|The vineyards of Côte-Rôtie loom above the town of Ampuis|
I drove into Côte-Rôtie from the west using only a GPS, with no map. The closer I got, the more winding and tiny the roads are. The GPS said "recalculating" at every hairpin turn. Big trucks occasionally forced me to drive my rental car into a ditch to get out of their way.
This is a rugby fans' restaurant, with posters of regional champions on the walls. A big flat screen TV plays a cheezy British detective show, "Inspecteur Barnaby." A friendly brown and white spaniel pads over to check me out and spends a few minutes at my feet before looking for a better offer. The hostess is large and walks with a limp to my table, but she's pleasant.
But even hungry, I am no match for the pork and pasta. The pork is tender, the mushroom sauce creamy, but the crozets de savoie, while interesting looking and fortified with chunks of ham, is bland. I end up dumping all of my mushroom sauce on it and adding pepper and salt. It's workman's food, hearty and satisfying, and the anonymous Côte-Rôtie is spicy and elegant.
I'm stunned by the generous, downmarket cheese plate: four choices I can't identify, so I have some of each, and the waitress favors me with a smile for my greediness. The creamy, mild blue cheese is particularly good. The dessert, cherry tart, has only mild sweetness. Coffee is a tiny cup of burned-bean espresso, a potent, bitter, wake-up.
I peek in the kitchen and it's large, clean and serious, with three stoves, all completely cleaned up by the time I, the last diner, am done eating at 1:45 p.m. If you haven't eaten lunch by now in rural France, you're out of luck. The chef, a stout man with a gray crewcut, wears a white rugby t-shirt, bold for a cook, but it's unstained.
This isn't the best meal I've had in France; it isn't even the best meal I had that week. But it fulfilled the dream of a rural roadside set lunch: reasonably priced, satisfying, with an honest working man's feel.
My column this month for Palate Press is about a discovery I made when I went to see Côte-Rôtie: a little unused slice of land across the river, praised by Pliny the Elder, that turns out to have the same terroir as Côte-Rôtie. Please go read it, because I think it's a good story; those vineyards are special, whereas this lunch was an everyday simple pleasure. Both have their place.