I love lunch. I like it at home – something simple: a salad of tomatoes and basil with a selection of cheeses… an omelette aux fines herbes…quesadillas with sweetly oozing raclette cheese and guacamole front-loaded with cilantro/coriander…And I like lunch out, whether it’s somewhere swanky like the Auberge de l’Ill (ca. €100) or the menú del dìa (ca. €9) in a simple place in Empordà – Mas Pi in Vergés is exemplary.
If you’re not already in on this dirty little secret, listen carefully: lunch in restaurants (especially aspirational ones) is one of the best deals going. Better yet, I’ve discovered that if we do lunch (rather than dinner), we lose weight. Well, maybe not lose it, but at any rate, we don’t gain it. What’s not to like?
A recent end-of-summer trawl through Provence, Languedoc-Roussillon and Empordà/Catalunya featured some wicked lunches (and one lousy one). The first treat was at La Table 2Julien in Montaren, a hot tip from a long-time resident and arch-foodie, whose eventful life in the Gard all began in the car park in said village close to Uzés. The lunch menu was a heavy hitter on flavour and presentation – but at €24 it dealt a very light blow to the wallet: a little stack of green beans and baby spinach topped with a bruschetta with goat’s cheese and a curl of pancetta, lamb shoulder slowly braised, shredded and corseted by a strip of pasta (or possibly pastry) with perfectly cooked veggies (rare in France to get veggies at all, so a double whammy) and home-made ice cream with wine-poached apricots and a kind of brandysnap/tuile.
Another highlight was lunch underneath the arches at Tony’s, looking straight out onto the beach, boats and shimmering blue water in Calella near Palafrugell. We feasted on the freshest, sleekest, most succulent clams and mussels ever – a dish that goes by the delicious name of poti poti de clova – followed by a squid- inky black rice with shellfish (their paella is legendary too).
Mas Pi, set smack on the crossroads in the middle of Vergés, a dusty village in the heart of Empordà, carried off the prize for best value in its class. Catalunya – even Barcelona – excels at modestly priced lunch menus, but how Mas Pi can do three courses of such quality (choice of starters, fish of the day, left, and a pud) and all for €9 is one of life’s little mysteries.
In another league was the totally wonderful Hotel Mas de Torrent (member of Relais & Chateaux) where I tagged along on a spoiling spa day with my daughter. They got loads of Brownie points on the lunch front, not just for the food (octopus cooked sous-vide with tomatoes/avocado and radish sprouts, a baba ghanoush-type aubergine goo, wicked prawns and a chocolate extravaganza that laid waste to any good intentions we might have had and undid any supposed benefit from the sauna/spa), but also for the delightfully laidback welcome and attention to every detail.
The final trump card was lunch at B & B Domaine de Brousson just north of Bédarieux in Languedoc. We’d wanted to take take our hosts out to lunch. “Better not”, they concurred, “nowhere much to eat round here, at least not that we’d go to with you – and certainly not on Mondays.” So we ate in. Jane’s salade niçoise, packed with southern flavours and colours, set us up for our return via the A75 across Norman Foster’s fabulous Millau viaduct to our more northerly Alsace pastures.
PS: closer to home (i.e. the Alsace/Basel/Baden region), other bargain lunches can be found at Stucki (yes, really), the Villa Feer in Lörrach, the Cheval Blanc in Feldbach and the Boeuf Noir in Hésingue. Another day, another post….