Sunday, February 27, 2011

Tours I

1 September

We took the TGV (France's high speed train system) to Saint-Pierre-des-Corps, and then had a quick, 5-minute ride into Tours.  Unlike at the beginning of my trip, when being tossed into a new, unfamiliar city every few days was overwhelming and bewildering, now it was commonplace to not know where I was, but get my bearings and figure it out.  We found our hotel, and spent a little time studying maps and guidebooks, and then it was time, of course, to figure out where we'd be having dinner.

Given that the Tours is in the heart of the Loire valley, which is considered to be the "heart" of France and the "birthplace of French cuisine," I wondered if the menus would be as generic and uninspiring as those of Bordeaux.  But I need not have worried, Touraine cuisine is as unique as that of any other région, with rillettes and rillons and freshwater fish aplenty.  The dinner choice was easy once I found this window:

This restaurant was lauded not only by the many restaurant rating guides (note, in particular, the Petit Futé 2011 sticker in the middle - clearly, the excellence continues), but also by locals as the spot for authentic local food.  I was excited to have found an excellent spot for dinner, and we headed about to wander until it opened at 7:00.

Tours is a beautiful city on the Loire river, filled with unusual juxtapositions of old and new architectural styles.

The Loire cuts through the center of France, dividing North from South as it wends its way through the countryside.  Consequently, it was a major German target during the second world war - taking out the bridges on the Loire effectively cut off transportation between the two halves of the country.  As much as 65% of Tours was destroyed in bombing raids during the war, and today some of the "ancient" bricked and half-timbered style has clearly been rebuilt in the last half a century.

Luckily, the outstanding Gothic Cathédrale St. Gatien seems to have escaped most major damage, and is as stunning and awe-inspiring today as ever with its heavy, ornate facade and light, airy interior.

When we headed back to the restaurant a few minutes past 7:00, they weren't open yet, which was strange, so we kept circling about until they were finally seating people around 7:30 or so.  We should have taken the hint and chosen a different restaurant for the evening.  The restaurant was completely full by 8:00 - quite early, in my experience - so clearly others were just as enthusiastic about eating here as we were.

After some serious debate, I opted for a simple meal, starting with a crisp, floral glass of Touraine blanc and a plat de charcuterie:

Note the garnish of sesame seeds...
A plat de charcuterie, as you may recall, is a plate of cold meats, often served with cornichons (small pickles) and mustard.  Starting in the upper left corner and moving clockwise, this plate included saucisse d'ail (a garlic sausage), rillons (essentially leftovers from making bacon, fried until hot and crispy and, hopefully, irresistable), rillettes (shredded pork that's been cooked and then jarred for preservation - it's better than that description sounds!), some pickled cabbage, a cornichon, and a few slices of boudin noir (I hope you haven't forgotten that that's blood sausage) with a couple bits of apple.

The meats were all fine, but nothing was particularly special.  They all would have been better hot.  The boudin was good but not so magical as in Bordeaux.  The saucisse d'ail was a little smoky and a little garlic-y and simple and pleasant.  The rillons had a nice mellow flavor that emphasized pork in its best possible form, but they would have been better crisp and freshly fried.  The rillettes had an incredibly smooth texture, just a little salty and a little sweet, with a little pepper and a lot of pork.

Mom had had a salade avec Sainte-Maure rotie, miel, et pommes:

And more sesame seeds...
Sainte-maure-de-touraine is a goat's milk cheese that is ubiquitous in Tours with a gray, moldy rind, a slightly gritty texture and a tangy, decidedly goaty flavor.  It paired well with the apple and honey, but less well with the heavy hand the chef used with the salt and pepper shakers.

I finished my meal with a salade "simple":

Seriously, what is it about sesame seeds???
The salad was comprised of a tall pile of lettuce surrounded by mounds of shredded carrots and red and white cabbage, and topped with a mess of fresh herbs and literal gobs of salt and pepper.  The seasoning was completely out of line - not at all mixed in, just dumped on top of a few select leaves for some seriously salty bites.  Quite a disappointment.  On the one hand, I did order just a salad instead of something particularly exciting, but on the other hand, I did have some outstanding salads in other restaurants on this trip.

Unimpressed with the meal as we were, and offended that it hadn't lived up to my expectations given the window stickers' promise, we left disillusioned and without dessert.  Back at the hotel, I fell asleep almost at once, exhausted.

Coming soon: the best brioche perdu (that's "French toast" in the ever-unromantic English) ever to cross my lips, and the considerable whimpering it inspired.

A bientôt,

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