Our penultimate night in Thonon-les-Bains coincided with the eve of Bastille Day, 14 July. Expecting fireworks, we booked an outside table overlooking Lac Leman at the town’s Michelin-starred restaurant, Raphael Vionnet. In the end, the only fireworks came in the form of food and wine – which were both crackers. Here’s a sad story of my delinquency.
Greeted by the warmly hospitable David, we were shown to our terraced table with a gorgeous glimpse of the Lac and boats beyond the trees. The lovely thing about outdoor eating in France? NO INSECTS.
Commencing menu explanations in French, he quickly realised we could not keep up and switched to English. Later I overheard him doing it again in Italian; same with the young waiters and Sommelier-in-Training. None of them looked over 25; all of them could converse happily and intelligently in multiple languages. I suppose that is necessary to work in a Michelin-starred restaurant and I applaud it for the high standards of servitor it attracts.
Our first Amuse-Bouche was a cone of mozzarella with prawn paste, a square of “fera”-flavoured something on a biscuit base, (the Lac has two kinds of edible fish all year round, the perch and the fera), and a toastie thingo with stuff on top – by now who cared – all gorgeous. I ordered a glass of Billecart-Salmon Brut Rosé (and thanked Peter and Angela Wilson for my introduction to it) as my pre-dinner drink and Keit a G & T.
The astute observer will note I have deliberately dropped the “h” off my husband’s name. It is not that my standard of spelling has dropped, it is simply that the French cannot say “Keith”; “Keit” is the closest they come. Many more standards will be dropped on this heavenly evening, I promise.
By now we’d worked out we would have the five course “Menu Confiance” with matched wines. “Confiance” means trust, and we felt in a place of this standard we could trust the chef to provide us his finest, not yesterday’s left-overs and the over-stocked wine from the cellar. Less expensive options existed but we chose the OTT pick.
The next amuse bouche was a soup course – a hot thick bisque flavoured with fera and served in a glass coffee cup. You could either spoon it up (Gail) or slurp it from the bowl (Keit). It was the best bisque we have ever eaten. I washed it down with the rest of my champagne, legitimately called champagne, and was now mildly inebriated. You who know me know that I apply a one glass limit but tonight I had bravely stepped into the world of matching wines. Aw heck, they’d promised 8 cl servings (80 ml) which is smaller than a standard drink. And it was Bastille Day!
Soup was followed by the first course. A forbidden dish arrived! Of course it did – this is France! Accompanied by a pimento-flavoured sorbet in the shape of a pimento (!), we were served the smoothest foie gras, like velvet, like silk, moulded then sliced around a knob of fresh lobster. Did I decline it on principle? No, of course not. I was trusting the chef and anyway they gave me a Sav Blanc called Gaia made in the Loire Valley in a beautiful glass. The Sommelier-in-Training sloshed some extra into my verre. He was very cute so I batted my eyelids and ascertained his name – Paul.
Fish course was the ubiquitous fera. Michelin starred restaurants are supposed to take advantage of local produce and present it to its best advantage. I was loving fera I can tell you. I wash loving everything. It wash served on a duxelles of noix, (bed of crushed nuts – I have never crushed nuts in bed), a petite amount of fera crème, some tiny, weeny, itsy-bitsy baby girolles (mushrooms) in a cute line across the plate and topped with truffe d’ete – truffle of summer – which in this case was bark-like, (trees not dogs), brown and grated on top. The wine was a viognier made by Julien Pilon in the Rhone Valley. Good on yer, Julie-Baby. Yer tops, you know? My BEST frenn Paul looked after me again. Love ya, Paul.
Our meat course was not meat. It was duck. A large piece of duck was served, ordered so rare it could have flown away. It was served with roasted shallots – the real ones not the puny petty green and white things we call spring onions in Australia – and gravy of carnard. That means duck. Thish next wine was one I knew. As Paul was now bringing it to the table to be photographed before pouring, I saw from 20 yards away it was a Saint Emilion and I KNEW, because I know my wines, that wine. “Saint Emilion is BORDEAUX!!!” I happily carolled to the benefit of the restaurant. My visit to La Cité du Vin had not been wasted. It was a Chateau Mangot from 2012 but it tashted NOTHING like Mangoes.
The cheese came. Who cares what-ish was? It wash CHEESE. It could have been Tomme, Beaufort or Comté. The really cute waiter called Nicolas said, “Madame is correct. This cheese is Tomme, embedded with black peppers and a William pear compote”. At this point Paul elbowed him aside, or did I elbow Nicholas aside?, to pour a Trousseau (that’s a grape I never heard of – where was Cité du Vin in need?), Grande Domain made in 2017 in the Jura. “Oh”, I cried, “in Switzerland”, showing off I am exceptionally good at geography. “No, Madame, the French Jura” replied Paul stiffly. Who woulda thought gorgeous young Sommeliers-to-be could be SO sensitive? He only poured me HALF a glass this time. Petulant Paul.
A long wait now ensued before dessert. Did they think I was drunk or summfing? This afforded the opportunity to enjoy the fabulous last vestiges of a flaming sunset and canvas the other guests, silently abusing the Italians for smoking in an outdoor restaurant – bloody Italians! I stood up to go and remonstrate with them, knowing I could carry this off in my best Italian, but Keit pulled me back into my chair. We debated driving down to Evian to see their fireworks, but if you think Paul had been generous with ME, well you shoulda seen my squiffy husband whose name I could no longer say either. Keit was gently, sunnily, beaming with bonhomie, didn’t want me to take on the Mafia, and didn’t have the car keys. He reminded me we had walked to dinner. Oh. Yeah.
Surprishe! Next came a “pre-desshert” desshert. It was a tiny little cup of fennel and chopped frais. As a combination they are divine. They generated a long discussion between us. Keit said they were strawberries. I said they were raspberries. Keit said they were strawberries. I said they were raspberries. Keit said they were strawberries. I said they were raspberries. This intelligent discourse went a little longer, until I, as only a wife can, told him that he was (an idiot and was) thinking of “frambois”, not “frais”, (you see the confusion right there), and painstakingly set out to assemble on my plate enough portions of the chopped frais to convince him he was looking at a raspberry. This took a while. I ecstatically chased minute portions of frais around my plate to assemble a whole. It was thoroughly absorbing and mentally engrossing. The waiters all stayed far away from our table during this process.
The evening was winding to a close. It was around 11.00 p.m. and still a beautiful warm evening, when dessert was presented. It was layers of fine meringue interwoven with layers of framboise. Keit had learned his lesson and pronounced “strawberries”. A triumph! I was very proud of him. Expecting a Monbazillac from the Dordogne, a dessert wine famed throughout the world, I was denied the opportunity to show off again when a white muscat made by Domain Lafage – Grain de Vigne – was poured at the table by a surly Paul who muttered it was made “South of the Rhone Valley, Madame” and avoided my other 17 questions. He has a LONG way to go that boy.
Now stuffed, inebriated and ready to ride home by molecular transportation, the offer of “mignardise” tempted me to remain. These were tiny chocolates served with coffee for Keit and tea for Gail. Back to fireworks, the bill was a rocket, a sparkler and a whopping eye-opener, especially when mentally converted into AUD the next morning, except my eyes couldn’t stay open, so who cares about fireworks?
Did I tell you that our apartment has a glorious view over the Lac? That it is built on the top of a steep hill giving it this elevated vantage point? That from our Lac-side location we had to get up this hill on foot to go home? I am SO glad we did not drive. We now had to attempt to climb some Alp, worthy of anything we tackled on the Camino, in our over-fed, over-drunk condition. Holding onto each other, pausing whenever our hearts raced fast enough to kill us, counting ten steps at a time, we clambered, staggered and climbed our way home in the dark and fell into our mutual comas.
This morning, we rated Chateau de la Treynne a better meal, this one in Thonon second over everywhere in Australia we’ve fine-dined, vowed never to do matching wines again, and recorded this blog for you to enjoy. Vive la Bastille! Vive la Vie…