Note: This was originally penned in 2005 and has been updated.
From my first trip to Europe nearly 40 years ago I have been a pursuer of gustatory (one of my favorite words) delights. I remember my first really eye-opening European meal–chateaubriand on an enormous silver platter surrounded by a Della-Robbia presentation of colorful vegetables at the Tyrol hotel restaurant in Innsbruck. I was hooked.
That was in 1976. Since then I have eaten at some of the really great European restaurants and followed religiously the rise and fall of chefs and the award and removal of Michelin stars. I have also watched the trend toward ever more “artistry” and chemistry in food preparation and presentation–the Adria/ El Bulli phenomenon—and more recently the descent back to “roots” to the point of practically putting dirt on the plate—the Nordic, Noma thing. Within, however, the last 10 years or so I have found myself drawn increasingly away from the upscale, Michelin starred dining experience to the old-fashioned bistro experience, probably best presented by Robert and Barbara Hamburger in their guide “Bistros of Paris” (and in the posts of Maurice Naughton, now deceased, on various food sites on the internet.)
All of this came to a head for me during a birthday trip in 2005. We reserved months in advance at the three-starred Troisgros in Roanne and at L’Esperence (Marc Meneau) in St. Pere sous Vezelay. We spent over 1300 euros for two for mini-lunch, dinner and a room at Troisgros–more than we had spent for 6 nights and two lovely dinners at a charming B & B in the Dordogne just previous. The hotel/restaurant in Roanne, a dump of an industrial town, was nice but not swank and the food excellent but just not off the charts as you would expect for that kind of money and that much difference from the other experience. We had followed Marc Meneau at L’Esperence, shown above, as he yo-yo-ed from 1 to 2 to 3, back to 2 and then back up to 3 stars and remembered several wonderful meals there including the best single dish of my life–his fois gras croquettes, a kind of signature dish that is likely still on the menu. (It requires you to put a hot cube of breaded fois gras whole into your mouth then bite down flooding your mouth and your brain with unctuous buttery duck liver. Heavenly!) Alas, however, on this visit things were not so perfect as I had recalled. While amuses and starters were excellent, mains of fish and chicken were either tasteless or overly cute and dessert was a spun sugar nightmare that was almost comical.
The bill for our stay at Meneau’s was proportionately less than at Troisgros–nearly 1600 euros but for 4 rather than for 2 people and included two rooms one at 220 and another at 120 (neither what I would call very good) plus 4 breakfasts–at 25 euros per person in 2005 prices. However, between food and wine it amounted to just a little less than 300 euros per person. For that you should expect beautiful memories–as we used to get–not just another meal with lots of show but not much go. After that meal my husband and I agreed that we were pretty much sworn off Michelin 3-star experiences but posited that 2-star dinners might provide the old wonder without the new monetary misery.
Enter Jacques Thorel of Auberge Bretonne in La Roche-Bernard, Brittany. We ordered from the carte rather than the menu since the waitress informed us that it had more traditional items while le menu was more inventive. Nonetheless we were started with no less than 8 amuses all lined up in their various presentations on a variety of multi-shaped plates and glasses, all at once. The effect was either sublime or ridiculous depending upon your point of view. Coming off my experiences with Meneau, I decided on ridiculous. It was as if the place were in some kind of unseen contest with other 2-star/aspiring 3-star restaurants to see who could provide the most edgy “stuff” in the most eye-popping way.
Don’t get me wrong, some of the food was very tasty, but the total effect was off-putting. I felt like a pawn in some kind of game being played for unseen critics that really had no consideration for my interests as a diner (and the restaurant’s actual guest that evening) at all. I could check my notes for what else we had but the most memorable main dish was my husband’s lobster–an architectural masterpiece with part of the shell mounted atop the rest of it but at base merely a lobster with a bit of mashed potato along for the ride at a cost of 90 euros–for the dish, not the meal. So much for 2-starred restaurants as an affordable alternative to 3- star places.
Our faith was restored, however, at the 1-star level where we found either places content with their lot in life and doing very well, thank you, or aspiring but not yet confident enough to charge too much for their aspirations. L’Ecusson in Beaune provided modern, edgy cuisine in a lovely modern setting with real warmth in the service at a reasonable rate. Stephane Derbaud in Dijon with relatively modern decor and starters and solid, more traditional mains provided a well-rounded experience and excellent wines for a mere 500 euros for 4. We also had an excellent bistro meal with wonderful creamy sauced Bresse chicken at the tried and true Le Francais in Bourg-en-Bresse.
Both Michelin-starred restaurants and I have changed a lot since I first began eating memorable meals in Europe. The awe is gone even as the chefs seem to work harder and harder (and sometimes sillier and sillier) to achieve it. I’m done with 3-stars and now even 2-stars. I’m sticking with 1-stars, unrated places and bistros recommended by people I know to enjoy good food without so much fanfare. I wonder if I’ve matured in my tastes or just gotten nostalgic for the good old days. My next foodie goal is L’Ami Louis in Paris. Calvin Trillin did a fantastic piece on it for one of the food magazines a while ago and it sounds like my kind of place–great food, pretty robust, pretty old-fashioned and highly convivial. I think this is what my husband has always hoped I’d settle down to.
Update: Since writing the above in 2005 (and adding some recent edits to update it), I’ve had many wonderful bistro meals (sad to say our experience at L’Ami Louis was not one of them) but I’ve also had a great 3-star meal—at the Auberge de L’Ille where they still cook specialties of the region and charge reasonable rates and take real care of their diners, many of whom are residents of the surrounding country-side rather than pilgrims—like us—from far and wide on the “Star Trail.” We’ve also had many good one and even a few good two star meals—several at Atelier Joel Robuchon, where they offer trendy food in a trendy setting but with real taste. So I’m not completely and forever sworn off two and three star dining, but I’m certainly more inclined to bistro dining and expect to remain so.
In fact, our current favorites are buchons in Lyon like Garet above where the surroundings are cramped and time-worn, dusty even, but the food marvelously tasty (the saucisson chaude with pistachios and boiled potatoes are real favorites) and the convivial atmosphere endearing. Likewise we find great delight in our return on each visit to our new favorite Parisian bistro, Chez George, below, where we invariably order duck rillettes, herring and potatoes in oil, and duck confit—the old fashioned classics still showing up on their old-fashioned purple mimeographed menu. Nostalgic dining at its finest—and tastiest. One sad note: I refer above of one of my all-time favorite internet posters, Maurice Naughton. Maurice died in his beloved, adopted Paris in June of 2006, but until then he made twice a year visits to Paris from his home in Flint, Michigan, adopted the ways of a flanneur, and wrote lovingly of his travels through the city, of his visits to markets, of preparing meals in his tiny, cheap rentals and of his meals in some of the less-costly restaurants and cafes of the city. Maurice was a terrific writer—he had been an English professor in Flint—and could make the city come alive, especially to someone like myself who hungered for descriptions of a place I, too, had come to love.John whiting has maintained some of Maurice’s postings from his Paris Journal. Here’s the link