Friday, April 20, 2012

Working man's lunch in the heart of Côte-Rôtie

The vineyards of Côte-Rôtie loom above the town of Ampuis
The steep vineyards of Côte-Rôtie are not only breathtaking; they were a relief to see, as they meant not only was I not lost; I was about to have lunch.

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.

But finally the road dumps me into the town center of Ampuis. Two men sit outside a bar-restaurant-hotel across the street from the church, enjoying a carafe of wine with lunch. I wander in to discover the 10-table place nearly full, with a crowd of working men in stained jeans standing at the bar, most of them having a beer in the heart of the region that makes the best Syrah in the world.

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.

The menu has four choices that boil down to one: roast pork with mushroom sauce with a huge side of crozets de savoie, a buckwheat pasta dish. Your real choice is just how many extra courses. I pay 13 Euros ($14.50) to have it with salad, cheese, dessert, coffee and mineral water. I could have 250ml of house red instead of the coffee and mineral water, but I splurge 7 Euros on a glass of Côte-Rôtie, with no knowledge of the producer.

The salad is lettuce leaves bathed in a vinegary dressing with a hard boiled egg and croutons. It's after 1 p.m. and I had a stale brioche for breakfast, so I devour it.

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.

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