18 September 2009

Bill and the restaurant

The Bill in the title is a person, not the check or l'addition. Bill came from New Hampshire, and he made the trek down to Saint-Aignan to see us and the town. He said he and his wife had spent a few days in Saint-Aignan, at the Grand Hôtel, some 25 years ago. He had been reading our blogs for a while. He wanted to see the place again.

Bill stayed at the Hôtel des Carmes in Paris, and he took the train from the Gare d'Austerlitz to our current favorite among the local train stations, the Gare d'Onzain. He asked if we could come to pick him up there, and he offered us a bribe: lunch in the restaurant of our choice, as his guests. We took him up on it.

The restaurant I picked out is one that I'd been wanting to try for a year or two. It's called L'Herbe Rouge, and it's in the village of Valaire, not far from Chaumont-sur-Loire and Blois — not far from Onzain, in other words. I first read about it on the Internet on the site called lefooding.com, in French. Here, I'm translating:
Well sure, the little town of Valaire, on a rainy morning, is not especially impressive. And I might as well admit that people weren't beating down the door at this little country bistrot, with its plastic bar stools, wooden bar, and modern fireplace. However, I highly recommend it. The menu? Honest food, meager prices: at lunch, a daily special at 11.50 € for three courses, including dessert; great local wines, made by vintners just up the road or, at 2 € a glass, a delicious, fruity Côtes du Rhone house red. If you order à la carte, you won't need to take out a second mortgage either. You'll be served a generous slice of chicken-liver pâté, a Sologne pigeon served with spicy couscous, and a chocolate pot de crème, for example, and the check won't come to more than 20 €. So don't hesitate, even in rainy weather, off-season. The fine outdoor seating area at this nice family restaurant is far from its greatest attraction.
Bill from N.H and Walt strolling down the main street
in the wine village called Valaire, near Blois

We picked up Bill from N.H. at Onzain late in the morning and drove on over to Valaire. We were very early for our noontime reservation, so we started taking a walk around the neighborhood. There was a church, and a bridge over a little river. There was not much happening, and no traffic. The weather was drizzly. Just behind the restaurant, on the road, we noticed a woman opening up her wine tasting room and putting out her sign to attract customers.

We were customers, so we walked up to the winery and went in. More about that tomorrow. At noon we made our way back down to the restaurant, which specializes in « légumes bio, cuisine du marché, produits fermiers, et vins naturels » — "organic vegetables, market cooking, farm products, and natural wines." Market cooking means buying local products at the farmers' market and getting your inspiration from them — cooking what is fresh and in season.

Very simple surroundings

We were the restaurant's first customers, and we thought for a while that we might be the only customers for lunch that day. Two other small groups came in, however, and one occupied a table in the room we were in. The other people were seated at a table in a room on the other side of the front door.

The décor was spare, with wooden floors, wooden tables, and paper place mats. There was a youngish, black-haired woman behind the bar who might also have been the cook, and another youngish, black-haired woman who waited on the tables. She brought us two little wood-framed framed blackboards on which the daily special and the regular menu were written. Both the women were relaxed and smiling.

L'Herbe Rouge in Valaire, a country bistrot

Bill ordered a slice of chicken-liver pâté as an appetizer, and a roast duck breast with mashed sweet potatoes as his main course. The duck breast was cooked rare and Bill said it was delicious. Walt had the same appetizer and then a bowl of ravioles à la dauphinoise, which were little raviolis stuffed with cream cheese (fromage blanc) and herbs, bathed in a cream sauce. He said they were very good too.

I had the daily special, which was a salad of heirloom tomatoes with olive oil and balsamic vinegar followed by a locally made pork sausage served on a bed of lentils. It was very simple and very good.

This is the menu I chose — the daily special at 11.50 €

Since my menu came with dessert — a thick and rich mousse au chocolat — Bill and Walt decided to order dessert as well. Both of them had an apple & pear crumble that they liked. Then we had coffee (the standard espresso, of course).

One of the reasons I wanted to go have a meal at L'Herbe Rouge was to try some of the "natural wines" they serve. I had read about them in a blurb I found on the Internet — on the Food & Wine magazine site. I was surprised to see that this well-known American magazine had written up such a small restaurant in such a remote village in the Loire Valley. Here's the blurb:
Chef Cécile Argondico’s comfortable spot in the little town of Valaire in the central Loire is a hangout for the winemakers who work just down the road. At the laid-back wine bar, in an old country inn, guests sit at tables both inside and outside and drink natural wines with simple French country dishes, like velvety parsnip soup, artisanal sausage with du Puy lentils and house-made chicken-liver terrine. Argondico’s boyfriend is rising-star winemaker Thierry Puzelat, so his bottles are well-represented, including the complex, spicy 2007 La Tesnière Touraine made with the offbeat local red grape Pineau d’Aunis.
You'll see that the Food & Wine blurb pretty much describes our meal. This one, on a site called Food Tourist, does too.

Pineau d'Aunis red, a "natural" wine made by Thierry Puzelat.
The grapes are grown in Pouillé, a village near Saint-Aignan.

The red made from Pineau d'Aunis was definitely interesting, though I can't say I'll rush right out and buy some. Pineau d'Aunis is a local grape that is mostly used to make rosé wines, and those rosés can be excellent. Our neighbors the Guerriers at Le Vert Cottage winery and the Denis family at the Domaine de la Renaudie both make very fine Pineau d'Aunis rosés.

All in all, it was fun to get to try a restaurant that I'd been reading about and intersted in for a while. The food was good, the wine was unusual, and the company was excellent. Thanks to Bill from New Hampshire.


  1. The restaurant sounds wonderful. I'll have to ask Bill about it when I see him (he's a friend who first pointed out this blog to me). And maybe I'll have to go to the area just to try Terry Puzelat's wines. I've been reading about him for years.

  2. Bob, nice to hear from you today. Bill is on his way back to see his friends in Germany. I hope he enjoyed the restaurant as much as I did. As for the wine, I'm not so enthusiastic but it certainly wasn't bad. Too bad Bill had rainy weather in Saint-Aignan; this afternoon, hours after his departure, the sun is out.

    If you come to the area, please let us know.

  3. Your post made me homesick for France- you don't have to venture very far to find new wines to taste or interesting places to eat.

  4. love those little out of the way places where u can find good meals in france.....usually they aren't written up anywhere but this one was well covered in articles! my daughter & her french hubby r living in buenos aires this yr & she is enjoying trying new food, but says there seems to be nothing spicy to be had

  5. Ken, thanks for the update about Bill. And you've been right to have roses, rather than reds, made from Pinot d'Aunis. That grape can make very unusual reds. I'd be curious to try something other then Pinot d'Aunis from Puzelat.

  6. Ken,

    Speaking about residency card- just announced:

    Publication d’un décret créant une carte de résident pour « contribution économique exceptionnelle ». Annonce du ministère de l'Immigration. Aux termes de ce décret, « tout ressortissant étranger qui crée ou sauvegarde, ou s'engage à créer ou sauvegarder au moins 50 emplois, ou qui effectue ou s'engage à effectuer sur le territoire français un investissement d'au moins 10 millions d'euros, pourra se voir délivrer la carte de résident autorisant un séjour de 10 ans sur le territoire national ».

    Extrait de l'info hebdo #323 du 18 sep 2009 - Assemblee des Francais de l'Etranger.

  7. Beaver, not sure what your point is. If I had 10 million euros to invest, well, nice. I could buy residency. This is, to my mind, a Sarkozy measure — encourage the rich to move to France. Sell citizenship, or at least residency rights. There's an argument for that strategy, of course. But many would argue that selective immigration, whatever the selection criteria, is contrary to republican values. I use the term "republican" with the French meaning, not the American.

    At any rate, we did not get our cartes de résident under the new program. We are keeping our 10 million euros a secret! LOL!

  8. Oh, that restaurant looks like fun! I love individual restaurants, as opposed to the dreaded "chain" restaurants we are inundated with here. I think that the wealth of individually-owned restaurants in the city here (as opposed to out in the suburbs, where there are virtually none) is part of what keeps us living in the city.

    I'm glad to know that you and Walt were able to meet Bill from NH and enjoy a fun restaurant outing!

    (who had to sheepishly explain my "quel QUE soit" mistake to my French-5 class today *LOL*)

  9. Ken

    Sorry for not being clear > Just for information purposes only on how the govt is changing the rule.


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