Troisgros, Roanne. 2003.

This is a long-standing culinary monument in Roanne, now operated by the son of its originator, and universally positively reviewed. It boasted when we visited the coveted three Michelin rosettes, but quietly.

We drove into town from the North, and followed the signs to Place Gare (the station square).  There we were horrified by a dominating facade of vertical black glass panes with white metal mullions, topped by triangles and pyramids emblematic of the 1970s, all filthy with road and train-station dirt, marked “Troisgros”.  We considered just continuing on our way, but we were curious, a bit tired, and of course starving.

Walking in the front door in the afternoon, we saw ladies behind the desk in black dresses, and bellboys in suits and ties, mixing in the lobby with guests dressed in long dresses, or blue jeans.  The overall effect, including the 30-years-past modern decor, was disorienting. The main public space is hard to describe.  Picture Japan, seen through the eyes of a self-indulgent French architect in about 1975, done with the inept workmanship of Latin Europe.  Then imagine it redeemed by a vicious attention to detail and an unfailing relaxed charming dignified demeanor.  Even if you hate the passee-moderne interior design, the gestalt of this place is enough to arrest attention, and it has to be said: pleasing overall.  Luxurious, meaning opulently satisfying to the senses, it really is.  But the sensual satisfaction is not so much in the physical plant, as in how they treat you.

The hotel was beyond our usual price range, but even at $375 Canadian a night (this is 2003 mind…), there was value in the space, including our room, and in satisfying convenience and comfort. I’m not sure that the feeling of having arrived somewhere was intrinsic to the carpets and light fixtures, but you know you’re not in the Holiday Inn when somebody is pretty much always there to make sure that you’re happy. A great hotel, as Bill Bryson says: where you know your needs will be promptly and completely met.  And they were.

Short, bearded intense Michel Troisgros was ubiquitous but unobtrusive, charming the guests, and also a presence in the kitchen, which was fully visible from the garden through a giant picture window.  The lady at the front desk was gorgeous, solicitous and reassuring. She complemented my French, bless her heart.  She left her post at the desk as though we were the only guests in the place, personally took us to our room, and brought a little black lacquered wooden boat of baked items, delicious (and instantly gone).  The bellboy, a 40-year old character in a suit, joked about ice hockey.  We got a menu and wine list to take upstairs and pore over as we started to think over the big dinner we were looking forward to that evening.

Well.  The wine list was an adequately satisfying Who’s Who, with vintages of the big Bordeaux names back to the ’70s (and Chateau D’Yquem back to the 30s), and lots of good producers of Burgundy from the 1980s and 1990s, at fair prices by North American restaurant standards.  A good bottle cost $130 Canadian and up, make no mistake.  The cheapest wine was $24, most categories dipped to about $45.  Dinner also looked expensive.  The fixed menu was about $225 (each); some of the a la carte items looked like dinner for far more than that.  We could see that with wine to do justice to the food we’d be well up close to $700 heading back to our room.  But the food descriptions were exquisitely intriguing. In for a penny…

I wandered around the building and grounds while Robin took her beauty nap, and I stood an amazed few minutes in the fragrant garden watching about 25 fast-moving people in whites going through preparation in the kitchen, via an immense picture pane of glass, rendering the whole thing perfectly soundless.  A culinary New York Philharmonic on silent film.

Our hotel room was restful, big, and quite beautiful.  Although 1970s modern (not our choice of interior) nothing clashed, and everything worked for comfort and convenience.  The bathtub was a modern shape, but immense, and the hot water supply filled it fast.  The windows let onto the pretty courtyard where I had watched the kitchen. We dressed dark like a couple of diplomats, and hit the button on the tiny steel elevator at 8:30, set for some gustatory fireworks.

The dining room was quiet and perfectly lit, with plenty of room for waiters to pass among tables.  Couples were seated against the walls at 90 degrees at round tables, everyone with a view of the room.  Blonde wood, smoky green silk on the walls, and earth-toned trim, with vases and display cases sharp, modern, and subdued.  Waiters, sommeliers, busboys, and chefs were everywhere; always quiet, always friendly, instantly helpful, never interrupting.  And mature: everyone was a seasoned career pro.  Although we were pretty keyed up, we found this kind of quiet attention instantly relaxing and easy to get used to.

We had chosen a white and a red burgundy (lucky to find two wines we had tried before from our own basement in Vancouver): Lafon Clos de la Barre 1992 and Domaine Lejeune Pommard Rugiens 1990.  The white was acidic and empyromatically perfumed; the red was a monster of strawberry, backed by flowers, meats, and wood, and lots of tannic balance washing down dinner.

Dinner!  First came “tomato cubic”, a cherry tomato in a cube of aspic loaded with balanced savoury sourness, sitting on a vegetable reduction flavoured with simple garden herbs.  This released a soft explosion eventually amounting to variations on the theme of (surprise) tomato.  Next came a strange very flaccid almost transparent single large ravioli containing an orange-coloured puree of pumpkin, lying square in the middle of a round plate.  This thing tasted so simply soul-satisfying that I was afraid to take a second bite, like it might be over the top and too highly flavoured in some way; it wasn’t.  How they delivered overtones of pig, duck, and leek without muddying the flavours into gustatory brown I have no idea.  I wanted a couple more (and a litre of it frozen to take home) but got distracted as the inevitable foie gras arrived.

It was seared crisp on the outside and soft-succulent inside, served in pan juices deglazed with subtle vinegar and pomegranate seeds, and accompanied by tomatoes.  Perfectly hot. The effect of this was to take foie gras’ usual old almost cartoon-like mink-and-Cadillac richness in a wonderful sour direction, but the basic glorious bird meat flavour came through stronger than I’d previously thought possible.

A tasty circle of langoustine tails with fruits and savoury tiny vegetables, and then a cube of buttered monkfish done with cepe mushrooms and capers finished for me the white wine side of dinner, and I dragged my nose out of, and set aside, my big glass of floral Meursault as the sommelier poured out the first of Lejeune’s immense Pommard (bottled in 1990 after one of the pinot noir harvests of the century), smelling all the way across our medium-sized table like fresh strawberries covered with port.  He tasted the wine, then chatted amiably about M. Lejeune’s cellar (which we had also visited) and made us feel like big-time insiders.

Although not the classic match, this softly woody wine was OK with my two lamb rack chops that arrived in their Asian-spice melange (cardamom mostly I think), topped with a green European savoury pesto and ringed with meat glaze.  It also worked with Robin’s lobster, which came crammed with lots of salty melting butter, fresh parsley, and a garlic-containing puree.  This increased, rather than covered up, the ocean flavour of the big crustacean, soft with nary a suggestion of the expected chewy over-doneness.  Running alongside on the plate with both of these courses were little rectangles of vegetables, some marinated, and some fried on (and adhering to) a savoury batter as sort of micro toasted sandwiches.

Cheese.  No disappointments; we chose on the soft side and continued to marvel at the versatility of the red burgundy.  And then desert started.  It got a little hard to keep track: a party-like cup of twirly cookies included about eight completely different flavors.  A square plate divided into four offered up outrageous pretty combinations: gooseberry tart, frangipane with chocolate, a crisp cookie-sided cylinder full of pastry cream layered with various fruits, a cup containing a mad combination of coffee ice cream and sour mango marmalade.  An extremely thin chewy fruit puree tart, irresistible at the end, came just before we hit a final sugary bite of candied orange and lemon peel, alongside our coffee.

M. Troisgros made the rounds of the tables during dinner. He indulged us in French although his English was colloquial.  My impression was that the guy is incredibly comprehensive but that most of the energy stays out of sight, as he calmly looked for common ground for conversation. We didn’t delay him from moving on to the ambassadors and movie stars in the rest of the room.

Was this a perfect dinner?  Pretty damn near.  It’s not so much that everything was very good and there weren’t any duds, as that each food tasted like the thing itself, only more.  Sauces, accompaniments, and spicing all managed to make the central flavour bigger, not different.  And everything about the room and the people who work there was oriented not toward glorification of the chef or the kitchen, but straight toward our enjoyment of what was on the plate. Not to make you feel overawed, but to make you feel good.  And on the question of value yes, you can argue that no dinner could ever be worth $700 (or $70!).   But having paid not much less for some pretty ordinary food and rough-around-the-edges service recently the breathtaking hit felt a little less unreasonable. 9.4

About John Sloan

John Sloan is a senior academic physician in the Department of Family Practice at the University of British Columbia, and has spent most of his 30 years' practice caring for the frail elderly in Vancouver. He is the author of "A Bitter Pill: How the Medical System is Failing the Elderly", published in 2009 by Greystone Books. His innovative primary care practice for the frail elderly has been adopted by Vancouver Coastal Health and is expanding. Dr. Sloan lectures throughout North America on care of the elderly.
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