Friday, 28 September 2012

Exploring Foodie France: [part deux]...dinner in Sarlat

After a long train journey from Paris, arriving in the rugged and lush green surroundings of the Dordogne made our quick lunch in busy, bustling Paris suddenly seem a million miles away. Known for gastronomic delights like foie gras and confit de canard, I expected some culinary treats from my few days in the region. Alongside the traditional dishes of the region, reproduced faithfully and impressively at every cafe, restaurant and chateau, I was also pleasantly surprised to discover some innovative and creative uses for the local specialties. In the sleepy Medieval town of Sarlat, without compromising on quality, restaurants like Le Quatre Saisons, are treating discerning diners to an exciting, excellent value menu that showcases to perfection the region's fine produce and the talents of local chefs.

Restaurant "Le Quatre Saisons" in Sarlat-la-Caneda nestles in a quiet alleyway in the heart of the old town. The restaurant was recommended to us by staff at the trendy little hotel we stayed in, Hotel St. Albert, as "one of the best in Sarlat." Known, along with only a handful of other establishments given such an accolade, for fine quality ingredients and fresh, seasonal produce; definitely worth seeking out over the many cheaper restaurants vying for customers on the main tourist route through the town centre. You don't want to know where these restaurants are rumoured to be getting their duck from.

Le Quatre Saisons is only a couple of steps away from the centre of town, up an adorable little side street called Côte de Toulouse, but it is a quiet, unassuming haven compared to the bustling gift shops and high turnover restaurants nearby. Here we were welcomed and treated impeccably by the polite and knowledgeable waiting staff (in stark contrast to a few streets away where, within 10 minutes, we were practically spat at by a local restaurant proprietor and then yelled at for several minutes by a busker as we admired a nearby church - something tells me they hate tourists here). After taking a look at what was on offer on the menu, we expected a pretty good three courses of good, local dishes for under 30 Euros a head at Le Quatre Saisons. The set menus on offer consisted of 2, 3 or 4 courses starting at 24 Euros and the wine menu featured some good, mid-range bottles for 19-25 Euros. We ordered aperitifs, mulled over the menu, and opted for three courses and a nice bottle of wine from Bordeaux, and were delighted by what followed...

The first surprise was a complimentary board of canapes featuring some thinly sliced smoked salmon on mini blinis and, the stars of the show, mini sticks of candy floss with a centre of smooth, rich foie gras. A real crowd pleaser, the restaurant has clearly been churning out this lovely little extra for years but it made everyone gasp in childish wonder. All expecting traditional French cuisine, the quirkiness of the dish alone captured our interest, and the sticky, sugary fluff and dense, velvety foie gras made for an excellent combination of flavours. Another good start to the meal was the amuse bouche of light crab mousse, served in a tiny black cooking pot with a lid. Tiny in size, it definitely didn't scrimp on anything else; the saffron-flavoured, light yellow mousse contained small pieces of crab meat and was deliciously creamy.   

Next, we were wowed by the arrival of our starters. Regular readers of the Blog will know that I get very excited about "the starter." I find it the easiest course to choose and I'm always hungry enough to thoroughly savour every last mouthful. We tried some fantastic starters, which satisfied my need for a great standalone dish that also whets the appetite for the following courses. The foie gras escalope, a generous serving cooked in a ginger vinegar and dressed in a well-balanced, warm apple and pear sauce, was divine, fruity and lightly spiced. The scallops were served on sliced cured sausage, in a celeriac cream. The sauce made the dish and was decadent and buttery, although the scallops were slightly overcooked.

The main courses at Le Quatre Saisons really put my love of starters to the test and, rightfully so, stuck firmly in our minds as the highlight of the menu. Another cause for gasps of delight, the grilled lamb fillet arrived on a wire, twig and rosemary bonfire which was ignited at the table, producing fragrant, herby smoke and quite dramatic flames around the tender meat. Once the excitement died down, the soft, medium-rare lamb was a joy to eat; especially slathered in the thick, balsamic and tomato sauce with a forkful of wholesome ratatouille vegetables from the cute little jar on the side. Best of all, the smoky, herby lamb tasted like it was fresh off the barbeque. 

Although less flamboyant in its presentation, the smoked duck breast was another definite favourite. Served very rare, the thick slices of duck were delicately smoked and served with an earthy, rich sauce made with nettles. The sauce was intriguing: the colour of pesto, consistency of soup, but with a great, earthy taste that was bordering on overpowering but paired so well with the meaty duck. Some crispy wedges of potato held it all together and were great dipped into the velvety sauce. 

Our final courses were one of the chef's beautifully presented desserts and a generous plate of cheese.  I tried the vacherin aux noix and it arrived on a plate dressed like a toadstool in a fairytale garden, complete with edible paper leaves and dressed with popping candy. The dessert itself was a sweet and satisfying blend of cream, caramel, vanilla and crushed nuts. As always, the cheese plate gave me dessert envy and it was just as good as it looked, featuring generous servings of French cheeses sourced from the region's neighbours to both the north and south, and served with a fine sweet chutney.

A great, atmospheric restaurant for a special dinner or two,* Le Quatre Saisons' food certainly has the wow-factor but isn't somewhere to eat every night of the week. It is definitely worth a few return visits, preferably one for each season to sample the chef's reputed expert use of seasonal produce from the region.

Enjoy :-)

*Now's the time to admit I ate here two nights in a row. It was so good that we booked a table for another visit and returned with friends to repeat the whole experience!

Le Quatre Saisons
2 Côte de Toulouse
24200 Sarlat