The best rating Michelin gives a restaurant is three stars, "worth a special trip". But three star places are too perfect, highly scripted food temples with extravagantly complex food. They aren't particularly fun. Which is why I like going to places like Au Plaisir Gourmand, indeed why I made a special second trip to Chinon just to have dinner there again. It ranks one star, which seems about right, but boasts the friendliest staff and most amazing local wine list I've had on this trip.

On our first visit to Au Plaisir Gourmand we had no idea what to expect. We had the nicest time. The woman who runs the place has a wicked sense of humour and knows when to use it. The crowning moment was at the end of the meal when she brought out a pat of butter with a birthday candle in it to both honour Ken's birthday and tease him for asking for extra butter earlier in the evening. That kind of appropriate familiarity makes us very happy. Not to mention the great food, the 1947 Clos de l'Echo, the lovely cheese, or the 1953 Coteaux de Layon dessert wine.

So we made a plan to go back, in part to have a good meal and in part because we heard there was some danger of the restaurant being sold. Jean-Claude Rigollet's cooking was as good as before; the veal with morels was absolutely perfect, my roast pigeon was excellent, good scallops with zucchini, a lovely lobster salad, etc. All perfectly prepared without being too fussy.

Sadly they were out of the 1947 Chinon, but the sommelier M. Bournand was kind enough to dig in the cellar and find a few bottles of Olga Raffault Chinon for us: a 1955 white, a 1955 red, and a 1959 red. The Loire is not as famous as Burgundy, Bordeaux, or the Rhone. But with expert help you can find excellent wine there. And a 50 year old Chinon wine can still be in great shape. The good aged whites tend to be sweet, coming full round in their age to an intensely mellow, elegant flavour that's not intense like a Sauternes but more rich like a Burgundy. And the reds hold on remarkably well, more fruit than an old Burgundy or Bordeaux but still with that old books flavour that makes truly old red wine such a pleasure.

The best part of an experience like this is the expertise of the staff. The sommelier at Au Plaisir Gourmand knows more about his wine than pretty much any American sommelier I've ever encountered, despite his being well under 30 years old. The wines were in perfect shape, excellently selected, and reasonably priced. All five ~50 year old wines were great; a remarkable event. I've given up ordering old Burgundy in a fancy three star restaurant; I can't enjoy something knowing it's $20 a sip. But a good restaurant in the Loire, a careful wine list, and friendly staff mean you can enjoy a long fine meal with great wine.

Chinon is a lovely part of the Loire valley, both for its own history (lots of Jeanne d'Arc) and for being in the middle of chateau touring and wine. The Hotel Diderot is a fine inexpensive hotel in town with a charming building and fantastic homemade jams. Or for a luxury experience, my favourite place in France is the Chateau de Marçay;. You can get a cab to take you the 10km into Chinon for Au Plaisir Gourmand, but by all means eat at the Marçay too!

  2006-11-12 14:54 Z