Margaret and Dick   


September '09: Tasting menu

I answered the phone sleepily.  It was Heather, Margaret’s assistant, calling for their daily appointment.  I explained that even though it was 5:30, we were still in our afternoon nap.  Stunned silence.  Yes, a nap after our four-hour lunch.  First to be seated at the restaurant at noon, we were among the last to leave at 4:00. 

The French take dining seriously.  Even our frugal neighbors understood when Margaret told them we were going to Franck Putelat’s restaurant for the menu dégustation, the high-end tasting menu of the chef’s current favorites.  After years of lobbying, Margaret was determined to experience the famous “Action/Réaction” menu before our season ended.  In past visits to Putelat’s restaurant Le Parc, either I or one of our friends had lost courage and chosen another exquisite but less expensive menu.  Alas, the tasting menu is only offered if the entire table chooses it.  No backing out this time, I had been warned.  And what the hell, we’ll do the wine pairing as well, enjoying the sommelier’s art of matching wines to the chef’s dishes.  I should mention that, with the menu dégustation, one orders blind, with no idea of the dishes and delights to come.

Putelat has become our favorite French chef.  In the dining room, a Zen ambiance is perfectly suited to the subtle treasures on the plates.  The creative food, extraordinary service, and warm environment wrap are just what you expect from a Michelin one-star restaurant.  We started going there during the brief period before they were awarded the star.  On our second visit (“Monsieur et Madame Higgins, quel plaisir de vous revoir!”), we were blown away when the sommelier recalled our previous wine choices and suggested other wines we might enjoy.  Yeah, that kind of place.

People-watching is part of the fun.  An older couple, with dog on leash, sat down at the next table; another group with a dog was seated across the room.  No, it’s not doggie day at Le Parc.  This is France, and people expect to bring their canine companions.  The dogs are almost imperceptible as they lie quietly on the floor.  No begging:  these dogs are used to not eating in fine restaurants.  
Can we bring our cat next time?” we asked the maitre d’.  “No problem, you can bring your guinea pig as far as I am concerned.  Recently a couple asked for a chair for their dog, and that was a bit of a problem.  But frankly, dogs are easier to handle than children.”  Yes, imagine your toddler sitting still for a four-hour lunch.  Or your teenager, for that matter.

The owner of the dog at the next table, a gentleman probably in his 80s, was dressed in a white linen suit.  His wife, with sparkling eyes and nice smile, blonde hair with dark roots, was discretely well-dressed and probably not much younger.  Their well-mannered dog was “a Springer Spaniel, like your princess Margaret used to have,” he said, assuming we were British. 

We tried to guess the dynamic of a trio across the room: a distinguished older man in jacket and tie, clearly accustomed to being in charge; his wife (we think) playing a background role; a younger 60-something woman in business dress who talked non-stop through lunch as the man nodded in agreement.  Was she selling them on a big real-estate deal? 

Then there was the business lunch:  six men in earnest discussion, the alpha-male in a bright silk tie dominating the conversation.  The wine was flowing freely at their table.
We realized, as other tables were served coffee and we were still working our way through our main courses, that we were the only menu dégustation this lunchtime.  Service is executed with ballet-like precision.  For each course, a team of servers places plates or removes the silver domes simultaneously for all diners at the table.  The head sommelier, after taking our wine order, delegated our wine service to the second sommelier, a young woman who would light up with pleasure as she described the winery, its owners, the grapes, and the style of wine-making.  She in turn was assisted by an apprentice.

And the food?  I thought you would never ask.  Margaret forbade me to bring my camera, so I resorted to sketches.  Too bad!  The plating was pure art.  Check out the culinary eye-candy on their website.

The tone was established by the appetizer:  a two-gram clam on a quarter-teaspoon of yogurt and preserved lemon, served on its shell in a tiny steamer basket, an aroma of tea wafting up from below in a fog of dry ice.  Que la fête commence! 

We won’t give the blow-by-blow.  You must go taste and see for yourself.  Three fish/seafood courses and a witty deconstruction of pasta carbonara were accompanied by two local white wines, one crisp and one oaked.  The arrival of big-bowl glasses signaled that the meat courses were about to begin.  When the maitre d’ lifted the silver domes to show a bright red wedge of meat, Margaret’s reaction (“Ah! pigeon!”) surely earned her a point.  Thirty cheeses were offered; between us we chose ten.  The dessert courses (brilliant) were accompanied by a sweet red wine with full tannins.  Then coffee with friandises – sweet little nothings – and time to settle up.  The wine had mellowed me enough to weather the sticker shock, and Margaret assured me that we are under-budget for restaurants this year.  Seems unlikely, but I'm not checking her math.

We considered napping in the parking lot but thought better of it.  We do want to be welcome back on our next visit.  Our four glasses of wine had, after all, been spread over four hours, so we proceeded on our twenty-minute drive home.  It seemed like only moments later that I was mumbling into the phone, with Heather, astonished, “You had a four-hour lunch?!” 

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