Thank you everyone for a lot of fantastic advice for our trip, on these threads:
There were highs and lows. Here's what we thought.
We started in Lyon. The bouchons had excited us most beforehand, and we loved Daniel et Denise. (Not, of course, a typical bouchon given the chef, but serving a bouchon menu in an old bouchon.) The foie gras and sweetbreads terrine in pastry was very refined; the sautéed gras-doubles (tripe) were deeply satisfying. Their famous mousse-consistency "gateau" of chicken livers wasn't so much our thing but I could see how other people might love it. Lunch at Abel and dinner at the Café des Féderations confirmed how special Daniel et Denise is. Abel had a lovely atmostphere and the quenelle seemed correct (I was surprised how massive it was!), but the food was not up to Daniel et Denise. The Café des Federations, meanwhile, felt like a tourist trap and all the opening dishes fell very flat. They weren't even worth picking at. The mains (where you're offered a choice) were ok - we had the tablier de sapeur and the veal head, dishes that normally excite us - but the execution was not impressive. The only particularly good course was the cheese. We also ate lunch at la Mère Brazier. We only ordered the poularde de Bresse demi deuil, so I can't really make a proper judgement, but I wouldn't say that we were wowed by the restaurant. The chicken - particularly the breast, stuffed with very mild-tasting black truffle served with a creamy sauce - was good but nowhere near (admittedly more expensive) Parisian preparations we have enjoyed at l'Ambroisie, l'Arpège. It would be better shared between four people than between a couple and made for a hefty lunch. Breakfast-wise, we thought the Boulangerie Saint Vincent did a lovely pain au chocolat and a solid baguette.
For our drive down to the Hotel Faurie in the Ardèche, we picked up two explodingly-ripe goat's cheeses from the market on the Quai Saint Antoine to eat with one of those baguettes, together with fraises des bois and cherries. A great picnic! For two nights, the Faurie then blew us away. The couple who own it are very sensitive, charming people. The no-choice menus at dinner are harmoniously constructed in their entirety, and leave you feeling refreshed rather than obliterated. This is quite unlike many tasting menus in New York, which often seem uneven, choppily arranged and far too heavy. The chef at the Faurie is evidently a perfectionist and the quality of the ingredients was extremely high, including the best-aged cheeses we ate on our entire trip. (Like at l'Arpège, they just present you with three or four perfect cheeses.) Highlights were a lovely dish of oysters and fresh almonds; raw sea bass layered with foie gras and summer truffle; brioche with artichokes, chestnuts and white asparagus. The wine list is well-edited and good value. The chef's wife is very attuned to your reactions to the dishes and genuinely seems to care about what you think. The dining room is quirky and pretty. And then breakfast the next day... We have never eaten a better breakfast and skipped lunch afterwards. Freshly made brioche, strawberry tart, exquisite savoury dishes. I can't think of anywhere else like the Faurie. Cannot wait to return.
Next, in the Aveyron, we stayed for one night at Chez Remise. Although we appreciated the dining room's fishing-themed décor, we mostly felt the dinner served as a pitstop for hikers. The food is clearly assembled in large quantity and could do with more love in its preparation. The idea of serving something hearty and unpretentious completely appealed to us (especially looking back, after bad-but-fussy meals in the Hérault and Tarn), but the Remise didn't exactly deliver. We were served smooth vegetable soup, followed by pork ribs and pommes aligot. Could have been fantastic but the execution was just OK. The breakfast - very weak croissants and baguette, served with a jug of weak coffee - was terrible. Cheap half-board but a hostelly room. Such a pretty village.
The splurge of the trip was two nights eating and staying at Bras. I had been worried about whether the restaurant and hotel could live up to both the expectations and the expense but shouldn't have. In fact, I would say that it was good value, relatively speaking. We ordered à la carte at dinner each time. The gargouillou was incredible (no big surprise): by the end of eating it, you feel like your mouth had been lit up by the humble fireworks of the different ingredients (indeed different each day). A cote de boeuf with summer truflle sauce (for two) and a saddle of lamb with a saffron-based sauce, relish, and Planèze peas, were both the high points of lamb and beef preparations in our dining experience. The lamb, in particular, was sheepy but not musty, with amazingly aromatic fat. Both meats were one step up, ingredient-wise, from what we ate at the Faurie, which already served us impeccable produce. A cold, duck-fat poached salt cod starter with very firm pak choi, fennel and a red wine sauce was extremely accomplished, more experimental. Pan-fried Breton lobster with a vin de voile sauce and leeks vied with a lobster in red wine sauce we ate at l'Ambroisie in January for our all-time best lobster preparation--and although it didn't impress itself on my memory quite as much, it was much better value. Photos also do not do justice to the view from the dining room, from which we saw the most beautiful sunset we've seen, on our first night. (The second night was stormy and the dining room was shrouded in cloud with no view at all!) The negatives: service is not up to a 3 star like l'Arpège (but at least unpretentious) and, strangely, there are a lot of what seem to effectively be bus boys and few waiters; the cheeses, though plentiful, were not particularly remarkable - they could have been better edited. Judging from what we had read before we went there, we didn't think the desserts would be great and indeed the one dessert we tried was very disappointing, as were the petit fours; this continued into the overpriced breakfasts (28 euros per person) where the viennoiserie isn't much good at all, and the breads did not match the quality of very good pain épi at dinner. The restaurant and hotel are rather too branded, with the sistre (herb) logo everywhere and a lot of merchandise for sale. But the savoury cooking at dinner was exceptional and warranted ordering à la carte, where portions are generous. The wine list mark-ups are heavy. We like modern décor and loved our room with a view.
Perhaps the big disappointment of the trip was the Mimosa in the Hérault. We like fresh, delicious food and authentic ambiance and we did not find that here. We had the tasting menu. Except for a well-executed, fresher loup de mer dish, the food all tasted like a retrospective of boring, unnecessarily fussy cooking from a decade (or two?) ago, pretentiously served and overpriced. Lots of julienned vegetables. A 58 euros per person tasting menu is not cheap for this level of restaurant (we ate a terrific meal for a similar price at Hedone in London beforehand and the difference is immense), and the à la carte prices for starters and main courses are about 30-40 euros each. The restaurant was almost empty on a Saturday night. The wine pairings were fine but not great.
After that, we ate at l'Entonnoir in Sète which was tasty but not as zingy as we'd hoped for after reading about it beforehand on ptipois' blog. Perhaps it was just that day or the chef has changed? Fried minnows and anchovies to start were very good and the sort of Carribean-inflected main courses were perfectly tasty but not worth a big detour. The day before we also had a fairly poor meal at l'Oustal in Pézenas (despite claiming to serve market-sourced produce, the salad was clearly bagged). To make up for a bit of a mounting disillusion regarding the Hérault/Languedoc dining scene we drove over to la Chassagnette in the Camargue and had a really fantastic lunch sitting outside. Here, at last, was the kind of fresh-tasting, more vegetable-based cooking we had been longing for! I'd been before and I truly think this is a very special place, in a wonderful setting, rustic crockery, with the vegetables grown right next to the restaurant. We had been slightly worried because we'd seen on the website that the chef was cooking a benefit dinner for Japan that night some way away in Vence, but luckily he was definitely present cooking for the lunch that day. In a way, this sort of restaurant feels more Italian stylistically, or perhaps just more modern than so many of the other restaurants we went to. If you like Spring you will love la Chassagnette.
Finally, in the Tarn, Vigne en foule was a fun night out for the two dinners we ate there. The starters weren't much good but the mains are copious and pretty delicious (pork chop, steak). The best thing about it, though, is the amazing wine list and variety of wines at excellent prices by the glass. We loved a Domaine Henry, Mailhol, itself grown "en foule". La Falaise (where we went twice, one too many times) had a good "menu vegetal", well-priced, but we didn't think the protein-based dishes were particularly impressive and, ordering à la carte there, you seemed to get the exact same portion size as was offered for the set menus. Unless you wanted a long menu, it didn't seem like a very good place to go to value-wise or otherwise. Our mistake was to not eat lunch at the Café Joubert in Fayssac, which looked like it served a yummy lunch in a much more charming atmosphere for far fewer Euros. For the local markets, there was a lovely, tiny organic market at Albi on a Tuesday evening where we bought the best cherries of our trip, in a rainstorm. There was also an even more charming "Nature et progrès" market in Gaillac on a Tuesday.