EACH year, around this time, you’ll find more than a few vacationing restaurant critics stepping outside their usual bailiwick to fire home envy-inducing epicurean equivalents of a postcard from abroad, reviewing world-renowned, utterly exclusive temples of culinary fabulousness. El Noma, The Fat Bulli, or whatever happens to be the current world restaurant du jour.
My fiscal status means the best I’ll furnish is plaintive whining about what its like to press nostrils up against such an establishment’s window. My dining out is decidedly more downmarket, a blindly optimistic search for some unheralded and inexpensive little gem. It’s a long time since that has happened to me in France.
I have no overarching omniscience of the French dining scene and more informed acquaintances inform me it is still possible to eat very well in La Belle France, but that increasingly requires a robust wallet and an insider’s knowledge. In two decades or more of regularly visiting (usually the Parisian couch of an exiled Corkonian comrade), I have observed the downward spiral of culinary standards, yet whenever heading off, some random soul will inevitably assure me that, unlike in Ireland, I’ll get ‘proper food in France!’
In Marseillan, a charming village, blessedly shorn of bling, in the south of France, we find La Taverne du Port, a pleasing al fresco quayside perch. A tabloid ‘journal’, a faux newspaper wine list, contains keenly-priced treasures that would bring Bacchus to tears; I procure an exquisite Rosé (Mas Jullien Coteaux du Languedoc 2017) for a mere €15, including table markup.
Moules gratinee topped with grilled cheese are addictively savoury but the mussels are a background diminuendo. Main courses, swordfish, and sea bream, both overcooked, come with aioli and pureed potato topped with ratatouille, also grilled. Me Ol’ Doll is deeply disappointed at yet another poor French meal. I am bothered not a jot, having long accepted these standards and instead savour my real main course, superlative Mas Jullien quaffed in this little antechamber of heaven but MOD has the bit between her teeth and, while I am away from the table, books a Michelin-star restaurant for lunch the next day.
La Table Saint Crescent is next to a roundabout on a busy three-lane access road, which a barrier of planted bamboos fails to exclude, a curious location in the otherwise beautiful city of Narbonne.
LTSC offers an excellent, child-friendly ‘Nouvelle Generation’ option, main course, dessert, and drink for just €20, while the small garden includes a swing in the corner. Their lunch is lovely buttery mash, delicious chunks of chicken, fat and skin still attached, and deep-fried ‘chips’ of polenta. The quality of French poultry, particularly poulet La Bresse, will always give them a headstart and if I’d have been more than happy to have received this dish myself in any of the bistros we’ve dined in hitherto.
Our entree is sauteed mushrooms and piquant-braised Faugeres onions, in a robust comte sauce, topped with barely poached warm egg and a foam of egg white, rich, complex flavours delivered with a lightness appropriate to lunching.
Dorade (sea bream) is freighted with flavours of the soupy, salty Med, served with a medley of roasted summer veg swimming in a rich fish-head bourride, the fish itself baptised with a drizzle of sauce vierge. All works immaculately with a superb Corbieres, Chateau Montfins Saint Jacques (at a much more ‘Irish’ price of €55!). Dessert is choux pastry with bracingly bitter angelica ice cream, vanilla cream, strawberries, and fig sauce — pleasant, sweet but hardly earth shattering.
It is a lovely lunch, sound cooking, good flavours — and a post-prandial tour of beautiful Narbonne is the perfect digestif — but before opening a second eyelid in the morning, I could rattle off ten Irish non-starred restaurants producing superior fare and if, as Michelin claims, its standards don’t waver across international borders, then five or six current Irish star-holders should be on two, delivering, as they do, vastly more innovative cooking of infinitely superior local ingredients.
The next time you’re planning holidays with a heavy focus on extensive gastro-touring, perhaps you should be looking at an Irish bus timetable rather than international flights. You mightn’t get through quite the same amount of Hawaiian Tropic but it it is becoming one of the very best places in the world to eat.
€155 (including coffee, excluding tip)
Tuesday to Saturday, 12pm to 13.30pm; 8pm to 9.30pm
Value: 8.5 (successful delivery of menu would have merited 9)