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A Day Trip Itinerary...print this out   print the content item
A 2-star restaurant in the Corbières
Our destination: the amazing Auberge du Vieux Puits (Inn of the Old Wells), in the tiny hilltop town of Fontjoncouse in the Corbières.

The Auberge du Vieux Puits is
the only thing of note in tiny
Fontjoncouse. But within short
drives are world-class Fontfroide
Abbey, the artsy medieval town
of Lagrasse, many Cathar
castles, and the ancient city
of Narbonne.

But first a note on the Michelin rating system, just so you know. The vast majority of the restaurants listed in the Michelin red guide, the dining bible of France, receive NO stars. Michelin reserves its stars for just those "certain establishments [that] deserve to be brought to your attention for the particularly fine quality of their cooking." One-star restaurants are "a good place to stop in your journey." Two-star restaurants are "worth a detour." Three-star restaurants - the pinnacle, often associated with a luxury hotel - provide "exceptional cuisine, worth a special journey." In the red guide I'm looking at (1999), among France's tens of thousands of restaurants, Michelin named just 21 as three-stars and just 70 as two-stars.

Master chef Gilles Goujon bought the only place he could afford: a restaurant that had gone bankrupt three times in an obscure village up a wild gorge. And he turned it into a destination (the inn also rents guestrooms). Expect the parking lot to be full, for both lunch and dinner. And expect to be enormously entertained: this is the sort of dining experience you'll talk about for years, with intriguing, imaginative food, and flawless (yes, the staff speaks English) service. If you're looking for snooty, go somewhere else: here, they work for your smiles. Order the prix fixe menu, which features all the chef's daily specials in modest-sized portions. (You will not arise from your four-hour, five-course meal feeling bloated.) The lunch and evening menus are the same. Cost the day we were there: 65 euros per person, plus drinks.

Some of the highlights from our meal: [appetizers] anchovies in fritters, tartlets of black sausage pudding and apples; [main courses] a perfectly grilled shrimp and scallop in a pool of sea broth accompanied by a scoop of fennel sorbet, which was then melted by the waiter pouring over it a stream of hot chicken broth; pieces of kid (baby goat; the crisped skin tastes exactly like potato chips) with bits of the heart and liver in a cappuccino made of the mother's milk; a cheese sideboard six feet long featuring products from the nearby Pyrenees; finishing with chocolate crêpes and cardamom ice cream. We had four drinkers and consumed two bottles of wine. Dress is whatever you feel comfortable in. The only ties we saw were on the male staff and a few businessmen. Most people were dressed well but casually.

2008 UPDATE: Consistency at a two-star restaurant is to be expected. We returned, this time for dinner, and found everything as wonderful as before.

Can a meal change a life? Some say so. It can profoundly entertain, at least. The pre-meal amusement included pencil-thin breadsticks made with bits of seaweed. And the lightest potato chips this side of heaven; they dissolved in a single press of the tongue. The house aperitif used a "small white" wine from Limoux. And there was something called pig's feet served in a narrow glass, topped with a mustard vinaigrette foam. The pig's feet supplied the aspic. We ordered a fixed price menu named "a few steps into the garrigue." We ordered for our dinner wine a local product, a 2003 Domaine Haut Gleon that drank like silk. We were up to specialist server #4 by now; there would be 6 in total. As an amuse bouche, the restaurant served us a bread fritter the size of large button. You took it whole into your mouth where it released its contents: tomato soup. In fact, it was a festival of tomatoes this night in late September. Accompanying was a popsicle of tomato and basil ice cream. Another item featuring cream of black tomato from the Crimea. The bread was baked locally by a man who grinds his own flour.  Then began the march of the truffles. Truffle cappuccino. An egg broken on a bed of truffle slices. A brioche with truffle. A syllabub sauce with truffle juice. Next course: a filet of fish mounted on a pedestal of stuffed potato in a pond of saffron and mayonnaise soup in a small basin. Every course has its own artistic plate and new cutlery. Then the main course: Barbary duck breast cooked in violets and caramelized peach, over paper thin potato leaves stuffed with truffles. At this point I stopped taking notes. We took our dessert in the lounge. Price per guest: about 125 euros.
Time to Auberge du Vieux Puits: 1 hour exactly. Call for reservations: 04 68 44 07 37.From the house in Valros, head toward St. Thibéry. Look for blue signs directing you to the A9, the Autoroute. Take the A9 south toward Barcelona and Narbonne. Take exit (sortie) 39, first toward Portel, then on the D611 to Fontjoncouse. Please note that D611 takes you through some of the best wine country in the Corbières. Of special note: Haut Gléon, producer of delicious reds.
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