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Paris and the rest of France

Paris, fine dining

Hélène Darroze, 4 rue d'Assas, 6th Arrondissement
Telephone 01 01 42 22 00 11. Métro Sèvres-Babylone. I enjoyed a stunning meal at the two Michelin starred Hélène Darroze. Darroze is from the Southwest of France, and her menu reflects the ingredients and dishes of the region, in a very sophisticated interpretation. I had the tasting menu of eight courses, at least four of which were breathtaking (the sort of delicious food that has you asking "how did they do this?") and the other four were merely excellent. Highlights included a carpaccio of lobster served with a salad of crunchy summer vegetables, black truffle and lobster jus, and a stunning dessert: raviolis of apricot stuffed with an almond cream in a fresh thyme and almond soup, and served with an apricot and thyme sorbet. Somehow, thin slices of the apricot flesh had been moulded into perfect raviolis containing the almond cream. You can opt for a glass of wine of the restaurant's choice served with each course, but I chose from the very good list, which is strong on southern France and has plenty of half bottles. Hélène Darroze is super-expensive (this menu is £100 per person without wine) but this is brilliant food, with friendly but immaculate service, served in an atmosphere of casual elegance. There is also a downstairs bistro serving tapas-like dishes. I've heard it is very good too, but make sure you specify where you want to dine when booking (2003). Closed Sunday, Monday.

Pavillon Montsouris, 20 Rue Gazin, 14th Arrondissement.
Telephone 01 45 88 38 52. Métro Porte d'Orléans. For a really different option, great food and a lovely atmosphere, the Pavillon Montsouris has just been refurbished and relaunched in the south of the city (near Montparnasse). It is a fine gourmet restaurant with moderate prices, which has a broad terrace in one of the nicest corners of the parc Montsouris, overlooking a woodland and a lake. The park closes at dusk, and from then on you have this beautifully quiet countryside and lake to yourself, yet slap bang in the middle of the city. The set-price menu is 45Euros (about £30) for four courses including coffee and petit-fours. The wine list is presented as a large scrap-book full of labels, and the prices and selection are decent, if uninspiring. But the atmosphere of this place is what makes it really special on a warm evening when you can sit outside, and the food is very good and prices low. The RER station Cité-Universitaire is actually closer than the métro (2003). Open every day, except Sunday evenings from September through Easter Sunday.

L'Angle de Faubourg, 195 Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré, 8th Arrondissement
Telephone 01 40 74 20 20. Métro Charles de Gaulle Etoile. Just along the road from his famous 3-star Taillevent, owner Jean-Claude Vrinat opened this chic restaurant in 2001, picking up a Michelin star in 2002. l'Angle has unfussy modern decor, with lots of beige and neutral colours, and simple but très chic table settings. The à la carte menu is supplemented by a 35 Euro (£23) fixed-price menu and a 60 Euro (£40) tasting menu of six smaller courses. We opted for the latter, which was filled with the signature dishes of the restaurant, and looked delightful. A beautifully creamy velouté soup of artichoke and truffle was followed by a dish of seared scallops with a kind of beetroot marmalade and lovely bitter endive salad. The main course was a superb magret of duck, cut as a thick fillet steak, and cooked pink. After fine cheeses, dessert was a slice of a bitter dark chocolate cake, with a cracknel base, served with silky almond ice-cream. The wine list is extensive, as befits Taillevent, arguably the best wine shop in Paris, and any wine from the more extensive selection at Taillevent can be ordered. We had a bottle of Joblot Givry 1er Cru 1999 which was very good. At times I thought the service was a little rushed, and this is a restaurant of a modern style, which really could be in any major city, so if you crave a Parisienne experience it might disappoint. In terms of food, it certainly won't based on this evidence (2002). Closed Saturday and Sunday. About 130 Euros and up (£85)

Paris, more casual

Willi's Wine Bar, 13 Rue de Petits Champs, 2nd Arrondissement
Telephone 01 42 61 05 09. Métro Palais Royal. Owned by Englishman Mark Williamson, Willi's is a bit of an institution amongst Americans and Brits living in Paris, as well as visitors and discerning locals. The tiny frontage is easily missed, with a long bar beyond it crowded with happy drinkers. Pass the throng, and Willies opens out a little to a small dining room seating perhaps 40 at most, and decorated simply with the atmosphere provided by noisy chatter and friendly service. There's a main wine list with a hundred or more bottles from all over France, and from other countries, with moderate mark-ups. A bottle of Tollot-Beaut Savigny 1er Cru comes in around 35 Euros (£22), and the delicious Chambolle-Musigny from Anne Gros which we enjoyed was 70 Euros. On the other side of the menu is a fine selection of wines by the glass. I chose a moelleux Jurançon "Novembre" from Cauhapé, at a modest £4 for the glass, which washed down some little roasted vegetable crisps perfectly. The menu has around 10 choices of entrées and plats, plus half a dozen desserts. My seared Tuna was cut as a thick steak, peppery and black on the outside, moist and pink on the inside. The accompanying little warm salad was piquant and a perfect foil. I chose a "signature dish" pudding; a densely-textured, bitter ganacha chocolate terrine. Willie's food prices are very reasonable, at around £16 ($25) for 3 courses. A casual, welcoming and delightful little bar and restaurant (2002).

Le Coupe-Chou, 11 rue Lanneau, 5th Arrondissement
Telephone 01 46 33 68 69. Métro Maubert-Mutualité. I returned to this restaurant, reviewed last in 1999, as I was in the area and because there is a more limited choice of places to eat on a weekend night in Paris - especially if you have neglected to reserve a table. I was actually delighted with Le Coupe-Chou, where as well as its dramatic and ancient atmosphere, the simple food was delicious on this occasion: a lovely scallop and vegetable stew served inside puff-pastry, followed by medallions of monkfish with a provençal sauce, and finishing with a tarte-tatin of heroic proportions, brought to the table with a large side-dish of creme-fraiche and a spoon, which was too tempting. The wine list is still pretty anonymous, but a bottle of Pouilly-Fumé 2000 from Max Roger was steely yet full of fruit, and excellent. Le Coupe-Chou is not cheap and is on the tourist trail, but I really enjoyed my evening there (2002). Open every day. About 110 Euros (£75).

Le Reminet, 3 rue des Grands-Degrès, 5th Arrondissement
Telephone 01 44 07 04 24. Métro St-Michel. This small restaurant is tucked into a little street just off the Quai St-Michel, opposite Notre-Dame. On my first visit, about 10 years ago when it had newly opened, the chef/proprietor bustled back and forth from kitchen to front-of-house at busy times, making and serving inventive and elegant modern bistro food to a tiny dining room of around six tables. Now, the restaurant has expanded to take in a larger basement room that is not so nice, but is pleasant enough if upstairs is full. This remains classy cooking, like seared fillets of sea-bass served on a bed of samphire and haricots with a smoky garlic sauce. Puddings too are stylish and tasty: I enjoyed Canalé, with poached pears and cinnamon ice cream. Reminet's wine list is fairly short but nicely put together. It's also fairly inexpensive: a very nice Alsace Riesling from a small grower was less than £15($30) per bottle. Modest food prices, at around £25 for 3 courses (2007).

Bistro de L'Etoile, 13 rue Troyon, 17th Arrondissement
Telephone 01 42 67 25 95. Métro Charles de Gaulle Etoile. There's a fashion for Paris's top Michelin starred chefs to open inexpensive bistros near their posh restaurants. This is owned by, and sits opposite restaurant Guy Savoy, not far from the Arc de Triomphe. The place is tiny and busy, but offers really fine modern bistro food at around £15($24) a head lunchtimes, a bit more at dinner. My baked fillet of mullet on a spinach and celeriac mash, doused with a frothy velouté sauce was delicious. Wine list is very short, but has some nice stuff - the Laroche Petit-Chablis was just fine (2000).

Perraudin, 157 rue St-Jacques, 5th Arrondissement
Telephone 01 46 13 53 75. Métro Luxembourg. A real old favourite of mine, which I've been visiting for at least 15 year and which, I swear, is still run by the very same 3 women. It is old, cramped and noisy, full of locals and tourists alike, who crowd in to enjoy reliable and delicious standards like Boeuf Bourguignon or Gigot d'Agneau, terrific Tarte Tatin and cheap, tasty wines. If you arrive and there's no table ready you'll be given a glass of kir to sip at the bar whilst you enjoy the chaos. Love it. (2007)

Lavinia, 3-5 bd de la Madeleine, 8th Arrondissement
Telephone 01 42 97 20 20. Métro Madeleine. Part of a huge new wine shop, Lavinia features a casual, very modern and chic lunchtime restaurant and wine bar. You can drink anything purchased in the shop without corkage charge, or order from a nice by the glass and bottle selection. Food is tapas-like mix and match. I had great tempura prawns and a delicious Jurançon Sec by the glass (2007). Closed Sunday, around £15 per person.

Channel Ports

Boulogne: Hostellerie de la Rivière, Pont-de-Briques. (0)3 21 32 2281
Not in Boulogne, but just a few miles south, is this very charming old restaurant with rooms, which is very comfortable, with spacious gardens and a wood-panelled dining room. The Cuisine and setting are quite formal and traditional, but the rooms are simple and not too expensive (we stayed the night before sailing home). For dinner we ate the "Menu Degustation du Mois", a seasonally-pitched set menu using local ingredients. A starter presented foie-gras done several ways, including cooked in a marinade. A terrine of lobster and langoustine was rich and nicely textured with chunks of meat, served with a herb butter-dressed salad. My main course of three fillets of freshwater fish was light and very well cooked, served with a coriander-infused dressing. The full panoply of six courses plus the ususal nibbles and migrandises was reasonably priced at 300ff - Michelin now quotes 70€. (2002)

Ouistreham: Normandie Hotel, 71 Ave Michel Cabieu. (0)2 31 97 1957
Book ahead if you want a final gourmet-ish dinner before catching the night ferry from the port of Caen (Caen is the name of the Port, but it is actually a big town inland: the village of Ouistreham is right at the ferry Port). The other restaurant choices are fast-foody, but the Normandie is a "proper" dining room with pretty good food and a much better wine list than those round about. Be warned, it is always busy with locals and ferry-goers. (2001)


Reims: Cosi, 35 rue Buirette. Tel: +33 (0)3 26 06 13 13
Cosi is a large restaurant in the centre of Reims. It is a contemporary space, with bar, DJ area and simple wooden dining tables that extend through two or three large rooms. The food here was unexceptional but competent. I started with a tarte fine de parmesan; a square of flaky pastry enriched with Parmesan and topped with plenty of rocket, sun-dried tomatoes and strips of ham, which was all slightly tasteless. My main course brochette de lotte (skewers of monkfish) came with a vanilla-flavoured sauce that some may find too sweet, and some simple rice and wild rice. The fish was very nicely cooked and I found the whole dish to be light and tasty. The dessert was the one high-spot of this meal: carpaccio of pineapple saw a dozen wafer-thin slices of pineapple doused in a tangy orange sauce, and served with a scoop of dense, creamy orange sorbet in a tuile basket. We drank some Duetz Blanc de Blanc 1998 and the total bill came to around 120Euros for two, before service. A decent choice if staying in one of the nearby hotels, but in no way exceptional. (2007)

Epernay: La Table Kobus, 3 rue Dr Rousseau. Tel: +33 (0)3 26 51 53 53
I was guest of a winemaker at this traditional family restaurant in Epernay, and ate from a specially prepared menu for the occasion, but I thought the food was good, with lots of nice marriages between traditional French brasserrie dishes and modern, globe-trotting influences. Witness a terrine of wild smoked salmon, carrot and purple brocolli, flavoured with cumin and served on a bed of crispy, smoky beansprouts, or a dessert of a delicious carrot and orange tart, with delicate star-anise and orange flower sauce. Moderately priced, this seemed to me as if it would be a really good and reliable choice in a town not over-endowed with fine dining options. Their 46 Euro top menu looked to be full of interesting options. (2007)

Epernay: Royal Champagne, 51 Rue Bellevue, Champillon. Tel: +33 (0)3 26 52 87 11.
Champillon is actually about six miles outside Epernay, in the hills overlooking the town and the vineyard-strewn countryside. This Relais & Chateaux hotel takes full advantage, perched on the hillside with panoramic views. The Royal Champagne is very plush and luxurious, in a cosy way, with lots of wooden beams and cosy corners, and roaring log fire on our chilly Spring visit. Once a posthouse between Epernay and Reims, where Napoleon often stayed, the Michelin 1-starred dining room has a fine wine list boasting 350 bins, and an array of menus, from a 60 Euro set menu, to an a la carte 'Menu Epicurien' that runs to 110 Euros per person excluding wines. Some delicious little nibbles included spoons of creamy foie-gras and caviar, then I chose a first course of baby pumpkin stuffed with scallops, wild mushrooms and herbs then roasted. This was a lovely dish, the ingredients in a soup-like creamy sauce within the pumpkin, with plenty of flavour. My main course fillet of seabass was served with some delicious squat lobsters, gnocchi and some braised fennel and was light, flavoursome and spoke freshly of the sea. Cheeses were in very good condition, including a good selection of regional specialities, and coffee was served with handmade chocolates and nougat. A very nice place to relax over a long dinner, and I'd guess the rooms would be extremely comfortable too. (2007)

The Loire

Near Saumur: Le Prieuré, Chênehutte-les-Tuffeaux. (0)2 41 67 9014
Chênehutte-les-Tuffeaux is a tiny village a couple of miles outside Saumur. The Prieuré sits right above the village. Meals are taken in an atmospheric dining-room with commanding views of the Loire. It really is a magnificent panorama and the light on the distant hills as the sun sets makes a wonderful backdrop to some seriously good food and wine. There is a full à la carte choice as well as seasonal and "typical" menus of the region. Dishes like medallions of monkfish, cooked to just translucent perfection and sitting on a meaty jus, studded with capers and sun-blush tomatoes, or a wonderful take on tarte tatin: an individual tart formed from a slice of fresh pineapple on a butter and almond sponge base, sweetened by caramel and served with a lime sauce and coconut ice cream. Breakfast can be taken on the terrace with the same stunning views. The Prieuré is a member of the Small Luxury Hotels of the World group and is, as you might expect, not cheap. Rooms start at around 900ff (£90/$150US) for a double. Breakfast and meals are not included. Dinner should cost around £40 ($60US) per person (2006).

Near Saumur: Jeanne de Laval, Les Rosiers. (0)2 41 51 80 17
Sadly, Jeanne de Laval was boarded up as of 2006

Near Saumur: Le Promenade, St-Mathurin-sur-Loire. (0)2 41 57 01 50
Another 10 miles or so further west, on the D953 heading along the Loire towards Angers, lies Le Promenade. I stumbled into this one quite by chance one Sunday lunchtime and it was just a treat: a really old-fashioned and comfortable bourgeois restaurant that's so typical of rural France. Inexpensive, yet very proper with crisp linen, sparkling crystal and fine Laguioli silverware, the food was perfect and simple: really good steaks with pepper sauce and buttery fondant potatoes washed down with a bottle of very good Anjou-Villages from Domaine Richou. Around £20 a head for a four course lunch including wine and coffees (2004).

Romorantin: Hotel du Lion d'Or, 69 Rue Clemenceau. (0)2 54 94 15 15
The Lion d'Or is a fine, 16th Century hotel with 16 luxurious rooms, sitting right on the bustling main street of Romorantin-Lanthenay, a village close to many of the Loire Châteaux. Chef Didier Clement has a Michelin star, and is famed for his work in preserving old organic ingredients, like "paradise seed", a subtle spice used to great effect in a beautiful poached lobster salad. We ate in the flower-filled courtyard, which is magical in summer, surrounded by the 300-year-old facade on three sides, and the kitchens on the fourth. We had the tasting menu of around seven exquisitely good courses, with wonderfully friendly and personal service from Mme Clement and her staff. A starter dish of papery courgette flowers, filled with an aromatically herb- and spice-infused crabmeat was one highlight, as was a grand dessert featuring a tiny, melting hot chocolate soufflé, an intriguing Moroccan-spiced fruit soup and a truly magnificent selection of exotic and unusual ice creams and sorbets. The Lion d'Or is in the very expensive bracket (rooms with breakfast start at around £220 per night), and dinner totalled around £500 for four, with one bottle each of Champagne, Pouilly-Fumé and Chinon. The hotel closes mid February for six weeks, and for the last two weeks of November (2009).

Provence & Languedoc

Montpellier: Jardin de Sens, 11 avenue St-Lazare. Tel: (0)4 99 58 38 38
It was four years since my previous visit to the 3* Jardin de Sens in Montpellier, and whilst one wine-pages visitor had reported a less than satisfactory meal, I really looked forward to my return visit. At lunch time I decided to push the boat out and have the 125 Euro dinner Menu de Saveurs, of around six courses. Starting of with a gorgeous array of amuses guelles, including a wonderful apricot soup, thick with pulp and a tiny gratin of fruit, served with a white cheese and lemon sorbet. Other highlights included a terrine of langoustine and lobster, served with a lobster and vegetable broth. The main course was some astonishingly good lamb, served as two perfect little chops along with a disc of succulent meat that literally melted in the mouth and was full of flavour. The puddings ("premier dessert" and "deuxieme dessert", preceded by "pre-dessert") were a touch disappointing. A peach soup with a scoop of ice-cream was perfumed and light, but not as dazzling as other flavours here, and a bitter chocolate tartlette served with a quenelle of white chocolate was again excellent in flavour and execution, but I have had similar desserts elsewhere which were on par. We took coffee in the beautiful garden, shaded from the Mediterranean sun, with brilliant petit fours. The wine list is comprehensive, for both local, and the best French wines of classic regions. Expensive, top quality and still worth a visit. (2004)

Fontjoncuse: Auberge de Vieux Puits. Tel: (0)4 68 44 07 37
This two Michelin Star restaurant with rooms sits in a small hamlet dominated by a ruined church and château, the rugged, isolated and barren hills of Corbieres all around with their parched vineyards, gorges and rocky outcrops. The hamlet was founded in the 8th century when a source of water was discovered (the "font" of fontjoncuse). The Auberge is a haven of tranquillity, with very stylish, modern rooms with minimalist décor but beautiful appointments, a sunny heated swimming pool, and of course, the restaurant. The 68 Euro Menu de Garrigues, offers two choices at each of five courses, plus various little freebies. We chose this menu on both nights of our stay, simply alternating one set of dishes for the other. A bowl containing plump langoustine tails on a thick smear of bouillabaisse reduction, with a silver spoon holding a quenelle of fennel sorbet, looked superb, but wait until the waiter pours a ladle of warm fennel-scented soup into the dish, melts the sorbet and creating a magnificent dish. A seared, plump two-inch thick triangle of tuna was seared on the outside, raw in the middle, and served with an intricate black olive biscuit, a salsa-like tomato and olive chutney and a glass of pungent escabeche. A tranche of beautifully cooked turbot was crusted with almonds, and served with a separate little dish of haricot beans and girolles in a rich butter sauce. This is a relatively simple and laid back restaurant, where chef-patron Gilles Goujon does things the way he has for years: with consummate skill. (2004)

Collias: Hostellerie Le Castellas, Provence. Tel: (0)4 66 22 88 88
Tucked away inside the ancient, narrow passageways of Collias, only a few minutes drive from the Pont du Gard north of Avignon, the Hostellerie Le Castellas is one of those magical French places who's modest doorway leads through to enchanting gardens, terraces and a bijoux swimming pool surrounded by aromatic flowers and shrubs. The rooms are simple but full of character, but the restaurant at Le Castellas is its strength. I stayed and ate there on two nights. On the first I had the "Saveurs et Parfums" tasting menu of local produce, including herbs and legumes from the Hostellerie's own gardens, which I counted as 10 courses, plus canapés and frivolitie (petit-fours). There was superb invention here, but in some ways I enjoyed the more ample portions and slower pace of dining à la carte on the second night even more. Highlights included a wonderful dish of Goujonettes - plump fillets - of Saint Pierre, served with courgette flowers stuffed with a chicken and wild mushroom mousse. A Tranche de Beouf de Salers was served as three thick slices, along with a terrific St Emilion reduction, and thick-cut, crisp but meltingly soft chips. My Sabayon, served with a ring of pineapple marinated in an infusion of wild herbs, was also a brilliant, tangy, yet luxurious dish. I drank a brace Chateauneufs-du-Papes: Vieux Telegraphe 1998 (80 Euro) and Chateau Simone Pallet (60 Euros) as well as a couple of halves of the excellent Château Haut-Gleon Corbieres Blanc. The Menu Degustation is 85 Euros, and dining a la carte comes in around 60 Euro per person. (2004)

Saint Cyprien: Ile du la Lagune, Bd de l'Almandin. Tel: (0)4 68 21 01 02
This hotel has a unique situation, accessible only over a small wooden bridge on its own island, part of a new marina development in a quiet edge of busy St Cyprien on coast south of Perpignan. The hotel rooms are nicely furnished and quite spacious, each with a terrace offering sea or lagoon views. It is also a little corporate and soulless however, with little of the personality of the Auberge de Puits, for example. The restaurant (one Michelin star) makes up for that however: it is sophisticated, elegant and very spacious, with the option of dining on the garden terrace in summer. The food here is refined and has an excellent lightness of touch, with an emphasis on fish and seafood. Memorable dishes form my two night stay included a lovely Provence dish of little potato blinis, plump and buttery, served with delicate sushi-like rolls of fresh anchovy and thin-sliced salmon. A main course dish of fillets of Rouget showed how simple preparation can let fine, fresh ingredients speak for themselves. Puddings were exceptional, including a wonderful dish of fresh figs, marinated in Muscat and served in a bread and butter-pudding-like tart, with a scoop of chestnut ice cream. Another joy of the Ile de la Lagune, is the wine list. This is really well-priced for a Michelin-starred restaurant. With our fish-only meals, we didn't dip into the array of mature clarets, no matter how tempting the pricing, but enjoyed excellent local whites like the crisp yet limpid Domaine des Schistes Blanc at only 30 Euros a bottle. Menus at 60 Euro, a la carte about 75 Euros per person, excluding wine. (2004)

Banyuls: Al Fanal, Ave. du Fontaulé. Tel: (0)4 68 88 00 81
For me Banyuls is one of the nicest of the small towns to explore on this beautiful southernmost stretch of France's Mediterranean coast. Hotel/Restaurant Al Falal sits right on the coast road, offering mainly fish and seafood in a contemporary dining room, with dark polished wood floors and simply-dressed tables. We shared a platter of mussells, studded with flaked almonds and doused in garlic butter with a glass of 'Rancio' Banyuls (not unlike a dry Sherry), followed by a local speciality, fresh, lightly pickled anchovies, with strips of roasted peppers, marinated in olive oil and herbs. A main course platter of fish included perch, monkfish, langoustine and squid, and was perfectly grilled, with impeccably fresh fish. With this we drank a white Collioure from Cornet & Cie. Passing on cheese, I moved onto a dessert of a baked chocolate fondant, with a sharp, tangy raspberry sorbet, which was a perfect mirror refelection of a glass of Banyuls Tuillé from Domaine Etoile. Prices are moderate, and staff are efficient and welcoming. (2007)

Castelnou: Restaurant l'Hostal. Tel: (0)4 68 53 45 42
Castelnou is a picture perfect restored medievil hilltop village of 100 or so inhabitants just a few miles from Perpignan. Firmly on the tourist trail, it is crowned by a castle (now a museum) and filled with artisan jewelers, potteries and artist's lofts. It's beautiful 11th century houses are draped with bouganvilla, and as swifts wheeled overhead, the broad terrace of l'Hostal is a perfect sunny spot to settle in for very honest and very good Catalan cooking served by overworked but charming staff. A Mediterranean salad was full of juicy, sweet tomatoes, roasted peppers, anchovies and olives, and came with a basket of excellent pain de campagne. My main course was a heart-warming bowl of Spanish-style meatballs (very tasty, with minced veal, pork and beef in the mix). It came in a stew of haricots blanc and with a side portion of superb pommes frites. For dessert, an apricot sorbet was much more exciting than it sounds, studded with chunks of candied apricot, and perfect with a glass of Muscat de Rivesaltes. Wine is taken pretty seriously, with a large temperature-controlled bottle fridge. Moderately priced, and an excellent find in such a well-trodden tourist spot. (2005)

Near Callas: Hostelerrie des Gorge de Pennanfort. Tel: (0)4 94 76 66 51
This hotel sits in a very remote location not far from Draguignan in Provence. It is a luxury hotel with Michelin-starred restaurant, that sits immediately opposite the towering crags and outcrops of the Gorge de Pennanfort, which is illuminated at night to make a dramatic backdrop to the first-floor dining room and broad terrace. I'll say straight away that whilst dinner here was one of the best of my trip through the south, I was disappointed in the hotel overall and stayed for only one night of two I'd reserved. In late August, areas like the swimming pool and tennis courts were neglected, and my room, whilst well appointed, was cramped and in a rather dank corner with a view only to the car park (the hotel was full, but this was definitely not worth over 200 Euro per night bed and breakfast). Dinner was superb. We chose the 75 Euro menu, of around six courses. By the end of the evening however, this had grown to nine or ten. First, the waiter brought two dishes of delectable foie-gras and poulet de Bresse terrine - not an amuses guelle, but a full portion of the only menu entrée which we hadn't ordered. Then onto the entrees we had ordered: a plate of foie-gras and wild mushroom raviolis for my partner, and a dish of langoustine for me. But instead, we were each served with a full portion of the raviolis, followed by a full portion of the langoustine: no less than six starters for the price of two! My dessert was sensational - a "chaud froid" which was basically an absolutely delicious, crisp-topped crème brûlée, but hidden at the bottom was a scoop of intense, beautifully dense cassis sorbet, which stayed frozen enough to retain bite, yet melted enough to form a thick sauce. With a couple of glasses of white wine and a bottle of the Sommelier's recommended local - and excellent - Château Maïme Rouge, the bill for dinner came to 211 Euros. (2004)

Sete: La Palangrotte, 1 Rampe Paul Valery. Tel: (0)4 67 74 80 35
Sete is an atmospheric old harbour, with broad canals and a lovely old facades all along the waterfront, that is a mini-Marsielles. Ferries chugging to and from Tunisia have left and indelible North African influence. It is a bit rough around the edges, with an industrial zone on one side, and a working fishing harbour at the other. Restaurants are mostly simple local brasseries, or rather touristy places along the canal, so I sought refuge in Michelin for a simple place for lunch. The restaurant of the Grand Hotel looked a bit too stuffy on a beautifully sunny afternoon, but La Palangrotte came up trumps. A simple, but quite elegant room along near the fishing harbour, its windows are thrown open to the street, and inside it was busy with diners enjoying an all fish and seafood-based menu. I started with a fine dish of grilled aubergines, doused with pesto and olive oil, and served with fresh anchovies and a scoop of Mango sorbet on the side. My main course of baby squid cooked on the grill came with grilled courgettes and baked potato. The squid was plump and well cooked, with a slightly spicy sauce, but reminded me why I don't eat squid very often: it was rather rubbery and tasteless. My partners langoustine were much better. With a fine tarte au pommes to finish, water, a half bottle of Picpoul de Pinet and coffee, the bill came in at 60 Euros for two. (2004)

Meyrueis: St Saveur, 2 Place J. Sequier. Tel: (0)4 66 45 62 12
Better than decent food in this unpretentious two-star hotel in the centre of this lively mountain village in the Pyrenees. An ample portion of terrine of foie-gras was served with a wild berry coulis, cracked pepper and sea-salt on the side, and was followed by a lovely dish of four plump fillets of rouget in a mire-pois of tomato and cucumber in a shellfish reduction, with plain roasted potatoes. Dessert was a heroic slice of very good pear tart with a scoop of ice cream. Cheap, and very cheerful. (2004)

St Hilaire de Berthmas: Auberge de Saint Hilaire. Tel: 04 66 30 11 42
In a suburb of Ales, a handy stopping point on the way south to Nimes, the dining room of this lovely restaurant with rooms is large, airy and joyfully Mediterranean, filled with bright colours and playful objets d'art. It is shaped as a large arc around a gorgeous garden, filled with citrus trees, vines and flowering shrubs. For a lunch-time stop en-route we chose the cheapest lunchtime menu ("grand-ma's menu") and I was extremely glad that I did: a wonderful rabbit stew was served from a casserole pot at the table, with a large, succulent piece of white meat that fell apart under the merest brush with a fork, in a rich sauce piled with pencil-thin baby carrots and wild mushrooms. This delicious dish was followed by a fine cheeseboard (the house nut-studded Roquefort in particular) and then your choice from an elegant but scrumptious selection on a large dessert trolley that included ice creams, tarts, and fresh fruits. We had a half of Mont Redon Châteauneuf-du-Pape at 24 Euros, with coffees and water bringing the whole bill to 79 Euros. (2004)

Arles: Le Jardin de Manon, 14 Ave Alyscamps. Tel: (0)4 90 93 36 68
An overnight stay in Arles was an unexpected leg of this trip, having cancelled a second night at the hotel Gorge de Pennanfort. We stayed in the bright, clean and very comfortable three-star hotel Cheval Blanc, and ate in a simple restaurant that had been recommended by the manager. Situated in a quiet but historical part of this otherwise bustling city, the small restaurant opens out to a lovely garden, where the large temperature controlled wine cabinet caught my attention. This was a really satisfying, generous and hearty meal of rustic but quality food. A fine gazpatcho had been enriched with cream and was studded with crayfish tails. My main course was a beautifully char-grilled loin of pork fillet, served with roast potatoes and garden vegetables. With home made tarts for dessert and a bottle of simple local wine, the bill was 60 Euros in total. (2004)

Haut de Cagnes: Le Cagnard, Rue Sous Barri. Tel: (0)4 93 20 73 21
This is a breathtaking hotel, perched on top of Haut de Cagnes, the medievil town dominated by the Grimaldi Palace, visible from the beaches of the Cote d'Azur far below. Le Cagnard is a series of labyrinthine 13th Century houses, that were converted 40-years ago into a luxury hotel (a member of the Relais & Châteaux group). Our room was just beautiful, with vaulted ceiling set in the three-foot-thick walls, and two pretty little balconies offering views over the town and to the sea. Dinner on the terrace was a little stuffy, with a slightly off-hand waiter (this was the end of a two-week holiday in which we'd already accumulated 13 Michelin stars worth of food and wine, so we were eating and drinking very modestly). Our meal started really well with a stunning dish of scallops of pan-fried foie-gras layered over caramelised pears and figs, but then the main course Sea Bass came with almost identical caramelised fruits and veg, and it all became a bit heavy. Very good, bourgeois food, and a brilliant hotel nonetheless. Expensive. (2004)

Haut de Cagnes: Le Fleur de Sel, 85 Montée de la Bourgade. tel: (0)4 93 20 33 33
Next night we ate just round the corner and enjoyed superb, uncomplicated food of the highest quality. There was a very friendly welcome, and an array of well-cooked and thoughtfully put-together dishes, with copious salads and freshest seafood, followed by a delicious pain perdu (a sort of French bread and butter pudding). Washed down with modestly priced local wines, we dined really well for around one-third of the previous evening's bill. (2004).

Cacastel, near Fitou: Le Clos de Cacastel. Te:
This very good and pretty little restaurant with a broad, shady terrace has a special place in my heart as it is where I spent a day with a small bunch of fellow wine writers learning to prepare the most famous regional dish of Fitou, Civet de Sanglier; a wild boar stew. Chef/Propietor David Balatter is passionate about authentic cuisine, and meticulous about his dishes. For starters we has some beautifully seared foie-gras on a bed of artichoke heart, stuffed with wild mushrooms and served with some sweet and spicy home-made gingerbread. The Civet Sanglier is a slow-cooked (four hours) stew of shin and collar of wild boar, in a thick Fitou sauce, with baby onions, mushrooms and root vegetables, in David's case, served in a little pot topped with a pastry lid. It was sensationally rich and dark, the meat literally melting in the mouth. For dessert I had one of the best chocolate soufflé puddings for quite some time, perfectly crisp outside, oozing with a great slick of dark chocolate sauce inside. The restaurant is very moderately priced, with menus from 13€ at lunch up to a 39€ menu in the evening. The short wine list of 50 bottles or so is entirely regional, but include some rare and fine wines. (2004)

Avignon: Christian Etienne, 10 rue de Mons. (0)4 90 86 16 50
This beautiful restaurant is formed from an ancient building that is actually part of the Palais des Papes, slap-bang in the centre of Avignon. With one Michelin star, Chef Christian Etienne is very much in evidence, running the kitchen and sharing a few moments with each guest at the end of the evening. The decor is modern and light, with bold contemporary colours set against the exposed stone and beams of the building's ancient structure. In summer, tables are also set on a broad terrace with views to the city. Menus begin at only 30€ (£20) though we ate the Menu Confiance tasting menu at €95, one of the best of several hearty, yet refined courses being a thick-cut slice of fish, served with a thin, pizza-like pastry and various miniature ratatouilles and market vegetables of the region. The wine lists is very strong, and the Sommelier - who turned out to be from Texas originally - knowledgeable and helpful. (2003).

Les Baux de Provence: Oustau de Baumanière. (0)4 90 54 33 07
Very close to the lovely old town of St-Rémy, and just below the Citadel of the village of Les Baux, is the wonderful and opulent Oustau de Baumanière. Chef/proprietor Jean-André Charial runs this famous Small Luxury Hotels of the World establishment, with its two-Michelin-starred kitchen and luxurious rooms. I ate there three times over a very indulgent weekend, and the food is truly fabulous, accompanied by an outstanding list of Provence wines. Rooms are large and beautifully furnished with delightful gardens on all sides. When the Mistral whips through this area (and it does) very welcoming open fires create a cosy, welcoming atmosphere. (2002).


Pauillac: Cordeillan-Bages. (0)5 56 59 24 24
Thierry Marx is the Michelin two-star chef who presides here in this luxurious hotel and restaurant on a corner of the Lynch-Bages estate in Pauillac, northwest of the city of Bordeaux. For my mid-week lunch here the dining room was very quiet, so a rather hushed atmosphere prevailed, with half a dozen staff standing to attention by the kitchen door. The food was fabulous: a confit of lamb starter came with flaking, delicate meat and a beautifully dressed salad of bitter leaves. A fillet of beef was seared black, but a pointe inside, served with simple buttered new potatoes, sweetly-caramelised onions and a rich, dark red wine reduction. We drank a bottle of the 1985 Cordeillan-Bages, to complete a really lovely lunch for around £40 per person. (2000)

Langon: Claude Darroze, Cours du Général Leclerc. (0)5 56 63 00 48
Langon is a small town about 50 kilometres east of Bordeaux, which can be reached by a regular train service. M. Darroze is a renowned Michelin-starred chef, and I attended a dinner for a dozen people at the conclusion of a competition for Petits Châteaux Bordeaux wines. The exquisite food of Claude Darroze, together with fine wine and the restaurant's unbelievable collection of vintage Armagnacs - a few of which were sampled - made up for slightly tired, if elegant surroundings. This is classic French/Bordelais cuisine, so expect foie-gras and lamb to be staples on the menu. (2002)

Sauternes: Le Saprien. (0)5 56 76 60 87
Right in the middle of the tiny village of Sauternes, this is a lovely old building, which I thought was closed at first because it was so empty, but then I saw the large French windows leading out to a broad terrace behind, with tables already crowded on a summer evening. The food in Le Saprien was good, without hitting the high spots, but positioned in a bowl with the vineyards of the Sauternes Châteaux all around, that really doesn't matter too much. Service was also a little vague on this busy evening, but I would eat here again if in the area. Large range of Sauternes by the glass, as well as Sauternes red and dry white wines. (2002).

Graves: Le Caudalie de Smith-Haut-Lafitte


Marlenheim: Le Cerf, 30 rue Général de Gaulle. Tel: (0)3 88 87 73 73
Marlenheim is at the top of the Alsace wine route, but it is also just 20 minutes drive from the centre of Strasbourg, so it makes a great base for a few days holiday in the area. Despite its lofty two Michelin stars, Le Cerf delivered really good, honest food and service, with lots of emphasis on local cuisine, much of it based on rustic ingredients like Munster cheese or little tartes flambé (pizza), yet turned into sophisticated dishes with precision cooking and the addition of luxurious elements like lobster, crayfish, truffle and foie-gras. My starter of Raviolis of smoked foie gras du Canard was served in a delicate broth, whilst my main course of line-caught Turbot was roasted to meaty perfection. Rooms start around £60 per night and climb steeply. We drank some lovely mature Riesling from Kreydenweiss, and the bill came in around £120 for two (1999).

Burgundy & Beaujolais

Chablis: Laroche Restaurant, 18 rue des Moulins. Tel : +33 (0)3 86 42 47 30
A beautifully restored old mill, the ancient fabric of this restaurant is offset by sleek, modern furniture and lighting, and gleaming glass and silverware. It's a casual dining room, but with a kitchen that is serious about its food. Apart from a selection of Champagnes, only Laroche wines are featured, but these range from inexpensive Chilean Sauvignon Blanc, to Grand Cru Chablis. What's even better, all are offered at shop prices plus 10 Euros (about £7). And the food? Well it is excellent and ample: the menu may be contemporary, but portions here acknowledge Burgundian appetites. Start at the bar with a glass of Chablis and some delicious gougères (posh, choux-pastry cheese puffs) before choosing from a short, seasonal menu that changes every fortnight. Highlights of my visit were crisp Seabass fillets, pan-fried on the skin side, and served on a heap of braised whole fennel with an interesting vanilla and mocha coffee sauce. A lovely, tender veal steak came with a creamed pea sauce, and the biggest pile of buttery, pan-fried girolle mushrooms that I have ever seen. Puddings are also worth saving room for, and coffee is served with buttery little Madeleine cakes. Food prices are moderate, with three courses costing around 30 - 35 Euros. (2007)

Beaune: Hostellerie de Levernois. Tel: 33 (0)3 80 24 73 58
In a small park just outside of Beaune on the road to Verdun-sur-le-Doubs, this has two Michelin stars and expensive, but good food and wine list and a reasonable fixed-price lunch menu. I didn't like our waiter much, who I clearly saw swipe another member of staff's tip from another table, but it is an otherwise lovely dining room, with modern French cuisine. For my entrée on the set three-course lunch menu I really enjoyed a supreme of Perch, roasted with mustard and served with a leek fondue. Just before coffee and petit-fours are served, they bring a sliver casket full of dark chocolate-coated nuts, which are irresistible (2000).

Beaune: l'Ermitage de Corton. Tel: 33 (0)3 80 22 05 28
A few miles north of Beaune, on the main road to Aloxe-Corton, is restaurant with rooms which is an over-stuffed, over-the-top excess of a place revelling in rich Burgundy cuisine and wonderfully old-fashioned. I see it has lost its Michelin star since I ate there, but retains its "Top Class Comfort" rating. Wear loose clothing and take no vegetarians for huge plates of charcuterie, snails and other typically rich dishes (2000).

Autun: Le Chalet Bleu, 3, rue Jeannin. Tel: 33 (0)3 85 86 27 30
In Autun town centre, I enjoyed the old fashioned restaurant very much, for inexpensive and fine food. Stuffed rabbit, filled with rice, spinach and force-meat was delicious, and there's a moderately-priced wine list with some very good, mature Burgundies. Low-key, long-established, and gives a sense of doing what it does, despite changing fashions. (2000).

Fleurie: Restaurant Le Cep, pl. Église. Tel: (0)4 74 04 10 77
The charming but redoubtable Madame Chagny presides over this wonderful Michelin-starred restaurant in the Beaujolais Village of Fleurie. A few years ago Madame voluntarily gave up a second star so that she could lower prices and concentrate on the true country cooking of the region. A meal here is a veritable lesson in local geography, agriculture and cuisine, especially if Madame Chagny introduces each dish. A wonderful platter of herb-crusted frog's legs were made freshly we were informed: "almost everyone uses frozen frog's legs; these were alive in the kitchen until 10 minutes ago". A parade of foie-gras cooked "au torchon", wild duck from the local river and succulent Charolais fillet steaks followed, each presented with a minimum of fuss and absolute simplicity, but cooked with love and consummate skill. Washed down with moderately priced Beaujolais wines, this little restaurant cannot be recommended highly enough (2003).