TOURS, France — Three years ago, during our annual gastronomic pilgrimage to France, my wife and I drove 60 miles out of our way one Saturday to have lunch in the dreary Loire Valley town of Chateauroux, about 160 miles south of Paris.
It turned out to be one of the best meals of our lives--a seven-course extravaganza orchestrated in every detail by chef Jean Bardet.
Early this year Bardet and his wife Sophie moved to Tours, the largest city in the region (population: 220,000), and turned a 19th-Century house into a 15-room luxury hotel and restaurant.
So when I was in Paris alone for a week recently, I decided to visit Tours for dinner and to scout Bardet's new place as a possible base for a future Loire trip with my wife.
It's a pleasant train ride to Tours--nonstop, 10 minutes less than two hours, expected to be about half that when the new high-speed TGV line is ready in 1990--and the hotel is 10 minutes from the station.
The alle leading to the hotel is well lit and beautiful--overhanging trees, winding trails, an entry marked by 10 columns that Bardet says were inspired by a plantation he saw in Atlanta.
The dining area is three small adjoining rooms containing 21 well-spaced tables, with pale-yellow tablecloths and paler-yellow draperies, blue cushions on the chairs, recessed lighting, a red carpet with a blue-and-white pattern and fresh flowers everywhere.
In the French (and British) tradition Mme. Bardet takes dinner guests first into the parlor, where they sip aperitifs while glancing through the menu and wine list. When I asked her if I could compose my own menu degustation but leave her husband free to make any changes he deemed appropriate, she beamed.
My dinner began with two indescribably fresh oysters in a watercress sauce (his choice), followed by two large scallops, barely cooked, in butter and herbs from the Bardets' garden, served in (and still attached to) their shells (her choice).
Then came a remarkable millefeuille of foie gras --alternating layers of warm foie gras and thinly sliced apple, topped by thin shreds of apple skin and surrounded by shreds and thin discs of turnip. Again, it was Bardet's choice . . . and it was a stunning balance of tastes and textures.
Amalgam of Choices
For the rest of the dinner Bardet stuck with my choices--first, colvert (wild duck) with two kinds of mushrooms (chanterelles and girolles ) in a chanterelle cream sauce with a timbale of endive and chestnuts; then, one of Bardet's most daring combinations--a piece of lobster, a large duck giblet and an oblong piece of potato, all served in a red wine sauce flavored with a hint of orange.
As I was dining alone, Mme. Bardet, who's in charge of decor, reception and the business, and also shares responsibility with her husband and the sommelier for the wine, suggested that I have a different glass of wine with each course. For this course she chose a 1975 Banyuls, a port-like, fortified, sweetish red wine from the South of France that I've never much cared for.
But with this sauce, it was--as I told her-- une belle mariage. After cheese and three desserts (the best was fresh figs roasted with cardamom and served with thin strips of quince marinated in Muscat), I returned to the parlor for a cigar and an Armagnac before going upstairs to my room for the night.
Good, but Not Heavenly
Was my dinner as good as that lunch Bardet made for my wife and me three years ago? Not quite. But it was wonderful, and if it was a shade less celestial, that's probably because I chose a few of the dishes this time rather than letting him choose them all, as he had the last time.
Price? A dinner like mine--there are two set, seven-course menus--costs about $75 per person (plus wine). Bardet also has two smaller menus at $33 and $47 per person, and an a la carte menu from which almost any selection of an appetizer, main course (except his lobster specialties), dessert and coffee would cost about $45.
None of these prices includes wine, but the wine here--like the food--is generally more reasonably priced than at similar establishments elsewhere in France.
Bardet's 51-page wine list has 16 pages of Loire wines, which are generally much less expensive than those from, say, Burgundy and Bordeaux. The list has 70 Vouvrays, for example, ranging from eight choices among recent vintages, at $16 to $23 a bottle, to a 1919 Vouvray for $630. (Bardet has 3,000 bottles in his cave at the hotel, and 40,000 more stored nearby--fittingly, in Vouvray.)
I'm not normally a big breakfast eater, but breakfast can be one of the great delights of life in the French countryside, and it was just that the next morning chez Bardet.