Oh today was a good food day, perhaps the best day in terms of gastronomical experience.
Lunch was in a restaurant on the island of Porquerolles, as we were going to be cycling round the island. Being an island, fish is caught on a regular basis, so all the fish and seafood items were incredibly fresh. The soupe de poisson, in particular, was so rich and fishy that all those who had it couldn't get enough of it.
Guess what sort of an amuse-bouche we were served? No, go on, guess. Could it be? Not more tomato gazpacho? But this one was very good. It was almost a dessert, actually. Three layers of mustard ice cream, tomato gazpacho and basil cream. Amazingly complex, the flavours are not strong but piquant, and are composed in such quantities that each melds into the other with incredible lightness.
I decided to skip a starter, since I knew a big dinner awaited us. I went straight for the lamb croustillant with chutney and polenta. I'm always quite intrigued by meat served with pastry; it just seems so incongruous. I was a little concerned when the lamb emerged, because it looked slightly dry, but it turned out to be quite all right. The chutney might have been an attempt at creativity, but it wasn't as good as the Australian ones.
Dessert was an obvious choice, since they had an order of Ile Flottante with fruits and mint sorbet on the menu. When it arrived, though, I was disappointed. The traditional pool of creme anglaise was nowhere to be seen, which meant the dessert was not an ile flottante at all, but just a meringue. I was wondering where the mint sorbet was, until I discovered they had actually stuffed the sorbet inside the meringue! If anyone has any idea how that's done, I'd dearly love to know. Unfortunately, this had the side effect of making the meringue somewhat soggy.
Dinner was at a restaurant near our hotel named Le Sud, and despite having earned no Michelin stars, it was easily the best meal we had in France. How Le Sud works is diners get no choice over what to eat; the chefs cook and prepare whatever they found fresh in the market. Your job is just to eat whatver's placed in front of you. Now, I'm a great fan of this approach to cooking because it leaves everybody happy. The clients are pretty much ensured a good meal because everything is fresh, and the chef is happy because he gets to work with fresh ingredients and turnover is rapid: no days-old fish belly sitting around in the fridge waiting for someone to order it.
We were told that we would be served three different starters, a main course, and dessert. What we weren't told was that this didn't include about three or four different appetisers before the start of the actual meal.
First came an interesting looking tomato gazpacho served in a chinese spoon, as well as a cherry tomato halve with some tapenade and a cheese stick. The gazpacho was thick, but quite lusciously enjoyable, though the tomato with tapenade was a little tart for me.
Our second amuse-bouche took the form of a truffled croute. A generous slice of truffle, coated with olive oil, was placed atop a toasted morsel of bread, with a crystal of sea salt to really bring out the flavour. Most of the truffles I've had had infused the dishes they were presented with, leaving the actual truffle bland, but this one was heavenly. The entire thing was impregnated with the heady aroma of truffles, and one bite was all it took for the intense flavour to go straight to the brain.
Next up was a cuppacino of cepes and truffles with scallops. This was yet another winner - the flavours of the truffles and cepes were perfectly melded into the creamy soup, but the scallop hiding at the bottom was a bit tough.
After that, we started the meal proper with some confited vegetables with squid, balsamic vinegar and herbs. The tomato you see had taken well to being confited, as it was almost syrupy, and the squid provided contrasting texture. Nearly everything is improved with the addition of good balsamic vinegar, so that certainly helped.
Our second starter was a lobster salad. Now usually I'm not one for seafood, but this was pretty good. The lobster was fresh, and fell apart easily, while the vegetables provided some extra crunch and moisture.
No, still not done with starters yet. Grilled Dorade with Risotto was up next, and while I think no one does fish as well as the Chinese, this dorade was at least treated with a modicum of respect. While not grilled to perfection, it was close, and the green risotto absorbed the creamy sauce and gave the dish some chewiness that enhanced the delicacy of the fish.
So on to the main event. The great thing about Western foods is that they're a lot more imaginative with their meats. Here it's chicken, beef, pork and mutton. Over there you can get rabbit, boar, pheasant, quail, probably dragon, if they still had them. Predictably though, I was the only one on the table that ordered the stewed rabbit with polenta. Delicious. I love stewed rabbit. The way the flesh just melts in your mouth, with no hint of gaminess whatsoever. The polenta was served in a separate Le Creuset mini-casserole, which was not only cute but also very practical.
All right, get ready for dessert:
How about that for a dessert spread? A vast assortment of lemon tartlets, pineapples macerated with syrup, strawberry compote with cream, fruit jam and cream, warm chocolate cake, coffee cream and mocha ice cream, as well as shortbread with figs. Everything was so good that I thought of having seconds, but my stomach was making warning noises to tell me otherwise.
Far and away the best dinner during our trip, and the restaurant didn't even have one star. Outrageous.