18 August 2008

L’Hostellerie du Château

This posting is a bit of a departure from the others. It’s a restaurant review. I think we’ve all fancied being a food critic, all that free grub and the chance to absolutely crucify an establishment which has given you poor service. Or, the chance to tell others about a great meal you’ve had or service above and beyond what was expected.

This review is of a restaurant we visited with Brian and Lynn in Normandy. It is the L’Hostellerie du Château and is situated in a town called Briquebec.

Brian and Lynn had kept telling us about ‘the Château’ and as it was to be our last dinner of the holiday we were kept in a state of gastronomic anticipation all week but on Friday night we finally set off for the 30 minute drive to Briquebec (or brickabrack as we called it). Like most French towns and villages in Normandy there is always something just around the corner and Briquebec was no exception. A quite ordinary town was completely transformed as we turned one of those corners and the most magnificent 11th century castle stood there, right in the middle of the town. We made a quick tour of the grounds, took some photos and then headed into the hotel reception somewhat early. We had no sooner made our arrival known than we were whisked by a very efficient waiter to our table in the Knight’s Hall resplendent with 12th century pillars, suits of armour and all the other brickabrack (get it ?) you get with an establishment which is 1,000 years old. Our table was right in the centre of the hall and in the best position for people watching and despite the fact that Friday night dining in a gastronomic restaurant should be a dress-up affair, the French were there in their Levi’s and t’shirts. Although the French have some (most ?) of the best restaurants and restaurateurs in the world, their male customers seem to treat them with total disrespect or am I being overly stuffy ?

Anyway, aperitifs were offered and ordered promptly which was welcome and something of a novelty as French restaurants are usually very remiss in taking pre-dinner drink orders. There’s something calming in having a sip of Kir or Champagne when faced with a large, complex menu.

Menus were presented just after the aperitifs arrived and for someone who can usually decide on a 4-course dinner in seconds, the variety of delightful-sounding dishes and range of fixed-price menus (with options) was mind-boggling.

A small, but sufficient plate of appetisers were placed on the table along with a basket of hot bread rolls and orders were taken. I am always amazed at the value presented by fixed-price menus. On the a-la-carte menu I had noticed Slow Braised Lamb which had been cooked for 7 hours. The price of this dish was 17 euros and yet I was able to have this dish in the Menu du Terroir (this is like a country fare menu) with an additional 3 courses for the ludicrously cheap price of 21 euros. My wife and friends all chose the Menu Gourmande which provided a mixture of fish and meat dishes. Me – all I wanted was good wholesome country food and I wasn’t disappointed.

Our host, Brian ordered a bottle of very pleasant Haut Medoc 2005 and shortly after the waiter poured the tasting glass, our first courses arrived.. I had ordered the Tower of Pressed Tomatoes, Feta Cheese and Country Herbs (it sounds better in French) and true to its inclusion in the ‘country’ menu it was deliciously fresh and chilled to exactly the correct temperature. The tartness of the cheese offset the wonderfully marinated tomatoes and just as your taste buds were beginning to become accustomed to the mixture of flavours, the herbs made their presence known, with the basil and mint battling one another for supremacy.

The next course was my long awaited 7 hour, slow-cooked lamb which was accompanied by another tower, this time of potatoes topped with a parmesan crust.
The lamb was simply delicious. It is a testament to the cooking process, and the chef obviously, that I did not need to use my knife once to cut the lamb, it simply fell apart as soon as the fork touched it. This is not to say that it was without texture. It shredded beautifully and tasted even better. My fellow diners had all chosen the steak main course and I could not help but feel their eyes assist me devour my lamb. The potato accompaniment was a trifle dry and may have been sitting around rather too long waiting for my 7 hour lamb ! The dish would also have benefited from a jus, the chef presumably thinking that the lamb juices would be adequate which they were not. All-in-all though it was a wonderful dish for someone who likes to get back to good old fashioned earthy food once in a while.

I passed on the cheese course, preferring to keep the flavour of the lamb on my tongue just a little longer but I did notice that the cheese portions offered were particularly small. It was as if the waitress was on some sort of bonus scheme which paid her for the amount of cheese she retained on the cheese board.

Dessert was, yes you’ve guessed it, another tower although I have to point out that this was just a coincidence. My choices could have missed all the towers on the Menu du Terroir but I’m glad they didn’t. This dish was a Normandy Biscuit Tower comprising cream, jellied fruits and topped with raspberries. There was a small amount of Crème Anglaise (thin custard) on the plate. Like my first course, this dish was remarkably fresh on the tongue with the sharpness of the raspberries complimenting the sweet jellied fruits and cream perfectly. My only complaint was that the biscuit was not as crumbly as one would have liked. The previous day I had had the most delicious chocolate tart which allowed me to compare the two pastries. In this case, the café in Cherbourg won.

In summary, I would drive miles to visit this beautiful monument with hotel alongside just as long as I could have the Menu du Terrior every time. Would I get sick of it ? Not a chance.

Visit the restaurant here:


and pictures of the Château here:


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