Written by Richard Neville. See our new guide to all readers' restaurant reviews.
Living in France, I thought that we would have a great choice of wonderful restaurants. In some parts there are. After selling our wine business, house, car and furniture we left England and lived for six years on an ancient Dutch barge, slowly travelling along every navigable canal and river in Holland, Belgium and France. We found several hot spots in France with top restaurants located on rivers, such as Paul Bocuse on the Saône north of Lyon, each with a mooring pontoon.
In other areas top restaurants are thin on the ground, and in one of these areas, the Languedoc, we chose to settle. A year or two ago I bought a Guide Michelin of Spain in order to see what is on offer the other side of the border, in Spanish Catalonia (Catalunya). To my astonishment I saw a plethora of stars. A constellation, spinning out from the supernova elBulli. It seems that most of the young chefs had worked there. Some restaurants were already well known, such as El Celler de Can Roca in Girona, but it was the others that interested me.
I found creative cuisine with a freshness and life that is difficult to find in the Languedoc, using local ingredients, usually of the season. Their dining rooms are stylish and modern and their wine lists well selected. Wines are prominently from Catalonia, well made and across a broad range of styles. There is an energy in Catalonia that I do not experience here in the Languedoc.
My favourite is restaurant Ca l'Enric in La Vall de Bianya (La Garrotxa), a fourth-generation family restaurant where brother Joan Juncá, sommelier, fronts the restaurant, and sister Isabel and brother Jordi are in the kitchen. Their 'creative' unwritten menu had 14 courses, many not much larger than tapas, all exquisitely crafted and served with style on a variety of interesting tableware such as slate slabs, inverted transparent pyramids and other vessels. Cutlery was from Forge de Laguiole and glassware was Riedel and Spiegelau.
Every plate had a meaning, themed on the traditional dishes of that area without too many clever tricks. For example a 'volcano eruption' with chocolate truffles and nougat, symbolic of the volcanoes in the region with smoke and rocks (photo courtesy of Jordi).
They use their own vegetables, salads and herbs, together with the best local ingredients. Chef Jordi's mentor is Joan Roca of El Celler de Can Roca in Girona. Joan interchanged wines between red and white throughout the meal depending on the dish.
For a lower budget seven-course meal on a terrace overlooking the sea and bay of LlaFranc, Hotel Casamar is the one to choose. It is a family business with a laid-back, friendly, family atmosphere, Maria Casselas fronting the restaurant and brother Quim in the kitchen. Compared to Ca l'Enric, their tasting menu had fewer but larger courses and fewer complicated avant-garde techniques. But it is sophisticated cuisine with beautiful presentation, perfect cooking and interesting combinations that show that Quim has great flair, creativity and imagination, and a real understanding of balance.
His dishes are a feast for the eyes and palate alike. An example of one of their courses: green tea sorbet and verveine with iced melon soup poured around the sorbet from a cool jug at the table. It is interesting that neither Jordi or Kim ever worked at elBulli. Such is the depth of inspirational cuisine in Catalonia.
There are, of course, some excellent restaurants on the French side of the border and the Auberge du Vieux Puits in Fontjoncouse is usually rated as having the best cuisine.
For the best value-for-money menu I would recommend the €29 menu at L'Ambassade in Béziers. The delightfully helpful restaurant manager and sommelier Karim Rabatel look after you exceptionally well in a traditional Guide Michelin way (not the modern, slick, brash atmosphere found in many 'smart' restaurants), while chef Patrick Olry is in the kitchen with a team of trainee chefs. The wine list is extensive and Karim is willing to serve wines by the glass according to your dish.
Few low-priced restaurants in this region show much spark of imagination but L'Auberge du Presbytère in Vailhan uses local fresh produce of the season produced biodynamically where possible. The team is just two chefs and a sommelier who waits at table. Service can be slow and I recommend a sunny, warm day so that you can eat on the terrace.
Why, I had wondered, does Catalonia have so many good restaurants compared to our region in southern France, where one of the best restaurants closed through lack of appreciation? We concluded that there must be a gastronomic spirit held by diners and restaurateurs alike, a lifting of standards led by elBulli and El Celler de Can Roca, to which all aspire.