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Sunday, 26 August 2012

Restaurant L'Alembic: Nuits St Georges

Driving south from Calais on the A4, after the forgettable arable countryside of Picardie and the occasionally hillier, more wooded slopes of Champagne, seeing the Côte de Nuits comes as something of a surprise.

I had, of course, read about it many times - the famous 50km strip of a gentle rise that provides the world's greatest terroir for the sensitive, finnicky Pinot Noir; a grape prone to mutation, grown in small, sub-divided plots, fractions of a vineyard, highly expressive of its terroir.

My surprise is twofold - firstly that the Côte de Nuits is more than a mere undulation, actually a proper, and quite steep, hill; secondly, that it is green and forested, a place for the mushrooms, deer and other game of Burgundian cuisine.

We had started at 5am in Cambridge, were in France by breakfast, had stopped in Reims for lunch and arrived at our hotel, the Hostellerie St Vincent, in Nuits St Georges by late afternoon; it is a small village and the hotel proves easy to find.

Checked in and unpacked, we explore the village - the signs and paraphenalia of wine-making are everywhere - our hotel overlooks the Belle Croix vineyards and just opposite is a Caves de Nuits St Georges wine shop.

We wander first into the centre of the village to find a meandering, cobbled main street and an elegant beffroi before a further short stroll takes us past Domaine Faiveley to the edge of the village and the start of the vineyards; here, a sign tells me that it is twinned, inexplicably, with the unloveable commuter town of Hitchin that I pass through twice a day on the train.

Returning to the hotel, we make our way downstairs to the vaulted restaurant L'Alembic, the name a reference to an alembic pot still in one corner.

We opt for the Menu Bourguignon at €28 for three courses (or €33 for four), arrange a Menu Enfant for the kids and order a bottle of Nuits St Georges Villages, a reasonably-priced 2008 from Dupasquier et Fils.

Service is good but leisurely and, after the early start in the day, it is a relief for all when the amuse bouches and bread are finally brought round - the children excel themselves (and surprise their parents) by eating up all of their quail's egg in red wine and wild mushroom sauce before tucking into the wonderfully crusty paves.

I opt for traditional Burgundian fare with my starter of Burgundy-style escargots - they are served not in shells, but in a dish of frothed butter, garlic and parsley. The buttery sauce is indulgent and perfectly balanced and everyone enthusiastically helps to mop up the last of it with a piece of bread.

Mrs CWB's home-made parsleyed ham is a more substantial slab of well-made terrine served with a crispy brick pastry and lightly garlicky cream.

For her main, she chooses the fish, a fillet of delicate freshwater zander or pike-perch, which comes with perfectly cooked crunchy baby-vegetables and a red-wine jus. #2 child has opted for the same and eats most of his up, leaving me to try just a few bits.

#1 child has beef again, ordering a roast after steack hache at lunchtime; I swap her an her escargot for a piece of the beef and it is delicious, really good-quality meat, well seasoned and perfectly cooked, served in a reduced jus.

I go local again with my main of coq au vin - it is served traditionally without the presentational flair of my starter, but the flavours are excellent and if the section of breast is a little dry and tough - as coq inevitably is - the leg feels more tender and juicier.

The wine, unsurprisingly, matches well with this dish - lovely cherry fruit, good acidity and a soft texture with a hint of smokiness as it opens up in the glass.

Our desserts are a cold soup of red fruits, sesame biscuit, iced cream of Sichuan pepper; the portions are generous, the berries perfectly ripe and the accompanying syrup has a perfect balance of sweet sharpness. It is delicious and brilliantly executed if a little lacking in the inventiveness of the amuse bouche and starter.

It is one of the best meals I have had in quite a while - to my mind, certainly Michelin-star quality but relatively inexpensive, coming in at €100 for the four of us.

The following day sees the the remainder of the drive to the Côte d'Azur, but we opt to spend the morning exploring the vineyards in the car before breakfast in the cobbled old town of Beaune.

It is a very pretty place, but feels more lived-in than, for example, the wine villages of Alsace or even Colmar, the regional capital.

And yet, there is something similar, a faintly-familiar, central-European influence that one gets in so many places from Budapest to Brussels.

I conclude that, notwithstanding the similarities, the key difference is that Alsace has a Germanic, craftsman's civic pride, whilst Burgundy knows that it is still noble.

We take in the Hotel de Dieu, the kids have a ride on a merry-go-round and then we get back in the car to continue our journey south.


L'Alembic - http://www.lalambic.com/
Hostellerie St Vincent - http://www.hostellerie-st-vincent.com/

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