It’s almost 8:00, the end of a long travel day, and the heat of a summer afternoon clings to the sidewalk as I walk to the restaurant. Seen from a distance, it’s not an especially impressive place – on the ground floor of a 60-year-old hotel, a little frumpy but comfortable enough. The Moulins train station is across the street, so people come by in waves as the trains come and go.
I’m greeted by the couple I’ll call Monsieur and Madame. They’re clearly the owners of the restaurant, and in the course of the evening they will impress me as offering the highest expression of the qualities we love about French restaurant service: pleasant, a little formal, gliding in and out as plates appear and disappear, always checking to make sure everything is right without any of the cloying friendliness you might see in an American place.
The restaurant, at the Hotel Le Parc in Moulins, came to me through ViaMichelin.com (the official website of the Michelin Guide). According to their inspectors, Le Parc is a “pleasant, family-run, hotel-restaurant” where “the traditional cooking is top notch.” They give the place both the little “plate” symbol for a Michelin “selection”, and two “crossed spoon and fork” symbols for the restaurant’s comfort level. Not the same as one of the famous “Michelin stars”, but usually a reliable guide when you’re looking for a good place to go for an everyday meal…
I’m travelling solo – Karen will join me in a couple of days for a drive to Portugal – so I take a chance that there won’t be too many smokers and ask for a seat outside on the terrasse. The evening is getting cooler as the sun drops, and it’s fun to watch the people coming and going from the train station. Only two other tables are occupied when I arrive.
A glass of white Port comes chilled, sweet but not heavy, perfect for a summer aperitif. Given the heads-up by the Michelin Guide, I order the homemade foie gras with apricot chutney, and it’s one of the best I’ve ever had.
I go for “simple” for the main course: a filet of Charolais beef (raised just down the road, I’m told, on a local farm) with a heavy pat of Béarnaise butter melting over it, accompanied by potatoes and broccoli. I’m strictly on foot tonight, so I get a nice bottle of Haut Medoc to go with the meal
For dessert: I ignore my predilection for anything chocolate and order a terrine of orange and grapefruit mousse. The traffic from the train station thins out, then disappears almost entirely. A man the age of my 27-year-old son walks past the terrasse, makes eye contact, says cheerily “bon appetit, monsieur”.
And why am I telling you all this? I had actually started doing research for this post, hoping to write something smart or original about France’s café culture and the pleasures of having a simple meal in a small-town restaurant…but this was a fine summer evening in Moulins, and somewhere along the way I lost focus.
I’m focused instead on all the sensory experiences – the crunch of the toast under the chilled foie gras, the incredible tenderness of the filet, the temperature of the air as the sun goes down. I hear birds rousing as darkness comes, watch the last rays of the sun fragmenting on the steeple of Moulins’ cathedral, listen to the clink of knives and forks and the murmuring conversation coming from the bar next door.
This is the French experience I came for, and will happily go back for as often as I can for as long as I live. The restaurant at Hotel Le Parc is not a temple of haute cuisine; it is rather a perfect example of the richest traditions in French cooking.
The ingredients are the best available anywhere. The recipes are simple, not profoundly different from what you would find at a thousand lesser places – but at Le Parc they represent exceptional, high-quality execution of what’s been done forever in French kitchens.
Even though the service is crisp, the evening passes slowly – or rather, at exactly the perfect pace for enjoying all these different sensory elements. And as I walk back to my hotel through the medieval streets of this small town in the deep heart of France, I am as close to perfectly content as any human could be. The only possible improvement would be for my wife to have shared the evening with me.
Do I have anything original to add about France’s café culture? As it turns out, not really. But it’s worth noting just how pervasive this kind of experience is. It’s too often considered as a kind of “Parisian” quality, but we’ve been lucky enough to find it everywhere we’ve gone in France (and, to be fair, in Italy, Spain, and Portugal, too).
(And by the way, I heartily recommend the restaurant of the Hotel Le Parc! Find them at their website here, or at 31 avenue du Général Leclerc in Moulins, telephone (+33) 04 70 44 12 25.)
Do you have a favorite memory of an evening out au restaurant in France? Please share it in the comments section below!