This article was also published in the Financial Times.
No sooner had I walked through the door of Le Central, the café/épicerie operated by Michel and Marie-Pierre Troisgros in Roanne, south-east France, than I was relieved of my suitcase by their long-standing maître d', Patrice Laurent.
We exchanged handshakes and pleasantries before he informed me, with a touch of regret, that my guest was running 15–20 minutes late. Excellent, I thought to myself. Now I can spend some time exploring just why this is one of my favourite restaurants in Europe.
After taking in the view of the pristine kitchen through the glass door, my next stop, the lavatory, revealed two distinctive elements of Le Central.
The first is a series of small, black-and-white photos of the café, a motif that adorns all its various rooms. The second is a magnificent washbasin, 80 years old at least, that by being far deeper and broader than all modern equivalents allows customers to wash their hands and face comfortably. But the age of this basin is also indicative of Le Central's other charms.
The first is that it occupies a former hotel built in the 1920s that was constructed on a gracious scale that no one could afford to replicate today. It has high ceilings, large windows at the front and the back that let in swathes of natural light, and an attractive tiled floor that has stood the test of time. Consequently, the dining room has two attributes that no modern building can readily deliver: excellent acoustics, helped by cheerful, full-length curtains, and more than ample space between the tables.
Le Central's other historical association is with its owners, who have run Maison Troisgros, the three-star Michelin restaurant with rooms, next door, since 1930. But this association has deeper roots than just shared ownership, although each is run as a separate business.
Michel and Marie-Pierre Troisgros opened Le Central in 1996 as the first manifestation of the new direction in which they planned to take the family business, of which they were then assuming control. After 13 years together in the main restaurant, they now realised it was time to branch out. 'We were losing a lot of our local customers and we wanted to do something to bring them back', Marie-Pierre explained, the force of her character masked by a particularly broad smile.
While they were at this time among the first of the top French chefs to open less expensive bistros, the Troisgros decided to reward the Roannais with something more, that something encapsulated in the title they have given Le Central: a 'café/épicerie', a café and grocery store.
As a result, in a style that is perhaps more common now in California, New York or Italy, the walls of Le Central are covered in wooden shelves which stock not the basic necessities for any kitchen, nor anything overly expensive, but a whole range of ingredients that will make any meal at home that much better: excellent pasta; olive oil; salted capers that, as Michel Troisgros explained, are an excellent addition when cooking fish or roasting vegetables; wines; chocolates and the odd cookery book.
A lot is now sourced as a result of what the Troisgros encounter on their travels, the most recent being sardines from a small producer in Lisbon, but it is the low-key, unobtrusive manner in which everything is displayed that is so attractive.
From my perch at the reception desk I had now looked the dining room over a couple of times and taken in the open kitchen with its antique red weighing scales when Laurent came to tell me that my guest had arrived and to escort me to our table. How annoying, I thought, as there were still several aspects of this restaurant I wanted to take in. But as most of these concerned the food, I was happy to move.
The first and last dishes were what the chefs and Nature had prepared for us. On the table were small pots of crisp bread and freshly made hummus for us to nibble on. With the coffee came a small white plate with two clementines each, at this time of year something more colourful and refreshing than any 'petit four', particularly after a rich French dessert or equally rich cheeses.
The food and wine come in an equally compelling format, the menu the same size as a large paperback, but containing only five pages. It opens with the wine list, which means every customer sees it, followed by two pages of à la carte dishes and a list of drinks at the end, interspersed by a single sheet, sensitively printed on a different coloured paper, that is a menu that is precise and easy to read.
It is also, unlike so many menus today, very sensibly edited. There are four hors d'oeuvres dishes to choose from; four fish and four meat main courses; cheese two different ways and four desserts - one reason, I am sure, this kitchen can maintain such consistency. Plus the €27 set lunch menu of a pumpkin soup with almonds, a lamb tagine with vegetables, and île flottante with a passion-fruit sauce, that would have delighted anyone from 8 to 80.
But it was not the food, wine or service that really stood out. It was that all this took place in a historic room with a modern design; where the owners feel very close to their customers; and where, above all, they have, thanks to their experience, tailored what the customer is to experience to suit the customer rather than themselves.
Le Central, Roanne, France, www.troisgros.fr