DINAN, France — A gourmet French dinner for little more than a cheeseburger, fries and shake at a fast-food restaurant? Simple. Visit the countryside of France and enjoy incomparable dining experiences that won't break the budget.
Sampling regional specialties of France from the Loire Valley to Burgundy, from Alsace to Brittany, we were amazed at the quality and quantity of food we were served at reasonable prices at the most unassuming country inns.
These five gems rank as our top dining discoveries during four months in France.
--Creperie des Artisans, Dinan (Brittany), 6 Rue du Petit-Fort. What better place to sample the delicious Breton crepe specialties than Dinan, a well-preserved, medieval walled town on the Rance River with half-timbered houses, narrow streets and a huge fortified castle on the hill?
Creperie des Artisans is on a small, picturesque street off Rue du Jerzual, a steep, cobblestoned way winding down to the port. There are tables outdoors, but the atmosphere inside was far more enticing on a blustery autumn evening in September.
The massive stone-walled and wooden beamed interior with large stone fireplace, wooden tables and benches, and Breton folk songs for background music, offered a delightful setting for an evening dining with the locals on their favorite national dish.
Set menus at 24 francs and 34 francs (10 francs equal about $1) are both good value and include four courses: two main dish galettes (heavier buckwheat crepe) and two dessert crepes. There are many choices in both price ranges plus an extensive, reasonably priced a la carte menu.
The mushroom/egg and cheese/ onion galettes and the passion fruit ice cream and coconut crepes are delicious, but of the 14 varieties we tried during two visits, our favorites were the cheese/bacon galettes and the chocolate crepes.
The thick hot chocolate, kept in a huge vat on the kitchen stove, was spooned onto the crepes and then topped with toasted almonds or mountains of luscious chantilly , whipped sour cream that melts in the mouth.
Pitchers of hard apple cider or apple juice, both served from the barrel, are refreshingly appropriate drinks in this apple-growing region of France.
--Le Panurge, Chinon (Loire Valley), 45 Place du General-de-Gaulle. The colorful old town of Chinon, lying below an impressive fortified chateau, reeks of history. It's fascinating to wander through streets where Joan of Arc met with Charles VII, and where Rabelais lived as a child more than 500 years ago.
After a rainy Thursday afternoon spent at a colorful outdoor street market, we were hungry. Le Panurge, locally known as the Chocolate Snack, didn't look promising from the outside. Without the guidance of friends living in Chinon, we would have passed it and missed one of the best meals we've ever had.
The dining room at the back connects with a bar out front in this small, family-run establishment. A welcoming fire in the large stone fireplace next to our table provided warmth and atmosphere that wet October night.
We ordered the prix-fixe menu at 45 francs, plus carafes of the potent red house wine. The menu selection was limited but the food was superbly prepared.
The platter of hors-d'oeuvres varies --marinated tomatoes, cucumbers, carrots, beets and potatoes; an assortment of local sausages, and rillettes , a pate-like specialty of the region--served with a basket of crusty French bread was a meal in itself.
We feasted on the plat du jour , pepper steak, savoring every morsel of the large slice of rare beef, smothered in a delectable cream sauce with mounds of homemade pommes frites on a separate platter.
It was probably just as well for our waistlines that a highly touted chocolate mousse was unavailable that evening. Instead, we settled for the plateau de fromages and were introduced to a tasty fromage de Chevre , a regional goat cheese.
Amid the chateaux in the Loire Valley, we dined like royalty that evening for less than $5 per person.
--Auberge au Petit Gazouillis, Castelnaudary (Languedoc), 5 Rue Arcade. We made a special trip to sample cassoulet, a hearty white bean casserole, in Castelnaudary, a city that claims to be the birthplace of this delicious regional dish. We were not disappointed.
The auberge offers a large a la carte selection as well as several set menus in various price ranges. Cassoulet is offered on a four-course, 51-franc menu, but it was worth an extra 6 francs to try the cassoulet with confit de canard and sample the preserved duck that forms a basis for this tasty dish.
Our first course was a tray of varied hors d'oeuvres that included crudites--raw vegetables marinated in a vinaigrette sauce--as well as pate and paper-thin slices of local ham.