Monday, May 05, 2008

Dîner à trois

Our family getaway to the Loire Valley would not have been complete without a pilgrimage to one of my favorite restaurants, Les Années 30 in Chinon.

Armed with a decent guidebook (Le Pudlo is my current favorite), it isn't difficult to find excellent restaurants all over France. I've verified this again and again, much more than is probably reasonable over the last five years. And yet, Les Années 30 stands out as one of my favorite tables. Is it the cosy dining rooms, two low-ceilinged floors in a hôtel particulier in the heart of Renaissance Chinon? Or the limestone fireplaces with their well-stoked fires, just close enough to our table-for-two for me to warm my toes on our last midwinter visit? Is it the young, attentive waitstaff? Or the clever chef, the only one I've yet found who can magically transform French andouille tripe sausage into something even I find delicious? Three visits now and I still haven't found the answer, though I'm having fun searching.

Now I have a new reason to love the place to add to my list: they graciously attended to Le Petit during his first real gastronomical experience.

To be honest, I was dreading the meal a little. I adore this restaurant, and I was worried I'd no longer be able to show my face there again. We made reservations for lunch on a Thursday, and called ahead to make sure we could come with a baby. No problem, a high chair would be waiting for us.

Le Petit turned on the charm the minute we arrived. He was all smiles for the young waiter and waitress, who regularly stopped to talk to him and obligingly picked up his plastic keys each time he flung them on the ground. But between the starter and the entrée things started to degrade, and I remembered stupidly that a two-hour meal is a rather long time to expect a not-yet-ten-month-old to sit still. I fed him the lunch we'd brought for him and cycled through our bag of toys, but he continued to protest his boredom. Loudly.

The owner, a mother of a two-and-a-half-year-old, was gracious and understanding, and luckily there was only one other occupied table in the downstairs dining room. We finished our lunch while shuffling le Petit back and forth between our laps, and I broke down and gave him the Toy Of Last Resort, my hairbrush, to play with during dessert.

Balancing a squirmy infant on my knees hardly diminished my enjoyment of the fillet of cod in beurre blanc with violet rice, ginger, and asparagus, or the pistachio parfait dessert. My husband's roast beef with wild mushrooms and onion confit in a rosemary and savory sauce disappeared so quickly I didn't even get a bite, even if I did have to help him cut his meat while he held le Petit out of reach of the knife. I did swiftly steal some of his apricot tarte tatin with almond ice cream.

I marveled at how such rich classics of French cuisine as tarte tatin and beurre blanc can come out so light and new in skilled hands. My husband's favorite dish was the starter, ginger marinated salmon and smoked walleye, an original interpretation of the tried-and-true tartare de saumon. I enjoyed my entrée the most, for it was only once it arrived and the meal was halfway through that I was able to relax enough to taste each bite.

I will admit that I appreciated the meal more the last time à deux, when I was two months pregnant, without the distraction of a baby and when the only annoyance was having to skip the wine. But it was still a delicious experience in every way, thanks in large part to a warm and indulgent welcome, and I look forward to taking le Petit back again.

Although I think I'll wait until he's old enough to sit still just a teensy bit longer.

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