Thursday, 5 September 2013

Michelin-starred dining under the stars

The best dinner table in the world?
There are times in life when you fancy nothing more gastronomically challenging that a fish finger butty or, as we discovered in Salses, a great big fat toasted bap, full of steak haché and cheese.

But there are other times, just occasionally, when your culinary soul seeks a different kind of succour: something perhaps more challenging and even more artistic.

We’ve known for some time that there is a Michelin-starred restaurant in Collioure, but we’d never quite found it. Until last week.

La Balette is attached to a hotel, Le Relais des Trois Mas, but the whole so carefully hugs the cliff below the road from Port Vendre as it enters Collioure that it’s actually quite difficult to spot where it is.

Both hotel and restaurant pre-date WWII, with the latter having been regarded highly for as long.

First amuse bouche
But even though we’d never quite worked out where that Michel star hung, an advert in Terre Catalans had alerted me to the restaurant itself, and with a picture that was pure food porn as an incentive, we finally made a point of looking it up properly.

A little local research followed, as there were two other possible options for any real slap-up gourmet meal, but in the end, we took the plunge and booked for our penultimate evening.

At this time of year, you sit on one of three terraces that overlook the bay and back to the village. It must be one of the most gorgeous dining views anywhere.

There’s no muzak. The terraces are not crowded – quite the opposite. The restaurant keeps serious control of how many covers are dining at any one time.

The menu is minute by most standards: just three options for starters, two for meat mains and three for fish, plus one cheese and five desserts.

Second amuse bouche
The menu is such that, before we went, I sat down and did loose translations of all the dishes. Indeed, initially, The Other Half wasn’t sure whether he’d want a starter, since he doesn’t eat shellfish or offal, and the first two were shellfish and foie gras.

But we’ll come to that later.

Once seated, with the sun lowering but still casting a glorious warm light, we had an aperitif – the house special, of Champagne with almond and mint flavourings. Incredibly pleasant and refreshing.

And after ordering, we were presented with small plates of amuse bouche. A small, wafer-thin slice of toast, curled and topped with a paté of some sort. And alongside it, a spoon of finely shredded Mediterranean vegetables.Both were lovely.

Surprise, surprise, though, as we had a second plate of amuse bouche placed in front of us.

This time, it was a tuna tartare with a fig marmalade. Again, utterly gorgeous. Light and refreshing, yet packed with flavour.

For my starter – and The Other Half had decided to try this too – I had bonito, which is a firm, meaty fish, a little like tuna, and is caught locally.

Seared on the outside, still pink in the middle, it was presented in slices on the plate, topped with wafer-thin rounds of turnip or radish, with basil leaves or thin slices of sweet red onion, and accompanied by a curl of tasty tuile, a ‘jam’ of peppers and dots of sauce.

Not only did it all look lovely, it tasted even better. It was a wonderful combination of textures and flavours, all of which complimented each other. And the fish itself was sublime.

For his main course, The Other Half opted for Catalan-style lamb. I picked the pigeon. In such a situation, I’d usually be expected to select from the available fish, but I’m so glad I didn’t this time.

I’ve eaten pigeon a lot in the last couple of years and, though I say so myself, can cook it quite well. But I’ve never actually had it cooked for me in a restaurant. And this was perfection.

It was a whole bird, but broken down into breasts and legs, with a sesame seed-topped croquette made from the offal and a gloriously gutsy jus.

There was also a young courgette, with its flower stuffed with a brunoise of shallot and toasted pine nuts. The surprise of the piece was a thin, light biscuit, again topped with sesame seeds, but flavoured with ginger.

I would never have thought of ginger and pigeon, but it was a lovely combination.

We decided, because it was such a special experience, to go with the sommerlier’s reccomendations for wine.

So for the fish starter, we had a glass of Cuvée Laïs, Côtes du Roussillon, Domaine Olivier Pithon, 2012. Very nice indeed.

And with both our mains, we had a Vingrau (Hervé Bizeul) Domaine du close des Fées – ‘De batter mon Coeur c’est arrêté’ – 2011, a syrah, with a very smoky, burnt toast taste, that was fascinating and a perfect match for the red meats.

For dessert, I picked Roussillon apricots poached in vanilla butter, which came atop a layered cake of chocolate and pistachio. On the side was a blackcurrant ‘marmalade’ and a large quenelle of apricot sorbet with a sprig of rosemary in it.

After, as we sat peacefully watching the night, supping coffee (or in my case, white Banyuls), a plate of petits fours arrived, including little sugared jellies that were packed with subtle zing.

We left a different way, taking a few steps down to a small beach and winding our way back around the side of the cliff path to Port d'Avall, past a couple of men fishing, and another going in the opposite direction, with a torch on his hat and a bucket in hand, clearly off to look for shellfish.

Nearly dark
Chef Frédéric Bacquié is doing remarkable things with wonderful regional produce.

When you visit any restaurant, you’ll often find that one course isn’t quite as good as the others. Not bad, but just not at quite the same level as whatever is best.

What you get with Michelin-starred cooking is a meal like this that was absolutely flawless at every stage.

But not just flawless – it was an absolutely fabulous culinary experience from the first mouthful to the last. Fresh and deceptively simple; superbly cooked and using wonderful flavour combinations.

The service was excellent. Attentive, without ever being annoying; formal but friendly.

And all that with a view to match.

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