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Five Small-Town French Cafés

Frédéric Lagrange

Photo: Frédéric Lagrange

Home cooking is so abused as a come-on by restaurants in France you go expecting the worst and are served it. But the set menu at Les Deux Nines interprets the term as it was understood before corruption. Typically there are four appetizers: tapenade with tuna, an acceptable complication of the classic; endive-and-walnut salad; cured ham, tasting of hazelnuts and looking like folds of burnished leather; and a crusty carrot confection, neither cake nor custard, spiced with cumin. A main course of beef daube, flavored with bitter-orange peel and flanked by slabs of polenta, is as gelatinous as Donnini likes it, which is very, a happy sign that she couldn’t care less about wooing tourists. The menu includes a cheese course and two desserts, a flan and a walnut tart.

Thirty miles from St.-Jurs, an allée of chestnut trees leads to Le Bistrot de Pierrerue, in Pierrerue, whose 500 inhabitants last year celebrated five births and six marriages and mourned five deaths. Old-timers remember going to the bistro as children to screen movies. The unlikely people behind Pierrerue’s only storefront are Maryvonne and Mark Marinelli, Americans in their forties who formerly owned a corporate catering company in North Carolina. He’s in the kitchen, she’s out front in the dining room, running what is really the village’s common living room, hung with what the French call souvenirs de concierge. The reference is to the alleged mauvais goût of these postcards mounted on slices of wood and shellacked, popular 50’s keepsakes now collected for their kitsch value.

The Marinellis’ worries about being accepted ended when a local agency that promotes small businesses gave them an interest-free loan—“And they knew we were American!” Mark says. Aside from his very limited French and Maryvonne’s accent, there’s nothing that betrays the bistro as being run by foreigners. This is true not just of the atmosphere but the food: silky quenelles of chicken-liver mousse; a lush duckling à la provençale (zucchini, tomatoes, green olives); tarte Tatin. The only grumblings have come from an employee of the town dump who would like the couple to open at 7:45 rather than 8:00 so he could have a coffee before going to work. The bistro doesn’t offer newspapers or bread because a truck passes through the village with them every morning. A second truck selling groceries comes by on Wednesdays, triggering a fashion show of housecoats and support stockings.

You could have a long lunch in Pierrerue and, driving lazily but with a hidden sense of purpose, cover the 40 miles between it and L’Oustau de la Font in the medieval village of Reilhanette, in the Drôme, in time for dinner. As a white-tablecloth restaurant (well, the cloths are actually beige), L’Oustau breaks the Bistrot de Pays mold, playing against type with napkin rings; flat, square plates squirted with jus and reductions; an exhaustive wine list with an entire page of red magnums (including a 1995 Châteauneuf du Pape from Château Beauchêne for $220); polished service; edgy vegetable sorbets; fish with vanilla! The plates are a little impractical, but how can you not admire a commune of 131 souls that obliges fashion?

Stuck to a rocky hill face, Reilhanette is lavender and épeautre (wheat berry) country, wide-open, a little stark, humbling. The ruins of a 12th-century fortified castle crown the village, and a church from the same epoch has three Baroque altars and a reliquary with a morsel of Saint Eutrope’s radius. The other reason for visiting is L’Oustau, which occupies an ancient stone house beside the old public laundry basin there where the village drops quickly away and the fields, knitted into a valley with a mountainous backdrop, take over. Obviously the odds were not in favor of a demi-gastro version of a Bistrot de Pays here, but chef Ludovic Monier and Jean-Michel Valéry, his front-of-house associate, were determined not to serve ham sandwiches and steak frites even if it meant their kids went shoeless for a while. Both in their thirties and unafraid of a 14-hour day, they bet that, beyond vacationers, a serious restaurant would find an audience with people who live in the area if the portions were generous, or rather extravagant.

They weren’t wrong. The mayor and town council order thick slices of a sucré-salé terrine that dares and succeeds. Alternating layers of foie gras and spice bread, it’s set off by a little dice of pineapple dusted with Sichuan pepper. A first-course beggar’s purse—a crackling sheet of Moroccan brik loaded with leeks, pearl barley, and three disks of fresh goat cheese—is cut with a coulis of black Nyons olives loosened with olive oil. Monier overreaches a bit, but it’s in nobody’s interest to discourage a chef in a challenging location who’s raising the bar and is so keen to please. His lovely hand-painted water pitchers and organic sourdough bread are from a potter and a baker with a wood-burning oven down the road. You can’t argue with that.

L’Auberge—also in the Drôme, in St.-Pantaléon-les-Vignes—calls itself a restaurant gastronomique, and while it is not most people’s idea of one, like L’Oustau it earns your indulgence. The food is good, so who cares?Thirty-six miles northwest of Reilhanette, St.-Pantaléon is a modest Côtes du Rhône wine village that looks across vineyards and apricot and cherry orchards to the foothills of the Préalpes. At one point in its 146 years, L’Auberge also incorporated guest rooms, a grocery, a café, and a gas station. It’s a café-bistro only now, but still the village’s beating heart, anchored beside a washhouse and a thread of river under a canopy of wide-waisted plane trees. Permanently parked outside the entrance as a prop, next to a pyramid of wine casks, is a beautiful old Renault Juvaquatre, the ultimate French paysan getabout. The tiny post office across the street keeps the kind of manically precise and maddening hours that govern provincial life in France (it’s open from 8:45 a.m. to 11:15 a.m.) and is the only place besides the bistro in St.-Pantaléon where its 320 citizens can enjoy a cash transaction, buying their stamps at the window and a baguette or croissant at an improvised table on their way out.

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