So is there anything to eat?
Because of the region’s renown in the world of wine, the Bordelais gourmet cuisine is often overlooked and greater emphasis is placed on the accompanying wine than the food itself. While gourmands may argue about attributing a particular delicacy or dish to a specific area, for most of us the description ‘south-west France’ is sufficient provenance, and which side of the Garonne supplied the cèpes, lamprey, or chestnuts matters little.
To the north lies the Périgord, which claims to be the ‘larder of France’, and to the south-east lies Gascony, where they claim that God must be a Gascon because he gave them the best ingredients and cuisine. Not so far distant is the Pays Basque, whose natives were drawn to Bordeaux in large numbers during the 19th and early 20 centuries, and brought their own culinary traditions. Historically, the city benefited from a large fishing fleet that under sail ventured as far as the Newfoundland Banks. Furthermore, until over-fishing destroyed the stock of native sturgeon, the Gironde could boast its own caviar in addition to eels, shrimp, zander, trout, salmon, cockles, welk…
But probably the ’signature’ Bordelais dishes are:
- Beefsteak Bordelais cooked over a fierce fire of vine clippings;
- white wine and oysters as a Sunday morning breakfast on the riverfront;
- and the sweet little Canelés (crisp custards?) that the Bordelais claim as part of their particular patrimoine.
(Okay, there is lots more to the local cuisine than these dishes but these are my favourites).
But eating out in Bordeaux is more than about local ingredients and handed-down recipes: it’s also about being a port for a large empire that brought food (and cooks) from Polynesia, North and West Africa, the Caribbean, Louisiana, Quebec and south-east asia. Moroccan tagine restaurants rub shoulders with Irish pubs and Vietnamese noodle shops, while just down the street are Fin-de-Siècle restaurants and street corner crêperies.
If you venture outside of the city, you are faced with the choice of solid bourgeois cuisine at small town restaurants, or ’menu du terroir’ at the Hôtel Les Feuilles d’Acanthe, or the cuisine Landaise of Marie-Jo at Uzeste (Sous la tonnelle), or simple fish restaurants at Blaye, Cap Ferret or Arcachon. Bazas of course boasts its own breed of beef while everywhere there is confit de canard, foie gras and frites maison cooked in goose fat.
Of course, there is less choice for vegetarians, but the oft-repeated view that the French offered only a diet of omelettes and green salads is out of date. The French are nothing if not hospitable, and if you arrive early at a restaurant, or better still book ahead and let them know you seek a vegetarian option, most establishments will take pride in rising to the challenge.
And if for a special meal you seek something a little more elegant, a little more traditional – Le Chapon Fin has occupied the same premises for more than 150 years and offers a wine list that compliments its menu of haute cuisine, in a setting that has been updated but not modernised.
On the other hand, if your tastes run to more basic fayre and vin de table, then the establishment in Rue St Francois that owns the chalkboard above is open 7 days a week.
This would be a good place for some restaurant reviews – especially as eating out for the purpose of review constitutes a business expense. So the following is a very personal, usually current, and pretty random selection of Bordeaux restaurant ‘experiences’:
Café Des Artistes at the junction of Rue Ste Catherine and Cours Victor Hugo – long established, easy to find location. Big salads are its forte. The house salad includes just about everything that could be categorised as a salad ingredient. An outside seat gives a great view of passing pedestrians and la vie Bordelaise.
Le Boucher restaurant – in the Chartrons district. You do not need an exact address because after several years of passing by and thinking to myself I should try that place, I finally did. A recent make-over had included covering the lovely old stone flags with nasty fake wood strips. The steak was too tough to finish. The house red was horrible even by my low standards, and the half bottle of Medoc I replaced it with was not much better. Pity – wish I had gone there before it was ‘improved’.
The Miranda Sisters – is on Rue Maubec, just off place St Michel. The street entrance is a bar and you walk through this to reach the restaurant behind. Ignore the clientele of the bar – they have had hard lives and do not see many visitors. The sisters do not do charm and bonhommie – they do not need to as they know theirs is the best value four courses with wine that can be purchased in Bordeaux. When offered a choice of red or rosé, choose the red.
The menus are written up on chalkboards on the walls. Beware any offer of salted cod – the Portuguese like their cod salted. The soup is basic but nourishing, the entrees excellent, the main courses a basic meat with choice of rice/frites/steamed potatoes/haricot verts. Desserts are standard cheap restaurant sweets, or a cheese. If Roquefort is on offer, it teams well with the last of the red wine as you drain the bottle. Coffee is extra and the bill is either 11 or 12 euros depending on which sister you flirt with.
France does not get more authentic than this. Enjoy it for what it is.
Le Grilladin St Pierre – is in the quartier St Pierre, in fact just opposite the church’s front door. It has no indoor tables so the choice is dining under the stars in a square where the atmosphere gets better and better as the night falls. Their menu includes three prix fixe menus that include child-friendly simple dishes, a fish menu, and a third one that is a little more up-scale. Good location, pleasant service and especially if you are feeding a family then very good value. Whats not to like? Perhaps not one for that little intimate dinner à deux but then if seduction is on your agenda, you need to be prepared to part with more cash.
Around the other side of the church is …