The best in the world?
Roanne was as far as our journey down the Loire would take us for now. I am not sure we deserved a good lunch, but we were going to have one.
If the Maison Troisgros was surprised to see two dusty cyclists at the door, it was far too polite to say so, and as it happens I doubt we were a rarity. Roanne is the Compostela of the food world – I don’t say Rome, because I have neither the experience nor the desire to enter the ‘world’s best restaurant’ debate, but Troisgros is no stranger to that accolade – and gastro-pilgrims must arrive from all corners, by every means of locomotion: on horseback, by 2CV and on all fours.
Or, more comfortably, by train: Troisgros commands the space traditionally occupied by the great provincial hotel-restaurants of France, the Place de la Gare. In Roanne it is now called the Place Jean Troisgros in honest recognition of the town’s debt to its star family. Let us hear it once more: three Michelin macarons, sans interruption, since Dany le Rouge and co were ripping out the railings and manning the barricades on the Boulevard St Michel.
“How many tourists do you reckon visit Roanne for reasons other than Troisgros?” I asked the Maitre d’Hotel. “None,” he said.
Politely we were shown the underground car park – henceforth also bicycle park – and from there a secret passage led directly to the bathroom and fitness suite. After a week on the road our evening outfit was perhaps a little crumpled but I like to think we scrubbed up all right and emerged fit for purpose. There followed an aperitif moment in the calm of the Japanese garden before we received the summons to a room of restful earth colours balanced by the subdued hum of lunchers happily absorbed in quiet mastication.
Troisgros is not a solemn experience, but a serious one. A floppy haired blond gentleman with a pale blue cashmere pullover thrown with inch-perfect nonchalance over his shoulders, and long fingers that have never seen harder work than dismembering a crab, looked slowly up from his plate, raised one eyebrow, gave the faintest hint of a nod, and went back to his lunch. A black and white photograph of a tree in winter filled the wall.
The menu was 33 words long. It contained no spectacular flights of exotic fantasy, nor did it take us on a journey across the Pacific Ocean. Who could stomach such a thing, at lunchtime on Monday? We began with soup – velouté de potimarron à l’amande (a dream) – followed by lobster with consommé, rabbit and ceps, goat’s cheese cannelloni, strawberry and mint tart, a few sweet titbits, and then, Amen. There was also a cheese board, and it needed two grown men to carry it.
Jean-Jacques the sommelier advised Menetou Salon if we wanted something to go with the lobster, Côte Rotie for the rabbit, and either Montagny or Meursault for the goat’s cheese cannelloni. We went for the Montagny.
A distinguished art historian and connoisseur once told an uppity classmate of mine: “kindly remember you are studying the work of a genius. Your job is to appreciate and try to understand, but not to criticise. Never suggest – never even think – that Dürer made a mistake.”
I realise that down this road the Emperor’s new clothes lie in an untidy pile. But if I was an Emperor and Michel Troisgros was my tailor I would take the risk.
Imperial tailors at work?