Monday, July 26, 2010

La Réserve Rimbaud

I have seen the future of fine dining in France.

We always head out to a good restaurant on our wedding anniversary. For years, we went to the now-defunct Café Henry Burger. Caught up in a government expenses scandal back in 2003 (plus tougher competition), it closed in 2006 after 83 years in business. (No politician or bureaucrat would be caught dead in there after the scandal broke.) In recent years, our celebratory dinner has switched to Beckta’s, the most consistently good restaurant in town.

This year, though, we’re in Montpellier for our anniversary. A little research and I come up with a newly-Michelin-starred restaurant right in Montpellier, about a 15-minute walk from our apartment: La Réserve Rimbaud.

La Réserve Rimbaud is one of the oldest restaurants in Montpellier, opening in 1835 as the L’Auberge du Père Louis. Titus Rimbaud renamed it when he took it over in 1875. And the restaurant’s façade looks about 175 years old too, but don’t let that fool you. They've thoroughly modernized the interior. It overlooks the river Lez, with a spectacular outdoor terrace, perfect for summer dining. It’s close to downtown but tucked away in a quiet residential area. The opposite side of the river remains forested, so it’s like being out in the countryside, far from the madding crowd. A swan patrols up and down the river, waiting for diners to toss chunks of bread from the terrace. Later in the evening, the swan has gone to bed. Then fish take their turn to vie for the bread chunks. To them, it’s manna from above.

The chef, Charles Fontes, who took over several years ago, takes pride in using local produce and traditional approaches with an innovative twist.

We start with an aperitif of Picpoul de Pinet. Crisp acidity with lemon-lime flavours, it’s a perfect start on a more-than-warm summer evening.

For appetizers, Michèle picks the Coquettes de volailles du Lez truffées, a specialty of the restaurant for over a century. Crispy on the outside, velvety smooth on the inside, they’re delicious. Michèle is crazy for truffles so it’s perfect. The restaurant’s sommelier matches it with a local rosé.

I take the foie gras poêlé, avec raviolis de cerises, with a glass of Muscat de Frontignan, a Vin Doux Naturel (fortified sweet wine). Just the right amount of acidity to match the fat of the foie gras, without any cloying sweetness on a warm night.

For the main course, Michèle selects the Filet de Saint-Pierre vapeur, condiment d’olives Lucques au citron confit, asperges et parmesan (John Dory, steamed, with a condiment made of Lucques olives and lemon confit, asparagus and parmesan). The fish is fresh and perfectly cooked, crispy on the outside.

My choice is Peche du jour rôtie en bouillabaisse, pommes de terre, rouille de seiche et fenouil (Bouillabaisse made with roasted, freshly-caught fish, potatoes, and a rouille with cuttlefish – like squid – and fennel.) My bouillabaisse is delicious, with pieces of roasted John Dory, turbot, and bream, but a bit rich even for me (I have the proverbial cast-iron stomach).

[Apologies, I got so caught up in the romance of the evening, I forgot to take photos of the mains and the desserts!]

The sommelier and I come up with a matching wine: Domaine de Montcalmès Blanc 2007, AC Coteaux de Languedoc, 13.5% ABV. Half Marsanne and half Roussanne, two local white varietals, also common in Northern Rhone. It’s from a relatively new winery, releasing their first wine in 1999, but already with a good reputation. Aromas of pear, quince, golden delicious apple, almond, wax, white flowers, and minerality. Flavours of pear and apple on the palate, with minerality, then a bitter almond taste at the finish. Medium acidity, it has a round mouthfeel, but with acidity biting at the back. I love it; it’s so different from Chardonnay or Sauvignon Blanc. Great match with the main courses.

And the capsule logo adds to the romance of the evening for Michèle and me!

Dessert? Bien sûr! For me, Fraises Ciflorette, Chantilly mascarpone, meringues, et sorbet fraise. For Michèle, it’s Baba au vieux Rhum, chantilly vanillée.

Why is this the future of fine dining in France? Many young chefs in France have returned to the fundamentals of fine dining: great food defined by local ingredients and traditions, prepared well. They’ve turned their backs on opulent décor, over-the-top extras like pre-desserts, and snooty servers. The service is warm, knowledgeable, and conscientious. You eat well, not too much, in an enjoyably relaxed atmosphere.

But here’s the kicker: for a restaurant of this calibre, they price it all so reasonably. All appetizers priced at 15 euros, main courses all at 28 euros, and desserts all at 10 euros. Take all three and the total comes to 49 euros (about CAD65). For a Michelin-starred restaurant, this is a bargain. Even more pricing innovation on the wine list. Rimbaud groups their wines – mostly from Languedoc-Roussillon – by price (a no-no according to my sommelier training). There’s a full page of wines, all at exactly 20 euros. Next, a full page of wines at exactly 30 euros…then another page at 40 euros…then another page at 50 euros, and finally, a short list of other wines over 50 euros. It’s all very client-friendly and what’s wrong with that?

Going to the south of France? Get yourself to Montpellier and an evening out at La Réserve Rimbaud. Reservations a must.

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  1. Would have dined here if we went to Montpellier more than once back in the spring, but will certainly make a note to go in the autumn.
    White Montcalmes is quite rare. Sounds like you had a wine tasting with the menu rather than ordering bottle(s)?

  2. We ordered by the glass for the aperitif and the appetizers, then the bottle of Montcalmès Blanc with the main course.