Last November, the Critic took me out for a very romantic dinner in the provincial town of Vichy. At the time (thinking of our loyal readers) I took note of the whole experience so that I could review it here. Well, it's been a busy couple of months, with Christmas and a new baby and I'm only now getting around to writing. In a way, though, this is appropriate, as I joked at the time that it would be one of our last chances for a romantic dinner...and so it was. (We ordered a delivery of Indian food to the apartment for our anniversary at the end of December!)
On the surface, Vichy might not strike you as the best place to find an awe-inspiring meal. Yes, it is in the center of the Auvergne region, reknowned for its wonderful cheeses and special beef. But the city itself reminds you of an aging Edwardian beauty, all faded chintz and dirty lace. Walking through the streets, you have the distinct impression that this place saw its heyday some time around the time of the Great War.
However, this is just the place to find an awe-inspiring meal.
If you read foodie magazines, you'll no doubt be familiar with the names of the best-known chefs and restaurants of the Paris area: Rostand, Taillevent, etc. However, if you arm yourself with a Michelin red guide and seek out provincial one-star restaurants you'll find yourself amazed with the result. For half the price of a Michelin starred Paris meal, you'll get something that is fresh, innovative, classy and well worth the trip. Jacques Decoret in Vichy is just such a restaurant.
Oddly enough, both the Critic and I came to the same idea of trying this restaurant by different means. Before joining him in Vichy (where he was on a training course) I looked up the town in the red Michelin at work and found that there was a one-star restaurant. I noted the address and resolved to talk the Critic into trying it. At the same time, HE wandered around the town looking for a nice restaurant to try with me and decided on the same one. It goes to show that the two best methods of finding good restaurants often turn up the same results.
From the outside, the restaurant is fairly discreet. It's on a side street near the train station, which is not usually the classiest part of a provincial town. However, once you enter you realize it's a relaxed elegant temple to food. The decor is very modern with clean lines: simple flower arrangements and large panels of art glass on the walls, immaculate white tablecloths and subdued jazz music. We reserved a table on the second night of my stay because the night I arrived they were fully booked.
In the end, the night we were there was a quiet one in terms of the number of clients. It was not quiet at our table, though, as we giggled and chatted our way through what was the most extraordinary meal of my life so far.
When the menus arrived we decided to sample the house champagne cocktail while perusing. This boded well from the start as it was a slightly nutty, not too sweet cocktail, unlike anything I had ever tasted and absolutely delicious. (We were later told what local liqueur went into the making of it but I am ashamed to say I forgot to note it down.) The menu was full of interesting sounding dishes, based on French classics and local specialities. In the end, unable to decide which sounded really truly best, we both plumped for the chef's tasting menu (Confiance du chef). The heavy responsibility of choosing just one or two dishes (and possibly finding they were not as delicious or interesting as we hoped) was too much for us. We had to try them all.
The first dish arrived on a miniature plastic TV tray. Brightly colored, silly, fun, but it left me concerned that M. Decoret would be more concerned with appearances than with substance. On the platter were chips (crisps to you Brits) of various exotic types, manioc and turnip with spices. Actually, it was pretty nice and so I mentally set aside my reservations for the moment.
Next up was a "deconstruction of gratin de courgettes", which was a lovely miniature soup of courgettes. However, the originality was more in the appearance than the taste.
The next dish introduced a combination of flavors I wouldn't have expected: foie gras with a beetroot sauce. I don't know why this isn't a more common treatment for foie gras; it's not uncommon to serve it with a sweet compote (fig, for example) and beetroot is certainly sweet. It was delicious, savoury and sweet and of course extremely colorful with the bright red sauce.
When we ordered the tasting menu, we mentioned to the waiter that the Critic had a "thing" about snails. That is to say he doesn't like eating them. So next up for him was a dish of gambas with a sangria of pink grapefruit. The sharp grapefruit added a new element to the sweet shrimp, definitely worth trying.
For myself, the snails arrived. A large shell made of breadcrumbs surrounded a small handful of the chewy little fellows in a pool of garlic butter. Again, the presentation was dramatic (not to say puzzling) and though the taste was a classic treatment it was a lot of fun. We spend the entire course discussing how on earth the thin hollow shell of breadcrumbs could have been constructed.
With the next dish, the fun really begain. We were served "21st Century Oysters", which consisted of a rubbery almost opaque ball perched on an oyster shell. Unsure how to tackle these babies, we looked to the waiter. "Put the whole thing in your mouth, pop it and pull the end out, you'll see what I mean," he said mysteriously as he glided away. What the?!? But we did see what he meant when we picked them up: they were little balloons with knotted tails underneath. Feeling extremely foolish and giggly, we popped them in our mouths and with one motion popped the balloons and pulled the balloons out by the tail. An explosion of iodine, salt and oyster made this one of the funnest and funniest dishes I've tasted. The giggles increased and the rather uptight group of seniors at nearby table started sending us glares.
Things calmed down a bit with the next two dishes, sea bass with pineapple sauce (lovely) and an emulsion of vieux cantal cheese with root vegetables. Both had interesting flavor combinations and went down nicely.
These were followed with Pigeons aux deux façons which were fashionably undercooked and savoury.
And then things got silly again with the next dish. We were each served a little wooden platter with a tiny cup of clear liquid, a straw and a linen of red powder. Yes, a line of powder, looking like red cocaine with crystals in it. We raised our eyebrows at the waiter. He smiled and advised us to take a tiny sip of the liquid (the clear juice of a fresh tomato), hold it on our tongues and use the straw to suck in some of the powder. He told us to hold the powder on our tongues to get teh full effect of the dish. We did and...pow! Do any of you out there remember Hot Rocks? The candy that exploded on your tongue? That is what the tomatoes did. Pop, pop, crackle! Hooting with laughter we finished up our lines of crack tomato. Now the table with the well-behaved children on our right was staring at these Bad Examples of how to act in a nice restaurant.
From here it was hard to get more exciting. We were served a cheese platter of formidable age, but I was sadly unable to eat any but the most boring cheeses. (I was pregnant at the time, you see.) For dessert, we were served a very respectable Ile flottante with fleur d'oranger sauce and an interesting sweet potato dish with parsley ice cream and passion fruit coulis. By then (have you counted the dishes?!?) we were past appreciating fine cuisine, especially the Critic who had ordered the tasting menu with wine included. (He told me the wines were all excellent, but in my swollen state I didn't taste them myself.)
The waiter and the female maitre d' had obviously warmed to us by now. They thought we were a little odd to be quite so loud in a Temple of Food, but as obvious foreigners all was forgiven. They asked if we would like to meet the chef and we agreed with great enthusiasm.
So we trailed back to the kitchen and shook hands with M. Decoret himself, who was a charming and (to me) shockingly young chef. Well, young to have his first Michelin star, as he looked to be around thirty. We congratulated him on his star and the fantastic meal. I asked him if he had constructed the breadcrumbs shell by covering a balloon of some sort and then pulling it out of the finished product and he looked extremely smug and said no and he wouldn't tell me how it was done. (I worked it out later - can you?) He said that he had thought of moving up to Paris but that his great friend Michel (Rostand?) counselled staying in the provinces for a bit longer to build up his reputation. Better to be a big fish in a little pond, initially. I wondered if Michel's reasons for urging him to stay put were as biased as our own: we love having the opportunity to try such innovative and delightful food at a reasonable price and Michel no doubt was happy to see the competition rest safely in the boondocks.
So there you have it: a fun food experience in Vichy. The food demonstrated a complete mastery of all the classic French dishes, but each had a little spash of originality. The service was impeccable and if the atmosphere was a little stodgy it was probably more to do with the clientèle more than anything else. If you are ever in the Auvergne region, it is well worth the trip. And when travelling through the rest of France bear in mind that the one-star Michelin in the provinces is often better value and more interesting than the two or three starred Paris restaurant. For one thing, these young chefs are still trying to prove they have something to say. And they are usually right!
7, avenue Gramont
Tel: 04 70 97 65 06
Menu Confiance du chef: 109 euros (without wine) or 130 euors (including wine). The cost of a meal à la carte was only slightly less, but with much less excitement!