How far would I go to eat a good meal? Far. How far? Three words: River boat cruise.
No, I don’t really like cruises. People with an unlimited range of experiences and perspectives come together into a very limited space, a surefire recipe for driving themselves crazy. This one, on a river in France, for a week, was no exception. People shushed us when our wild ‘n crazy Thai-speaking got too rowdy. Boat boys imitated our “ching chong” language, leading to unwelcome memories of the 8th grade. And the food … oh, the food. It was what you would get if your elementary school lunch lady took on fine dining pretensions. In short: not my kind of people.
France, on the other hand, seems to be full of my kind of people. Marketing campaigns try to tell you that France is about romance, or culture, or blahbladiblahblah zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz. Seriously, whatever. Whatever forever. We all know it’s actually about food. No French person is without an opinion on food, especially French food. The land is blanketed with a gazillion vineyards. There is a cheese for every day of the year. Come on. France is a food place.
And France in the fall is an especially lovely food place. There’s little wonder why chefs here like to say autumn is their favorite time of year: game is in season, mushrooms start sprouting, fruit and veggies are still in abundance. What could be better than exploring it then, right before a week of BLT sandwiches and “medium-rare” pork slices in a floating cafeteria?
So it was a happy, upbeat Glutton buzzing into Burgundy, wedged between a stack of guidebooks and my hand luggage and an empty plastic bag in my purse JUST IN CASE. Like millions of people before us, we were to take part in the great French tradition of grand “hotel-restaurants” — fantastic chefs, many with long cooking pedigrees, in family-run restaurants who just happen to also have well-appointed rooms. These are the guys (and ladies) who, for years, have ruled the local culinary roost from places like Vienne and Saulieu, innovating French food and picking up Michelin stars in the process.
One chef well-regarded by Big Red (he does have 3 stars, after all) is Jean-Michel Lorain, whose La Cote Saint Jacques in Joigny is perched right next to the Yonne, boasting gigantic views over the water and two beautiful, if somewhat subdued, dining rooms. The cooking is equally beautiful, suggesting a sort of jeweler’s temperament (and a fondness for tapioca pearls): meticulous, artistic, a little bit fiddly. Some of the dishes on the menu were inspired by Chef Lorain’s father, Michel, like a terrine featuring oysters suspended in an “ocean” amber, tasting just like the sea. A deceptively simple-sounding “rose” of lobster and hearts of palm comes festooned in tapioca pearls like a Little Mermaid; a hefty blue-collar fish like cod gets gold star treatment when it is perfectly pan-fried and dressed up with more tapioca pearls and a sea urchin sauce.
If Jean-Michel Lorain is an artist, Bernard Loiseau was more of a showman. Gregarious and charming, Chef Loiseau was also very smart; like a writer who understands he lacks the agility of an Updike, Loiseau seemed to understand he wasn’t the greatest technical cook and focused instead on purity and simplicity. It worked — Michelin awarded his “Cote d’Or” in Saulieu three stars, but the stress seemed to take its toll, and Bernard Loiseau took his own life in 2003.
I never got to eat at the Cote d’Or, but entering the rechristened “Bernard Loiseau” is a bit like entering a shrine. His face is everywhere, grinning in countless photos on various sitting room walls, a tireless reminder that, if the name didn’t tip you off first, this is BERNARD LOISEAU’s place, okay?
Not to say the place isn’t stunning. There is a beautiful garden, and THREE lovely dining rooms, and a gigantic staircase with an elevator in the middle — all renovations that Chef Loiseau oversaw. The only place Bernard Loiseau doesn’t seem to be omnipresent is on the menu; aside from three or four of his famous dishes, it’s more about the present chef Patrick Bertron (who has maintained the restaurant at a 3-star level), who is like a closed-mouth smile as opposed to Loiseau’s wide grin. There was a delicate, subtly flavored little duck, perfectly rosy and skin slightly crisped, and a perfectly poached egg (no whiff of vinegar! No chewy, thick egg white!) atop a raft of tiny baby leeks, the yolk just crying to be broken. And yes, we had a Loiseau classic too: juicy squares of skin-on sandre (pike perch) with a shallot marmalade and red wine sauce.
The best thing about French places, particularly the ones adored by Michelin? The great service. These “temples of gastronomy” are actually not supposed to be temples. They are, like everywhere else, meant to be places to relax and enjoy yourself. That means waitstaff are unfailingly, politely affable, like your older brother’s college roommate sophomore year. That means not batting an eye while you are pulling off your moth-eaten black turtleneck sweater while ordering, or making faces at your crusty old jeans when you come in for an unexpected lunch, or expressing dismay when you ask about rose on their wine menus (OK, maybe the last one, a little bit). These guys are my kind of people.