Restaurant Review: Grand Vigne at Sources de Caudalie

In the middle of the vineyards of Chateau Smith Haut Lafitte, the Caudalie hotel and spa has become my watering hole for visiting chateaux in the Graves. Since my last visit, a new chef has been engaged and the restaurant has achieved a Michelin star, so I was curious to see what changes I would find.

The restaurant offers three choices: a rather restricted three course Plaisir Gourmand, à la carte, and a tasting menu (based on selections from the à la carte). One note of warning: if you stay at the hotel on a demi pension basis, the meal at Grand Vigne includes only the Plaisir Gourmand. Personally, there wasn’t a single item on this menu that appealed to me, and it did not look as thought it had either the ingredients or the interest for a one star level. This would make for a disappointing evening, although in defense of the hotel, you can take the à la carte instead (for an extra charge, bien sûr).

Even on the à la carte, menu choices are a bit restricted for a one star rating (does Michelin take the variety on the menu into account when awarding stars?) One starter of crab with vegetables was good; giant prawns wrapped in pasta were better, although accompanied by citrus fruits that clashed with wine. (But in the interests of full disclosure, I rarely like mixtures of savory with fruits.) A mark against the restaurant was that both starters came with the same base of tomato jelly. This seemed a lazy design. One curiosity was that one night the prawn starter had two prawns; another night it had only one prawn. It seems an odd practice to halve the size of the starter from one night to the next.

Main courses were the best elements. Pigeon with rhubarb profiteroles was simply excellent, everything in perfect balance. This was the killer dish for me. Turbot was the most imaginative offering, on a base of girolles, with a clever spiral of carrot spaghetti. Desserts were good, the most interesting being a trompe l’oeil of strawberries, apparently presented in a glass, but actually with “glass” consisting of an edible sugar molding. I would give the restaurant its star (just).

Especially for a restaurant asociated with a chateau, the wine list was disappointing. On previous visits I have been very pleased with the wine list, which included, as you might expect, older vintages of Smith Haut Lafitte, both red and white, at very reasonable prices. This was a good opportunity to showcase their wines. There also used to be a good selection of wines from other regions, including Coche Dury Meursault at fair prices. All that has gone. There are a couple of current vintages of Smith Haut Lafitte, a routine run through the regions of Bordeaux, and some small offerings from elsewhere, but I was hard put to find wines I thought would be interesting at reasonable prices. In the end I was satisfied with neither of my choices. Domaine de Chevalier, which has always been a favorite, disappointed with its 2004 red; and Malartic Lagravière’s white 2006 made me wonder how on earth it was ever classified as a Grand Cru. Wine service fell a bit short: I had to wander over to the ice bucket to retrieve my bottle from time to time.

Domaine de Chevalier, 2004 (red)

Deep ruby color still with some purple edges. Very restrained nose with faint hints of Cabernet austerity. There’s a rich initial impression, but cut by a rather dry finish (characteristic of the year, perhaps, but exacerbated here). This feels like a Cabernet-driven wine. How much will that dryness soften with time and will this happen before the fruits dry out? Although I like wines in the classic style, this is a little too dry even for my taste. 86 Drink – 2016.

Malartic Lagravière, 2006 (white)

A bit characterless: not a lot happening on the nose, perhaps a whiff of citrus and a touch of minerality. The same spectrum follows through to the palate, where the lack of fruit concentration allows a sort of faintly metallic minerality to come through to the finish. This seems  enormously over cropped. I am left wondering what this wine offers that Muscadet hasn’t got, except for price. 84 Drink now if at all.

Restaurant Review: Locanda Locatelli

A late meal after a concert showed that this snazzy restaurant remains on top form food wise, but still attracts a rather noisy crowd, so be prepared for noise interference from other tables. We started out with a basket of interesting breads and excellent olive oil with that unmistakable green olive texture; the only other olive oil of this quality I’ve encountered was at Picholine in New York. This being one of London’s top Italian restaurants, we decided to go for broke, and started with the pasta, malfatti for my companion (a sort of slightly heavier pasta than ravioli rolled around ricotta and aubergine to make some delicious parcels) and chestnut tagliatelle with wild mushrooms for me (made with chestnut flour and five types of wild mushroom). The tagliatelle were faute de gnocchi because the gnocchi with cepes had all gone, and no doubt would have been a little lighter. (I am always reminded when having wild mushrooms of the time years ago when we ordered wild mushrooms as a starter at a restaurant in Cambridge, Mass. Simply sautéed, they made a wild assortment of colors and shapes on the plate, many I had never seen before. After we had eaten them, we asked about the source. “Oh, someone knocked at the door and said he had wild mushrooms and the chef bought them, “ said the waiter. We both went white for a moment, but decided that if they had been lethal they would have already killed us.)

We both ordered the same second course, wild sea bass in a tomato crust with an artichoke purée. This was accompanied by artichoke leaves to chew, something I have not seen for quite a while. Here was an excellent balance between fish and accompaniments, with the acidity of the tomatoes nicely cutting the opulence of the purée. Service is absolutely top notch. Overall I give the food one and a half stars: clearly above one star level, but not quite at the level of innovation and refinement for two stars.

The wine list is full of top names from Italy as you might expect, with many pages of red wines – especially strong on Barolo and Barbaresco – but not a whole lot of interesting choices in whites (of course, you might say that about Italy as a whole). A feature I really liked was that alcohol level was stated on the list, which saved me from an error: I was about to order a bottle of Fontodi’s Chianti, and then noticed that it had 15% alcohol. This would definitely have been a mistake, especially at the late hour. We settled for a half bottle of Valdicava’s Brunello, which at 13.5% showed subtlety and elegance. Wine service was impeccable.

Locanda is highly recommended if you can get a table – reservations are difficult; not only is it difficult to get through (booking is only by phone), but there tends to be some awkwardness about getting a table at the time you want it.

 Brunello di Montalcino, Valdicava 2004

Still quite a ruby color. A faintly savory sour cherry note develops on the palate, very Sangiovese. (Oh my goodness, they were right not to allow Cabernet Sauvignon into Rosso di Montalcino, it would have been the thin end of a wedge into typicité). The initial surge of fruits from the original release has calmed down considerably. Nice balance of acidity and savory edge to the cherry fruits, a fairly taut sense of structure, aging gracefully but perhaps not destined for a really old age (I think really long aging is much rarer for Brunello than generally supposed), although perhaps not to be judged on this example as this was a half bottle. 91, drink now-2016.

Restaurant Review: Galvin Bistrot de Luxe

A really good bistro in some ways is of more interest to me than a Michelin starred restaurant. Of course, it’s great to eat out at the top levels, and leisurely evenings in elegant surroundings with fine food are one of my favorite pursuits, but there are many occasions when I’d like to have a more straightforward meal rather than eat at home. Arriving in London from New York, this was just such an occasion, and round the corner is Galvin Bistrot de Luxe. Opened six years ago by Chris Galvin (who used to cook at the Orrery long ago when it had a Michelin star), it has been a great success.

“De Luxe” is a fair description because it’s a far cry from bistros turning out the standard fare of roast chicken and fries. Granted the menu generally avoids more expensive ingredients: you won’t find venison or turbot here, and the meat dishes tend more to stews than filets, but I’ve never had a poor meal, and often some very good ones.

This meal we both started with the salad of beets and goat cheese, simple but well sourced, with nicely complementing flavors. (Most of the starters are cold, which seems appropriate for the bistro, although I do have a general view that once the Michelin-starred level is reached, a preponderance should be cooked on the spot. A cry should go up in the kitchen, “Lewin is here, let us cook his dinner,” rather than simply cutting a slice off something pre-prepared.)

Main courses were good with one caveat. My steamed fillets of Corsican bream, ragoût of sweet corn, courgette & saffron were simply excellent, in a  creamy sauce that would have done credit to a Michelin-starred restaurant. The fish tasted farmed rather than wild, but that’s an expected compromise at the bistro level. My wife’s pavé of cod, coco de Paimpol, trompette mushroom & Bayonne ham was successful as a composition, but slightly spoiled by gritty mushrooms that did not seem to have been properly cleaned. A blackcurrant mousse made a beautiful dessert, rather reminiscent in taste and texture of summer pudding, but smoother, with a  thin layer of underlying fruit.

Prices are very fair, especially allowing for the breadth of the wine list, which extends from decent choices at just over £20 to quite grand wines at vastly higher prices. In many ways, I think the measure of a restaurant wine list is more what it offers at the lower end than the higher end. Anyone can buy in the top Bordeaux or Burgundy if they are prepared to spend the money, but it takes knowledge and effort to find something good at the bottom end.

Apropos of stars, by the way, I’m far from the only person who finds Michelin’s awards to be erratic at the one star level.  Their original list of one star restaurants in New York was something of a joke, and the present London list is rather variable, to put it kindly. Galvin Bistrot is in that useful category I would give a three quarter star – but that said, it is significantly better than some one-starred restaurants in London that I’ve given up on.