Café de la Promenade
The town of Bourgueil is situated on the northern edge of the Loire's alluvial plain; to the south there is rich agricultural soil, exploited by the region's farmers and forestiers. Much more interesting to us, I expect, is the gentle incline of the limestone slope to the north; this is where the vineyards of Bourgueil and St Nicolas de Bourgueil are to be found. This proximity to its vines makes Bourgueil an ideal base for exploring the region. Not only are the vineyards very close, but a number of domaines have caves in the town, so an afternoon stroll down to the famous abbey can soon turn into an enjoyable tasting marathon, as I discovered when I first stayed here in the early 1990s. Thinking back to that first visit, I can remember with certainty which hotel I stayed in, but strangely I cannot remember where I ate. The meals cannot have been very memorable! If visiting today, however, I know exactly where I would head after a day out among the vines; to the Café de la Promenade, on the southern edge of the town.
Opened by Ludovic and Sophie Ragot several years ago, and now a bustling lunching and dining hotspot, it is hard to believe that this café, full of stone-built rustic charm, was originally a gasworks, and then a butcher's. Its success is due, I think, to a combination of homely French fare and an interesting selection of largely local wines. A good location close to the Bourgueil bypass (and therefore not too far from the A85 autoroute either) also helps, I am sure. Pricing is important too, of course, and this is very reasonable. In particular, the approach Ludovic and Sophie have taken with wine - adding a modest flat fee to the retail price of the wines they sell - is no doubt instrumental in shifting a large volume of local labels.
Arriving here at lunchtime I took a seat within sight of the kitchen, on one of many tables dotted around Ludovic's bar. By some coincidence I found myself sitting right next to an old hospital switchboard, just one of the many artefacts dotting the walls, nestled between the sepia photographs and the faded posters with their curled-up corners. With the right equipment I could have plugged in and been put through to the infirmières, the docteurs, the laboratoire or even the tisanerie. I thought it was nothing more than an interesting piece of bric-a-brac, but mid-meal the telephone hanging on the side started to ring; it turned out it is not just decorative, but is in fact hooked up to the bar's telephone. I was grateful, though, when Ludovic answered it, just in case it had been a real emergency - an urgent request for a tisane, perhaps?
As mentioned, the focus here is traditional and homely, the menu short but still full of appealing options including terrine maison and pot au feu. The hambourgueil, a house specialty of steak topped off with seared foie gras and fried onions glazed with the local wine, held my attention for perhaps obvious reasons. The ardoise slates of terrines and charcuterie, for one or for sharing, also looked like a very good option. In the end, however, I decided to kick off with a petit pot de foie gras (pictured above right - sorry, I know I'm supposed to photograph it before I eat it, but it looked too good not to tuck in straight away). This was drizzled with a sweet reduction and served with toasted bread, and it was nothing short of delicious. I followed up with something that is - according to Raymond Blanc at least - quintessentially French, the pot au feu; seeing dish after dish fly out of the kitchen only made me think that Raymond may well be right. The dish itself was dark, the root vegetables heavily stained by the cooking liquor, the meat flaking away with the fork, and the flavour was very good. And yes, it was certainly filling.
The wine list at the Café de la Promenade isn't really a list at all - a tiny room in the corner of the café has been put into use as a cellar. To choose a wine, you simply hunt around the bins - making use of the provided step ladder as required - until you find something you want to drink. All the bins are marked up with retail prices, and you add an extra €8 if you want to drink the wine on the premises. The 2012 L'Hurluberlu from Sébastien David, vibrant and youthful, full of dark fruit skins and yet laced with a minty green, was spot on with both of my dishes.
I enjoyed my visit to the Café de la Promenade; this isn't fine dining, the venue being charming rather than high-brow, the food rustic and unpretentious, and it is served with a friendly and casual air. I'm not surprised that the formula is a hit with the locals, with almost every seat occupied by the time I left on this Friday lunchtime. I'm looking forward to my return visit, hopefully in the not-too-distant future; next time it's the hambourgueil for me.
Prices: Very reasonable indeed. The wines are subject to an €8 surcharge if drunk at the café, and with prices very low some bottles still come in at under €20 even with this surcharge. Wines are also available by the 120 ml glass, prices ranging from €2.90 to €6.90. The ardoise selections range from about €10 up to about €20, the hambourgueil is €15. Six or a dozen oysters is €7.50 or €15 respectively. (11/1/14)