Wednesday, 10 August 2011

Fabulous fish and figs

We have never really thought of Collioure as a home of fine dining - well, not in the haute cuisine sense.

Though as I hope I've made as clear as the sea here is, the simplest food, when the ingredients are of the highest quality, seasonal and local, is the finest dining there is.

In our first stay, we ate at Les Templiers, which was good - although I can't actually remember what I had, which usually reveals something - and La Frigate, where detail is again absent.

But as we have gone for simpler and simpler food with each visit, we have not returned to either of the above, and have avoided what is rumoured to be the poshest eatery in town with studied determination.

In some ways, this is possibly a sort of inverted snobbery. But two things happened to change that approach last week - for one day at least.

To begin with, I've been buying whatever publications I can get my hands on about the regional cuisine. These happen to be in French, but it doubles as good language practice and I've managed to cook from French recipes at home in the past.

This trip, I had found a copy of a periodical called Terres Catalanes, which is clearly aimed at the French tourism market and which, in its summer 2011 edition was focusing on "cuisine aux vins", with an added bonus of 30 recipes.

It includes a number of two-page advertorials for top regional restaurants. Within the opening pages, this included L'Arago in Perpignan, where I have eaten (it was the site of my first steak tartare) and later, Chez Pujol in Port Vendres, where we lunched last year, when I enjoyed - very much! - skewers of seafood.

And then, toward the back of the book was a page advert for l'Amphitryon, a Collioure restaurant overlooking the bay and at one end of what we think of as our first-week beach.

It described the cooking as including "fruits de mer" and added that recipes were of the area. The chef, Jean-Pierre, had apparently worked with "Ducasse et Pourcel". Now I don't know the latter, but I've most certainly heard of the former. And that's serious stuff.

During our first week in Collioure, we usually lunch at Brasserie St Elme - primarily because it backs right onto the beach. It's a straightforward, tourist menu. In the first few days this year, I'd actually found it better than I remembered, as I had a steak haché and chips on beach day one, breaded cuttlefish with battered squid the next time, and decent gambas the third.

But then come a goat's cheese salad that had disappointed on a number of counts.

And so there we were the following day, approaching lunchtime and wondering what to do. I suggested ambling over to the side of the bay where we now realised l'Amphitryon lay, just a few metres along from the restaurant we'd heard was good and had been avoiding.

We'd not even looked at l'Amphitryon before; The Other Half dismissing it as attached to a hotel, and me never even giving it even that much thought.

The menu, once examined, looked enticing. While evening booking is advised, we were able to get a table for lunch.

And it was certainly worth it.

I opted for "pavé de morue à l'aïoli et ses petits légumes". Six years ago, the first time I ate in Paris (at the end of my first trip to France), I sat in a very nice brasserie and realised, with delight, that I could understand almost all of the menu. Except for 'pavé', which I had to look up in a phrase book. It's simply a 'slab'. There's been no danger of forgetting it since.

Waiting, I munched a piece of bread that was fabulously crisp on the outside and enjoyably chewy inside.

What then arrived was amazing. A fat pillow of very lightly salted cod, spread with the aïoli on top and finished under the grill, resting on a bed of mixed vegetables, with persilade and thick Balsamic as garnishes.

The fish was superb: big flakes of translucent white flesh simply fell off at the merest hint of a knife. It was fragrant, flavoursome and impossibly soft, and complimented so well by the mild aïoli.

The vegetables too - asparagus, tomato, carrot, mange tout, artichoke and aubergine - were delightful and not simply a garnish or cursory side offering.

Fabulously soothing and tasty.

The Other Half had sardines that had been grilled on a fire, with a mixed leaf salad that he said was excellent, and fries.

It was good thing we hadn't opted for an entrée, since we'd neither of us have had any space left for dessert, and the menu was so far from the formulaic that one was desperate to try something.

In the end, after some umming and ahhing, I ordered "tarte fine aux figues rôties et sa crème d'amande, sorbet cassis".

So that was an individual tart with a sort of millefeuille base, and then two layers of the roasted figs, held in place by something more dough-like. The crème d'amande came in a small glass, with a fruit purée (passion fruit, I think) atop the almond cream.

It had been a very long time since I had had blackcurrants in any form, and I had, to my shame, forgotten just what a wonder of the berry kingdom they are. The sorbet was a jolt of fantastically deep tartness that cleansed and freshened in an instant.

It was all exceptional, but of that sorbet, I could have eaten a bucketful.

We'd just been having soft drinks and water with lunch previously, but the demi of 2010 Chateau de Corneilla rosé went down very well indeed - full of strawberries.

It was an exceptionally good meal, but it was also far from expansive, by comparison with what we had been eating for lunch in the preceding days. Indeed, the bill was almost painfully close to what we'd paid at St Elme the day I'd had the gambas - even though we'd had only soft drinks then.

But it's certainly very pleasing that, even after coming somewhere small for four years, you can still make new discoveries - and top-notch ones at that.

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