Have just spent two weeks in the French countryside between Sancerre and Bourges; variously called Cher, Pays Fort, and Berry. Had some very nice—and one pretty bad—restaurant/café/brasserie experiences.
One level of the Good were fixed-price lunches in modest establishments. Two are worthy of mention by name (or location):
>A hotel dining room in Aix-d’Anglion (name of hotel sadly forgotten, but it’s on the downhill side of the tiny main square). I think around 10 € apiece, including a half-liter of red wine, water, coffee…and…here’s the thing: the first course was serve-yourself from an appetizer/salad table, very generous and bright-tasting, including pates and rilletes. Second course was white beans and sausage. Third was a cheese serving: a platter was brought to the table, we took (modestly) what we wanted, on the honor system, and then it was taken to another table. Clientele seemed to be working guys and retirees from the town, and truck drivers.
>La Brasserie Fontana, in Henrichemont. Again, a serve-yourself first course, which included tete-de-veau, salamis, pates, eggs-in-gelee, various salads, melon, etc. Main course (there was no choice): roast pork in a gravy, very tasty, with peas-and-carrots. The carrots were actually amazing. Then a cheese course, though this time, the waitress cut your selections for you. The desserts looked pretty grim—industrial ice-cream things—but we asked for and got fresh fruit. We were seated with an older couple and shared communal bottles of wine and water. Again, coffee, again, a price around 10 € apiece, maybe a bit more. We ate there on the day the regional street market took place in town—right in front of the brasserie, in fact—and the clientele seemed to include folks who had just closed up their stands.
A word on the markets in this region. They rotate on a weekly schedule (six days per week) between six different towns. They are pretty large, considering that this region is fairly sparsely populated: in Henrichemont, it included at least two, maybe three butcher trucks, with terrific-looking meats, both to take home and cook, and ready-to-eat. Great strawberries. So-so-looking (white, ugh) asparagus. Several cheese trucks. And a cutlery truck, clothing, etc. we bought some mushrooms—chanterelles?—to cook back at our rental house, with eggs, and they were a real high point. Note though: this is not a farmer’s market-qua-farmer’s market: for the most part the vendors have bought from middle men or producers and much of the produce is from outside the region, if not outside France. But the quality is spectacular. As are the prices.
This area is also rich in bakeries: almost every town has one, if the town has more than about 250 residents, and they seem to sell a wide range of breads, rolls, pastries, etc.
Back to restaurants.
A step up—more sophisticated—than those two was Au Grés des Ouches in Morogues. We were given the choice of sitting in the bar area and getting the prix fix menu (behind the bar I spied not only Jack Daniel’s, but a Mezcal!) or the restaurant where one could order a la carte. We chose the bar, which seemed to have more diners—again, we’re talking lunch. Vin ordinaire. Water. A first course (plated) of rice salad with tuna, hard-boiled egg, tomato, anchovy, olives; wonderful. Main course, again, pork sirloin, I think, with a light mustard-seed sauce, and peas-and-carrots. The cheese was a disappointment, or maybe I missed the point: it seemed like pretty common Jarslberg (this just a few miles from a great goat-cheese center near Sancerre). We passed on the dessert, which was a cream cake and not to our taste. Still, a lot of fun, and aside from the cheese, very satisfying. In fact, I’d overlook the cheese experience and go back. Price? 22 € for the two of us.
A big step up in every way was our last lunch in the area, at Les Rives de Oizenotte, in Oizon. We had a four course menu, and were thrilled. This is in a brand-new building, decorated with fishing gear and art, overlooking a lake, light and airy with designer table ware. Indoor and outdoor dining is possible.
Ms. Margaret had fried goat cheese on toasts with a salad, and roast lamb.
I had cured salmon with a salad, and something like a tournedos of beef, beautifully cooked. Both main courses came with a zucchini ratatouille. A bowl of puff-fried potatoes was put on the table for us to partake of or not.
We both had a cheese course—this was plated in the kitchen, and included a blue from the Massif Central, a goat, and a soft farmers cheese with herbs and shallots.
Margaret had madelines with citrus sorbet and strawberries. I had nougat ice cream with honey and fruits I’ve now forgotten, but would go back for any time.
The funny thing here was the coffee menu. Not espresso-pression-au lait-etc. oh, no: you could order by the region, type, producer, etc., as in “Malaysian mocha,” Jamaica Blue Mountain, etc. The other diners seemed bemused, and as near as we could tell, everyone simply ordered “café regular” and got good espresso.
The wine? A red from Alsace. Total cost: 84 € for two.
Oh, yeah: the menu included a sparkling Muscat as an aperitif—whoever heard of such a thing, and why aren’t there more of them? A nice way to start the meal.
Finally, the not-good experience. A place called “La Bonne Labrador,” or something like that. English-run “French” road-side bar-restaurant. Heavily decorated. Featuring wines from right across the road, of the region Menetou Salon. Perfectly fine roasted-goat-cheese salad as a first course. But my and Margaret’s lamb chops were few, fatty, and blah; and our friend’s entrecote was so grisly he kind of gnawed at it for a while and gave up. A lot of fries and salad on the meat plates—bad sign. Wine forgettable. Owner obnoxious. Good thing I don’t remember exactly where it was.
One more thing to mention, on the good side. There is a Logis de France establishment—hotel and restaurant—in Henrichemont, called A Soleil Levante. We dined there one night, with the same friend, and thoroughly enjoyed it. Part of Logis’s mandate, if you will, is to feature foods of the region. Margaret had the 19.50 € menu and I had the 16.50 € one, while our friend ordered a la carte. He was skeptical that they would make for him an omelet with both cheese and ham—but they did and he raved about it. I tried a local dish of eggs poached in red wine (which proved to be poached eggs served over a red-wine stew of mushrooms and pearl onions; must try this at home!). I chickened out on tete de veau as a main course, but enjoyed (another?) grilled pork dish (funny thing: you see sheep and cattle on this landscape, but no pigs, yet pork is on most menus….go figure). No dessert, local red wine, couple hours at the table, total bill modest but forgotten. We’re devoted to the Logis de France system, and this meal spoke well for the whole organization.