Dining

Troisgros is relaxed and unassuming, and just plain fun."

Roanne, France –

France has more restaurants per capita than any country in the world – large ones, small ones, elegant ones, simple ones. Surprisingly, most of them are good. Not surprisingly, there’s a never-ending debate about which of them is the best.

In such a debate, someone will inevitably proclaim the venerable Restaurant de la Pyramide (Chez Point) in Vienne number one. Another will stoutly defend the elegant Laserre in Paris. Others will stand by Paul Bo-cuse of Lyon, the clear winner for showmanship, or the Auberge de L’lll in Illhausern, certainly the most serene. But the paunchy Yank speaking tenuous French with a bit of Texas twang will always put in his two centimes worth for Les Fréres Troisgros of Roanne.

All five have incomparable cuisine well-served, but Troisgros has our allegiance because it is relaxed and unassuming, and mostly because it is just plain fun, a pleasant break from the formal institutions which are sometimes more interested in preserving the sanctity of their hallowed walls than in accommodating patrons.

Like so many other French hotels and restaurants, Troisgros is located across the street from a railway station. The restaurant, in Roanne, a city of 55,000 on the Loire River, looks at first glance like the others. But when you enter, through the bar, you know immediately ’ that you haven’t just stepped into a place to grab a quick bite while waiting for a train. The dark leather banquettes and chairs are full of well-dressed Frenchmen discussing business and politics. At the bar, there are usually a couple of locals lying to each other and a bartender who smiles, polishes glasses, and mixes you a perfect drink. If he catches your American accent (and he will) he fills the glass with ice. For Europeans he puts in only a couple of cubes. He will also make a Martini dry for Americans, not so dry for Englishmen and the growing number of Frenchmen fond of le cocktail.

As you notice these little nuances of service, you begin to tingle in anticipation of what you came for – maybe the best table in France. The activity picks up, young waiters pass through in a constant flow, getting wine, beer, and coffee, polishing glasses and silver, smiling and talking – enjoying their work. The maitre d’ho-tel comes in and shares a short beer and a joke with the bartender. One of the chefs (Jean or Pierre Troisgros) comes in, and you think everyone will suddenly grow quite serious. But he stops to chat with the customers, and he’s having a good time too. He returns to the kitchen with one or both of his English setters at his heel.

The dining room is as comfortable and unpretentious as the bar. The tables are covered with the best linen, and set with sparkling crystal and silver, all elegant andTsimple. While in-formality prevails, it never degenerates into sloppiness. Water and wine glasses are always refilled, finished plates are removed promptly and replaced with new ones. And you never have to ask for anything except the check (which would never be presented until requested). The only friction you will have with the waiter will be when he chides you for not wanting seconds. Once, when I had ordered coffee and no liqueur, as I finished the coffee and set the cup back on the saucer the sommelier came round with a large decanter of excellent brandy and, without asking, filled the cup half-way and pronounced it, in perfect English, “a warm-up.” I savored every drop and wished all waiters would be so surly.

Ah, but the food is the reason you’re there. It is straightforward, simple (by haute cuisine standards’ and deftly and lovingly prepared by the brothers – always according tc the season and the best available materials.

The summer menu, which I recently sampled, starts with either mousse of fresh foie gras (liver of force-fed goose) or a paté of thrush. The foie gras is incredibly rich and sinfully smooth. The thrush paté is only slightly less rich and has a pleasant game perfume that is not at all overpowering. Either one paves the way smoothly to salmon in sorrel sauce. The freshest salmon, arriving from the nearby Loire every morning, is fileted and poached, and served in a delicious butter-rich sauce with plenty of sorrel.

If the contrefilet of beef with marrow and a luscious sauce of beef stock and excellent Beaujolais (Fleurie) seems somewhat ordinary, it is so by design. It is ordinary only in that it is simple, which it must be after the richness of the first two courses. The gratin Dauphinais (potatoes in cream) which accompany it are excellent. This course is followed by a selection of local cheeses – some with the straw still clinging.

Next comes the dessert cart, which by this time is overwhelming. You ask for something simple – sherbet and a few nice, fresh strawberries. You get a sherbet-filled crepe, a lemon tart, fresh strawberries with raspberry puree, a banana cake, petit fours and almond cookies. Somehow, because it’s all so tempting, you make your way through most of it, but you still get gently chided for not finishing by the waiter who purposely gave you too much in the first place.

The Troisgros have selected their wines carefully, and have some delightful Burgundies and Rhones bottled for them. Of course, they also have grands crus if you are in the mood. There are also house brands from Alsace, Marc de Bourgogne, cognacs, Armagnacs, and a large selection of Habanas to finish off a nonpareil experience.

After all of this sensory bombardment, it is pleasant to take a leisurely stroll through the town before retiring. The Hotel Troisgros is simple, very comfortable, and not expensive. On my last night there, after five days of hearty eating, I fell into a deep sleep, and dreamt that when I died and went to heaven (it was only a dream, after all), I was transported there on a train instead of a chariot. And lo, the train stopped at the Ro-anne station and St. Peter, wearing a conductor’s cap instead of a halo, announced that heaven was just across the street.

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