Castles of meat
Part 15 of a 2006 Cataluña/Pyrenées/Roussillon travelogue
by Thor Iverson
As the afternoon wanes, we clamber up and down the uneven stone streets of this beautiful village, which reminds us a little of Erice, though it’s far less isolated and solemn than that majestic Sicilian pinnacle. A few wine bars and cafés beckon, but after this morning’s tastings at Barroubio and Sénat, we’re a little worn down, and as dusk starts to settle, we head back to the cavernous comfort of our hotel.
Le Tournedos et H. Le Tassigny (rond point de Lattre-de-Tassigny, Lézignan-Corbières) – Set in an otherwise quiet residential area of town, this isn’t the easiest restaurant to find. Not that I think it’s particularly big with the tourists in any case; everyone stares when we walk in, there’s certainly no English being spoken at any other tables, and the English we speak to each other draws a surprised glance from every waitperson that approaches our table.
The name of the game here is meat, and a lot of it. In fact, I can’t imagine wanting to eat here except if in search of the namesake tournedos, which feature on the menu in many, many incarnations. I start with a salade de gésièrs, itself a massive and extremely filling (but excellent) undertaking, and while waiting for my next course I realize I’m really not all that hungry. Oops.
So when presented with a slab of beef about the size of my head…to make matters worse, I’ve ordered it Rossini-style, with a thick plank of foie gras and a Madeira-based sauce)…I’m filled with dismay. Where are we, Alsace? Who can eat this much food at a sitting? The accompaniments are no festival of lightness, either: what we’d call “home fries” in the States, sweetened pearl onions, and asparagus wrapped in bacon.
Nonetheless, I tuck in. No lack of hunger has ever gotten between me and beef before, and I’m not sure it ever will. The food’s quite good…simple (despite the historical pretense of the recipe), filling, old-style food, cooked properly and with pride. And appealingly-priced, as well. Wonder of wonders, I manage to finish all the animal products and the asparagus, leaving most of the rest for a hypothetical diner who weighs twice as much as me and doesn’t care. But I walk out a little wobbly, my center of gravity quite a bit lower and more forward than it was before dinner.
The wine list is locally-focused and full of producers I’ve never heard of. A bit at sea, I make a random selection, which turns out to be non-ideal.
Bertrand “Château Laville Bertrou” 2002 Minervois La Livinière (Languedoc) – Good, dark, spiced-berry fruit with earth. But it’s thin, and hollows further on the finish. There’s some improvement with air, but not enough, and the overall impression is somewhat boring. I’d call it a competent wine and leave it at that.
25 October 2006 – Carcassonne, France
Like Venice, this walled city verges on unreality; looking around, it just doesn’t seem that it can be real. (And in fact, the intent and direction of its original restoration lends some credence to that theory.) Also like Venice, it is packed to the gills with tourists and ways to extract lucre from same. And once more like Venice, abandoning the densely-populated middle for the lesser-traveled exterior brings rewards. Especially the lices between the exterior fortifications, which just seem to ache for mounted and armored knights jousting or parading along the avenues. Closing my eyes, I can hear and see them in my mind. It’s a remarkable bit of illusion.
It’s also an extremely windy day…the sort of wind that penetrates to the bone…and we retreat to the safety of coffee more than once (with a 50% success rate; the morning’s café au lait, taken in a brasserie, is fine, while the afternoon’s espresso in a protected outdoor courtyard is wretched, as is the unfortunate standard for French coffee these days).
Le Clos Occitan – In Carcassonne’s functional Ville Basse well below the touristed towers and gates, we have a leisurely lunch in this elegantly decorated restaurant. Emphasis on “leisurely”…service is stilted and painfully slow.
Our food is mostly boring. Salmon in a pedestrian cream sauce, no doubt straight out of a dusty and understood-by-rote copy of Escoffier, is followed by a pretty decent cassoulet. And that’s really all that’s worth saying. There’s no life to the food, just correctness. The restaurant is packed, and I’m at a loss to understand this, because it’s just not very interesting.
From a similarly boring wine tome, I select a Minervois La Livinière. They bring a Minervois Les Capitelles, but it takes them so long to bring the bottle that I don’t even care to go through the rigmarole of making them correct the error. The wine’s not very good anyway, so I can’t imagine the Livinière would have been all that much better.
Mignard “Château Mignan/Pech-Quisou” 2004 Minervois Les Capitelles (Languedoc) – Wan, dark fruit with rough bark and unappealing dust. Mildly pleasurable, but no more.
l’Os à Table – We arrive at this highly-recommended restaurant in the mood for an interesting dinner, or at least one better than we had at lunch. The setting is nice (well outside town), the room is comfortable, and the customers…are absent. All night, there’s only one other occupied table, and the resulting funereal hush is a little depressing. And while there are obvious pretensions to high quality in the sophistication of the dining instruments, the descriptions on the menu, and so forth, the restaurant completely fails to deliver on its promises. A pile of smoked salmon to start is fine, though it says little about the chef’s skills, but the pigeonneau that follows is livery (from an unmentioned forcemeat) and somewhat overwhelmed by an ultra-rich, foie gras-laden sauce. The overall effect is of too much liver with a bird that’s already on the gamy side. Theresa’s salade de chèvre chaud is boring, with stale toasts the only ingredient to provide any actual “interest,” and her somewhat bizarre chocolate-coated rabbit is cooked to the consistency of thread, with about as much taste. At least the bread is good, though it’s then difficult to understand what happened to its cousins in the salad...
The wine list appears interesting enough, but they’re out of a lot of the listed bottles. Worse, they decant the wine I do order far from the table (why, when there’s no one here?), pour some for each of us, then spirit the decanter back across the room. Where it sits, full of wine…while our glasses soon become, and then remain, empty. We wait. We do some significant head-swirling, even take pointed sips at otherwise empty glasses whenever a waiter passes. No effect. Finally, I take matters into my own hands and bring the decanter to our table. Unlike at Troisgros a few years back, in which every waiter in the place twitched with shame when I was forced into a similar action after a too much time bereft of wine, no one here seems to care. And in fact, our waitress does act as if she has been whipped…more than once, and to the point where she seems to expect it again at the end of her shift.
Escande “Domaine Borie de Maurel” 1999 Minervois “Cuvée Sylla” (Languedoc) – Fully mature. Hard, showing whip-strap leather drizzled with meat squeezings, a metallic core, and a finish that’s edging towards astringency. Not bad, but drink up.
This restaurant is, alas, just no fun at all.
Copyright © Thor Iverson.