eating out

We’ve been invited out to dinner a lot this holiday. ’Tis the season, I suppose. I think in the summer, the tendency among my OH’s friends is for big parties. Christmas being Christmas, people are generally up to their eyeballs in family. But at Easter, a bit of breathing room. There was also a sense, I think, of people taking pity on us, because while my OH’s house in France is habitable, it is in the middle of a major refurbishment. The soggy wooden floors have finally been replaced with smooth concrete, but the final touch (the laying down of some lovely ceramic tiles) won’t happen till next month. 

So we pulled the propane gas cooker from the barn, got a couple of small tables out of storage, two garden chairs, and we’ve been kind of camping indoors for the past two weeks. Cooking a meal, without much in the way of work surfaces, was a challenge. Sitting down to eat it, given that the weather wasn’t very good, meant hunching over a small folding table from the garden storage.

So we were invited out. The first outing was to a local restaurant, Le Vieux Relais, which has a decent reputation for food, and is within walking distance. You can tell it’s quite high end because it has a very short menu, and the dishes change with the season. I confess I find French food intimidating: mystery meats with mystery sauces, mystery fish—and, as the old joke goes, such small portions. After waving my Google Lens over the menu like a magic wand, I opted for the Chef’s menu, which was four courses, small portions indeed. It was actually pretty good. If I say the main course was veal braised in cider, I hope my British reader isn’t too horrified. Proper veal in France is nothing like the bloodless white horror they used to have in British supermarkets with that name.

The ambience of Le Vieux Relais is not to my taste. It’s cluttered with junky antiques, tight for space, and you fight your way through two heavy curtains to get into the main salon. But you get the feeling the place is beloved of the locals and the food was good.

The next night out was to what Americans would call a Brew Pub, the British a microbrewery, and the French a brasserie in nearby Ronchamp. Le Franc Brasserie is housed in an old factory building on an industrial estate in Ronchamp, which is famed for its UNESCO World Heritage Le Corbusier Chapel. The menu was again simple: basically you could have a plate of charcuterie or a tarte flambée, the Alsatian pizza variant made (in its purest form) with cream, onion, and bacon. There were five or six different tartes on the menu, and examples of each were delivered on a regular basis to our table, which was crowded with about 15 or 16 of my OH’s old friends. The beer was good (I tried the blonde and the blanche), cloudy but tasty. I stopped after two half-litres on the basis that cloudy beer = headache, and switched to whisky. I really enjoyed this way of eating. The informality of the pub setting, with the opportunity to stuff your face on a half-decent tarte flambées. This was not the last time my OH was the designated driver.

Our third restaurant night was to a Chinese place in Belfort, the nearby city that gives its name to this small Territory. This was a first for me: the French may eat more pizza than the Italians, but the people I know are not generally fond of spicy food or familiar with the concept of sweet and sour. The restaurant was one of three (ish) Chinese places in Belfort, and not the most expensive one. The friendly waiter was a good salesman and persuaded us to have nems (spring rolls), which were very good (although served with pointless lettuce leaves). The most French thing on the menu was deep fried frogs’ legs, which I did not try. I ordered basically what I’d have ordered in the UK: something something chicken with special fried rice. Not bad, but marks off for seating us by the toilet door. Unavoidable given the tiny space inside, but ho hum.

Obviously, I would never review the meals we had at peoples’ houses, that would be rude, but I will say that I always prefer being fed in that way, where the portions are more human sized, the food less fancy, and the alcohol less extortionate. We were invited for meals by three different people, which stacks up the number of reciprocal invites we’ll be making in the summer. One of these meals also involved the traditional annual whisky sampling session, and I somehow remained conscious through several glasses of wine followed by five shots of various whiskies. The Lagavulin was the winner on the night, closely followed by a French peated whisky from the Loire valley: La Piautre. Recommended! The most disappointing whisky was the one I’d gifted our host, a Cotswolds Single Malt, which seemed to have no character at all. Although to be fair, it was the fourth one I tried.

Our final restaurant meal was at Couleurs Nature, a restaurant in a village called Rougegoutte, which is about 15 minutes away by car, and a place I have passed often on one of my bike ride circuits. We’ve eaten there before: it’s another place with an ever-evolving menu with some quite fancy touches. The last time, I felt the atmosphere was a little cold (the opposite of Le Vieux Relais: uncluttered, clean, but clinical). This time, they’d curtained off part of the room, had fewer lights burning, and had the tables closer together. It was much more pleasant. I wish there’d been more customers: it was very quiet for a Friday night. We sat in a cosy corner near the woodburner and were treated by our neighbours to a great meal. I had veal again (!), this time a T-bone steak served with potato dauphinois and in-season asparagus. Dessert was profiteroles cut into swan shapes. Go back in a month and the menu will be different, I’m sure. The person seated next to me ordered a fish dish which was ignited at the table, leading me to ask of every dish delivered thenceforth if it would also be flambéed. Sadly, the answer was always no.

And now it’s back to England and cooking for myself again, like an animal.

2 responses to “eating out”

  1. Interesting. I also like Lagavulin, but we have Scottish form. I’m following your Obald at the moment, and as You’ve reached Able Archer, I thought i’d remind you about Deutschland ’83, which features a whole Able Archer sub plot. I happen to love the series, which is in German language but with English subtitles. Its starts with the wall and the cold wall, see s the wall collapse later and then the challenges of a united Germany which entirely upsets the old power structures. The beginning has some east vs west scenes with our hero being put on a mission from the lowly-resourced east to the west’s land of plenty.


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