to my face, my eyes. “Are the gambas in their shells? Do they have eyes?” I ask, kicking myself for not completing the French for Travelers series even though this conversation was most likely not on the syllabus.
We determine that the gambas have tails but no eyes. I glance at my husband, thinking surely he’ll order the risotto. He looks dubious. He spots porc. I know he’s thinking “tenderloin.” The proprietor attempts to describe the preparation of this dish. She points to her chest. I say, “Breast?” She nods enthusiastically. “Oui, oui!”
Then she tells us with her hands and limited English words that the meat is heated fast then slow. I say, “Seared?” She nods her head enthusiastically. I prompt her. “Then braised, slow cooked?” She nods again. The owner tells us this is their plat du jour. I think, signature dish. My beloved is looking hopeful. Yes.
My turn. I point to the fish. I ask no questions. I trust the chef. We’re on the Brittany coast; the fish has been exquisite. We settle in and wait for our meal. In walks an elderly man: wizened face, slow gait, elegantly dressed. There is a young man at this side. The young man has a chocolate brown complexion and a tiny ponytail on top of his head. I recognize the duo from the previous day when I dined here with my sister. This is a good sign. A tiny restaurant frequented by locals. No tourists. Hidden gem.
The waitress brings us a little bowl of puff pastry cubes lightly dusted with curry. They’re hot, buttery, and flaky crisp. They melt in our mouths. My husband has become almost cheerful.
Next comes an amuse-bouche. At lunch! The term literally translates as “mouth amuser.” Back home in the States amuse-bouches are reserved for the evening meal and generally served only in upscale restaurants.
A cauliflower puree greets my tongue, sending ripples of pleasure down my throat. Cauliflower has never tasted so good. I recognize freshly snipped chives but I want to know what else resides in this glorious little crock no larger than a shot glass. I ask Madame what makes this puree so délicieux. She answers, “Beurre.” Of course. The butter is remarkable here in Brittany. I’ve been dreaming up ways to send it home in dry ice.
Our entrée, a lentil salad, follows. Here, entrée means appetizer. Our appetites are most definitely piqued. The lentils are sublime. Tiny. Tender. Earthy. The lettuce is exceptionally fresh and simply dressed. I recognize the flavor and texture of my grandmother’s salads. I have been trying to reproduce this dressing for decades, to no avail. Olive oil, wine vinegar and fresh herbs. Simple. Back home it doesn’t taste the same, even though I grow my own herbs and buy the finest olive oil. It must be the terre.
I’m feeling decidedly decadent, enjoying a leisurely meal in the middle of the afternoon. At home, I have to force myself to break away from the computer to stop for lunch. Here everything shuts down for at least two hours. There is an implicit agreement to slow down and savor the afternoon meal.
Next comes the plat. My dorado is exquisite. I made the right choice. I glance at my husband’s plate praying that his porc is as pleasing as my poisson. I see the disappointment on his face as he looks at his plate. Pork belly is a growing trend in the States but he hasn’t acquired a taste for it. Too much fat, not enough pork. We glance at the plates of the gentleman and his young companion. They ordered the plat du jour as well. They eat every morsel of that pork belly. I am reminded of my grandfather, how when he ate a meal he left nothing on his plate but the bones. Fat and meat were equally savored.
We’re saved by the roasted potatoes. My husband, an Irishman, loves his potatoes. These are golden brown, salty, and crisp with a hot creamy center. We finish our meal and anticipate dessert. We see ice cream on the menu. This seals the deal. French ice cream is made with eggs so it’s thick and creamy with no ice crystals.
For me, the restaurant is a winner yet it’s highly unlikely we’ll come again. I can tell my husband is ready to return to his own roots. I slip out of my seat, pick up my camera and take one last look around trying to commit each detail to memory. Tomorrow it will be his turn to take the lead, and we’ll be in search of a brasserie, beer and frites. No amuse-bouche but I know those unadorned hand-cut fries will restore his faith in French cuisine and fortify him for another food adventure.
French Lentils with Leeks and Carrots
1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 leek, white and light green parts washed well and sliced, 1/4-inch thick
2 carrots, scrubbed and diced
1 teaspoon minced garlic
1 cup French green Le Puy lentils
4 cups chicken or vegetable stock
1 bay leaf
3 sprigs fresh or 1/2 teaspoon dried thyme
1 teaspoon unsalted butter
4 teaspoons Dijon mustard
2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
1 small handful fresh chives, snipped
1 1/2 teaspoons sea salt
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
Whisk together 1/4 cup olive oil, mustard, red wine vinegar, sea salt, and pepper and set aside.
Heat 2 tablespoons of olive oil in a medium sauté pan. Add the leek and carrots and cook over medium heat for 5 minutes. Add the garlic and cook for 1 minute more. Set aside.
Place the lentils and 4 cups of vegetable or chicken stock in a large saucepan with bay leaf and thyme and bring to a boil. Lower the heat and simmer uncovered for 20 minutes until the lentils are almost tender. Place lentils in a medium bowl with leek and carrots and toss lightly with the butter.
Add dressing to lentils, stir gently and allow the lentils to sir for about 15 minutes. Serve warm with a sprinkle of salt, freshly ground pepper and chives.
Sue Ann Gleason is food lover, food writer, food-based healer and champion for women who want to lead a more delicious, fully expressed life. When not working with private clients or delivering online programs, Sue Ann can be found sampling exotic chocolates or building broccoli forests in her mashed potatoes. http://consciousbitesnutrition.com/