It's axiomatic that French wine towns contain great bistros. Less of a given, though, is how many great bistros. It often happens that a wine town receives major tourist traffic only at sporadic moments throughout the calendar, with the result that the local economy sustains just one great bistro, and that is precisely where every traveling importer, sommelier, caviste, etc. wants to be at those sporadic moments.
This is how our friend J2 managed to sort of shanghai us in Saumur* this past January during the period of Too Many Wine Fairs (La Dive Bouteille, La Renaissance des Appellations, Le Salon Les Pénitants, to name just the three I attended this year). He had assured the whole gang that, like the year before, he would call weeks in advance to reserve an enormous table at Bistrot de La Place. Then it must have slipped his mind.
So we wound up at what I imagine must fast be becoming a semi-renowned consolation restaurant for traveling wine geeks: Les Deux Maisons, a cartoonishly ugly place in the corporate-provincial style, inauspiciously situated in the parking lot of an E. Leclerc supermarket - in sum, a restaurant where one would certainly never dare to set foot, were one not aware beforehand that since 2005 its been owned by Daniel Haudebault, proprietor of Bistrot de la Place.
The atmosphere, to put it lightly, is not the same. Where Bistrot de la Place is a dim well-worn two-story wooden charmer with narrow steps and low ceilings, Les Deux Maisons is a vast, overlit, 400-seater, chock full of the kind of garish nouveau product design that one only ever sees in new construction in the countryside.
I arrived early with my friends J, C, and D, and we proceeded to unwittingly enjoy the highlight of a meal at Les Deux Maisons, before anyone else had arrived: the raw bar.
Raw bars make a great deal more sense in the Loire than they do in Paris. Les Deux Maisons' was correct and fulfilling in every way, not to mention inexpensive. The grey shrimp in particular were fresh and succulent; I could have eaten an entire bucket, tossing them back like the "small fry" Kafka mentions in "The Burrow."
Les Deux Maisons' wine list is as ripe for admiration as it is for condescension. A restaurant pitching itself for corportate functions need probably not have a list of specifically designated natural and / or organic wines.
Yet Les Deux Maisons does, and it's a laudable thing. Unfortunately the list still fails to contain much of interest to traveling wine geeks; the natural stuff on offer is unanimously the entry-level selections and the more-or-less clean-tasting cuvées.
With J, D, and C we went right for a reliably lovely bottle of Bernard Baudry's 2010 Chinon Blanc, a bottle that mesmerises me no less now than it did a few years ago when I first tasted it.
Chinon Blanc as a category, even... One finds so little of it, it's so rarely mentioned, and yet it provides pleasures that are remarkably distinct from dry Montlouis or Vouvray.
Baudry's 2010 is just slightly off-dry, with a sweetness both pure and slightly rooty, balanced with a white floral component and a languorous gravity on the palate that seems characteristic of the appellation.
The meal was all downhill from there.
The whole gang of us sat down to dinner, whereupon we were beset by unintentional jokes.
A tartare pictured on the menu, very visibly not coupée à la main.
The special of the day, as displayed on a looped powerpoint sequence on a television in the corner of the room? Chili con carne. (Not pictured.)
And these strange garnishes sticking like antennae out of the terrine accompanying C's magret de canard?
We soon identified them as uncooked spaghetti.
There was nothing to but laugh. Laugh, and perhaps set calendar reminders for booking elsewhere next year.
* It is of course perfectly likely that there are many good restaurants in Saumur, and we - me and most of the wine-folk I know - simply don't know about them. I sincerely hope this is the case, in fact.
Les Deux Maisons
boulevard Mal de Lattre de Tassigny
Tel: 02 41 50 50 44
A 2011 article on Les Deux Maisons @ LeFigaro
2012 Loire Road Trip:
La Renaissance des AOCs, La Dive Bouteille, Le Salon Les Pénitants
2011 Loire Road Trip:
Café de la Promenade, Bourgeuil
La Renaissance des AOCs
La Dive Bouteille
Bistrot de la Place, Saumur