THE RIVERSIDE RELAIS
There's a long history in France of escaping the city (in this case Biarritz and Bayonne) for a languorous Sunday lunch on the banks of a river. The two-Michelin-star Auberge de la Galupe is sensitively folded into a beautiful old white-and-sang de boeuf boatman's house on the Basque side of the glassy Adour. Christian Parra has somehow remained undiscovered by American foodies, though he is second only to Michel Guérard as a personality-chef in his native Southwest. Regulars don't even bother to look at the menu. They order the tuna belly, duck ravioli, wild Adour salmon cooked on a dry griddle, blood sausage (Guérard uses Galupe's recipe), and what Parra calls "the best ham in the world," Jabugo from Sanchez Romero Carvajal in Andalusia.
AUBERGE DE LA GALUPE, La Place du Port, Urt; 33-5/59-56-21-84; dinner for two $96.
Café and cafés are intimately associated with the French—they've been sipping it and idling in them for 300 years. One of the country's most spectacularly decorative cafés is hidden away in Moulins, 135 miles northwest of Lyons in a little-traveled region that for centuries was the seat of the dukes of Bourbon. Famed for its delightfully goopy rococo boiseries depicting shells, plumes, and whorls, Le Grand Café was piped into being by an Italian craftsman in 1899, placing it in the strenuously ornamental Golden Age of cafés, which began with the Second Empire and lasted until the turn of the century. Everyone should bow down and kiss the ring of Christian Belin, Le Grand's owner, who guards his institution's frescoes, stained glass, mosaics, and heroic bronze d'orée chandelier like a curator, and who cares enough about his clients' palates to serve Kimbo coffee. Le Grand is also a grassroots bistro, offering coarse-cut rabbit terrine and terrifically tangy tripe packages in a mahogany-hued sauce tinged with tomato. Local Charolais beef turns up as skirt steak with shallot-and-red-wine sauce, fillet with pepper sauce, and entrecôte with garlic-parsley butter. But even at mealtime the hard-core café constituency needn't worry about being squeezed out. Tables are always reserved for those interested only in drinking, nuzzling their poodles, and smoking themselves to death.
LE GRAND CAFé, 49 Place d'Allier, Moulins; 33-4/70-44-00-05; coffee, $1.10; lunch for two $26.
No other French region relies on a single food the way Brittany relies on crêpes (the category includes savory buckwheat galettes). More than an appetite, Bretons have an irrational need for crêpes, which has given rise to an entire genre of modest, familial restaurants. Crêpe-making is a systematized art, and at La Galette Rennaise in Rennes it reaches its apotheosis. Customers are queried on the preferred degree of doneness. The cooking plaque is greased with egg yolk. Crêpes are folded in triangles, never in semi-circles. Locals start with a buttered galette; advance to one brimming with ham, Emmental, and a fried egg; and conclude with a jam-slathered crêpe.
LA GALETTE RENNAISE, 34 Blvd. Laennec, Rennes; 33-2/99-31-46-86; lunch for two $14.
One of the great marketing tools of 21st-century French wine making is the vineyard hotel-restaurant. For spreading the word about Château Cordeillan-Bages, a Médoc cru bourgeois made by the same team as the legendary Lynch-Bages, nothing does the job like Château Cordeillan-Bages, a 17th-century manor house with 24 attractive guest rooms and an ambitious restaurant. Cooking on the Gironde estuary near Bordeaux, chef Thierry Marx spotlights local land and sea products—lamb and asparagus, sturgeon and eel—in dishes flagged "Terre & Estuaire."
CHâTEAU CORDEILLAN-BAGES, Routes des Châteaux, Pauillac; 33-5/56-59-24-24; dinner for two $125; doubles $130.
French château owners figured out a long time ago that opening their piles to the public is a good way to pay for repointing the façade. The newest wrinkle is the 15th-century Château de la Bourdaisière in the Loire Valley. The estate owes its recent rebirth as an oh-so-French hotel and heirloom vegetable garden to Prince Louis-Albert de Broglie, who is also behind the dirt-chic Prince Jardinier garden boutique in Paris. Bourdaisière's 130-acre park includes a potager-conservatoire planted with 500 varieties of tomatoes, 200 herbs, and 120 lettuces—bounty deployed in special-order meals of remarkable freshness and purity.
CHâTEAU DE LA BOURDAISIèRE, 25 Rue de la Bourdaisière, Montlouis-sur-Loire; 33-2/47-45-16-31; dinner for two $40; doubles $92.