Regional cuisine thrives at Fleurie's Auberge du Cep

October 21, 2007|By Doyle McManus | Doyle McManus,LOS ANGELES TIMES

Fleurie boasts the best restaurant in the area, the Auberge du Cep. Owner Chantal Chagny is something of a local legend: She started out doing classic French cuisine -- "elaborate dishes with elaborate sauces, lobster, all that sort of thing," she said -- and won two Michelin stars, achieved this year by 65 restaurants in France.

Then six years ago, she decided to simplify her life and her restaurant. She rewrote the menu to focus on ingredients from the surrounding provinces -- no more lobster, but some of the finest meat, fowl and freshwater fish in France.

She told Michelin to feel free to take away her two stars. ("They said no one had ever told them that before," she recalled with a wicked smile.) Michelin stripped her of one, but prudently left her with a single star, to see whether this experiment in regional cuisine could work.

It does.

We had cream of asparagus soup (it was asparagus season) that was heavenly, mild spring lamb that was a revelation and, for dessert, a pungent homemade sorbet of cassis -- black currants -- that would have been worth the trip itself.

The meal was expensive by local standards -- about $230 for two, including a bottle of Fleurie from a winery whose vines we probably walked by earlier in the day -- but, oh, was it memorable.

"Americans are our best clients, Americans and Germans, because they love the idea of good regional cooking," Chagny said. "The French still aren't quite sure."

She may have been exaggerating out of hospitality; as far as we could tell, most of her 14 tables were occupied by French patrons (although there was one Briton who dined by himself, looking positively ecstatic).

Still, a reservation can be hard to get. Last year, R.W. "Johnny" Apple Jr. (who died in October 2006) of The New York Times listed Chagny's restaurant as one of 10 in the world that merited a journey; his two-paragraph mention provoked newspaper and TV stories in France and Germany and sent armies of European gourmets to Fleurie to discover a jewel that had been hidden in plain sight.

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