I was therefore overjoyed the other evening to visit L’Auberge du Moulin, a shady terrace that offers, just off the roadside in the sleepy, mouthful town of Saint-Didier-sur-Chalaronne, an immaculately preserved throwback to the fine regional cuisine of yesteryear. The restaurant is acclaimed among local vignerons for its sharp Beaujolais-Maconnais wine list, its delicate fried fish, and its heaping portions of whole frogs.
Yet over a round of eau de vie, long after sundown when mosquitos began urging everyone homewards, I was dismayed to learn that L’Auberge du Moulin, too, will soon close. From September, iron-haired owner Patrick Piron will convert the restaurant, which presently offers lunch and dinner service and one rentable room, into a table d’hôte offering four rooms and private meal service by request. I may be getting distraught over what is merely a modification in service-style, but the fact is that the restaurant, already rather hidden, will become almost imperceptible. And this is indeed a shame, for like its only nearby peer, the Auberge du Col du Truges in Villié-Morgon, L’Auberge du Moulin is a moving demonstration of the heights of Beaujolais cuisine.
Upon sitting down at L’Auberge du Moulin one is subject to a strange trompe-l’oeil landscape effect. One senses a body of water nearby, and there is one nearby, the Chalaronne stream. But the Chalaronne is just out of sight, over a hillock, and in the actual background, what one initially takes for a pond at sunset is, in fact, a wide stretch of sand. (Horse care.)
A more urgent question, anyway, soon poses itself: what does one pair with a large plate of fried whole frogs?
Piron recommends white or, if it must be red, a light red. By no coincidence this is almost all he offers on L’Auberge du Moulin’s list.
The native companion and I took a bottle of the Robert-Denogent brothers' 2014 Mâcon-Villages “Les Sardines,” among their least-oaked cuvées, lush but agile, a wine exceeded only by its masterful label: a haunting image of the eponymous fishes by the inimitable Denis Pesnot.
L’Auberge du Moulin is almost as famous for its friture as for its frogs. So we didn’t hesitate to accept the suggestion to share a plate as an apéritif. I marveled as much at the pristine quality of the tiny river fish, fresh-plucked from the Saône, as at the service genius of offering them as an apéritif. Typically, friture is offered as a generous main course. Yet it is common local knowledge that most of the Saône is too polluted for fishing, a fact that implies most of the region’s friture derives from elsewhere. Piron’s elegant solution has been to find the best local fish, and offer them in smaller quantities, elsewhere in the meal.
Both the snails and the voluptuous tête de veau we shared for appetizers benefitted from their spare, unadorned plating - a level of restraint one encounters rarely enough in Paris, let alone the French countryside, which has for several decades been plagued with fruit mousses, balsamic squiggles, and other such pseudo-sophisticated culinary dementia. We were not spared this entirely: a main course of black rice. shrimp, and bay scallops, while tasty, looked alarmingly as though it had been triaged in from a “hip” restaurant in Lyon to appease cosmopolites of the Ain département.
There was, furthermore, no need to have ordered it, we soon realised, as my plate of frogs was teeming enough for two.
When one encounters frogs in Paris, either on menus or (weirdly, when you think about it) at market fish stands, one almost invariably sees just the legs, either already-fried or arrayed, bead-like and vaguely atrociously, on a skewer. Here at L’Auberge they are presented whole, a pile of crunchy silhouettes. For an idea of the experience of eating them, imagine if fried chicken were as finicky and difficult to get-at - and as fun - as langoustines.
When I return this month, I’ll probably try them with a very light, bright cru Beaujolais - something to cut the richness of the fry.
Moulin Saint Julien
Tel: 04 74 06 60 98