PONT DE L’ISÈRE
Not even her best friends would call Pont de l’Isère pretty. As French villages go, she is a plain Jane: just a scattering of low, inoffensive buildings alongside the Route Nationale 7. The place is near Valence and close to exit number 14 of the A8, the motorway to the Côte d’Azur. This means she offers convenience to those of us who require a stopover on our way to and from the Mediterranean. But she possesses something far more important than a convenient location in the Rhone Valley. For at Pont de l’Isère resides Michel Chabran, a chef of staggering brilliance. He is not a man for silly novelty or passing fads. Rather, he is an exponent of the very best of French cuisine – and I mean the best. At his eponymous restaurant I ate a magnificent dinner.
Rooms are available at his establishment. I would urge you to try to secure the only junior suite (295€ a night). I was in one of the other billets (number 5 – 130€ a night) and the modesty of its proportions meant that it was not entirely suited to those of us who do not travel light. Still, it had air conditioning and was only one floor up (there is no lift), so I made do for one night.
And I was so glad that I did, for the wonders of this establishment are in its dining room. This is rather like a conservatory, and has pleasing views through its plate glass of the flowers and fruit trees in the pretty garden. After a long drive that day, I needed a good armchair and some attentive members of staff. And that is what I found – the former in metal, made comfortable with an extra cushion, and the latter smart in their black suits. The tablecloth before me was beige and the sparkling glassware was by Italesse. Around me were gathering folk from the surrounding area, who were clearly fans of their famous, Michelin-starred local restaurant. I had a strong sense that what was about to come from the kitchen would be enjoyable.
I was right. Set menus here begin at the remarkably low price of 35€ and go up to 159€. My four courses from the carte were 127€. For such a wonderful meal, that was a bargain.
I began with terrine of foie gras with artichokes and courgettes. It sounds simple and, essentially, it was simple. But the beautiful presentation and the exquisitely delicate and refined flavours were thrilling. This was French food as it should be – based upon ingredients of the very highest quality and prepared by those with experience and intelligence. Then came two large ravioles Maison, with three cheeses and cream of yoghurt and herbs. These were rich and satisfying and meltingly delicious. But it was the meat course which left me reaching for the superlatives. This saddle of lamb was so tender and so full of taste that it put a remarkable thought into my head. It occurred to me that, not since I had sat in the avenue Poincaré in Paris many years before and ate lamb from the kitchen of Chef Joël Robuchon (he of the three Michelin stars and the worldwide fame), had I eaten lamb as good as this. This dish was a masterpiece. And to finish was a fourth dish to keep the smile upon my face: a lovely, hot Chartreuse soufflé with chocolate sorbet.
To accompany such food there must be good wine. The splendid sommelier, Antoine Lehebel, produced a list with 1,200 offerings. As you would expect, it is very strong in the local Rhone. Prices range from 25€ for a 2010 red Côtes du Rhône to an eye-watering 25,000€ for the magisterial 1961 L’Hermitage ‘La Chapelle’, Paul Jaboulet Aîné. Many bottles are in the 40€-70€ range, and the list has a useful extract of 22 bottles priced from 25€ to 65€. The following bottles caught my eye: 1970 Yquem (750€), 1961 Cantenac Brown (8,500€ for an Impériale), 1986 Pétrus (3,000€) and 1999 Montrachet, Bouchard (500€). To go with the magical lamb, Mr Lehebel recommended a 2007 Côte Rôtie of dense black fruit and yielding tannins (Côte Rozier, Dom. Bonnefond - 75€).
I returned to the restaurant for breakfast (23€), and found that the kitchen maintained its standards for the morning fare. I tucked into bread and brioche of the best sort, with honey, marmalade and raspberry jam, along with yoghurt, prunes and a pear compote.
Then it was back to the driving. But now I was full of energy. Really good food has that effect upon me. And that is what Michel Chabran had given to me – really good food (indeed, exceptionally good food) of the unapologetically French sort. And I was grateful to him. In fact, as I drove away, it even occurred to me that perhaps Pont de l’Isère was a tiny bit prettier than I had thought the previous day…
29 avenue du 45ème Parallèle, RN7, 26600 Pont de l’Isère, France.
Telephone +33 (0)4 75 84 60 09
Fax +33 (0)4 75 84 59 65
Double rooms from 110€, breakfast extra (23€)