Restaurant de la Vallée
The Loire Valley is not exactly short of picturesque villages and ancient châteaux. Indeed, this combination of historic settlements and great architectural monuments, set in a rolling pastoral landscape of woodland and vineyards which have been farmed for centuries, was the principal argument in favour of the region being accorded UNESCO World Heritage Site status in 2000.
The zone afforded this accolade stretches from Chalonnes-sur-Loire, just west of Angers, all the way up to Sully-sur-Loire, close to Gien, and it incorporates everything from scenic villages with impossibly narrow streets such as Candes-Saint-Martin, which overlooks the union of the Vienne and the Loire, to ostentatious memorials to the hubris of French royalty. In the case of the latter Château de Chambord, built by François 1er (1494 – 1547), springs immediately to mind.
It says something of the extent and beauty of the Loire Valley that even beyond the borders of the UNESCO site there are dozens more charming villages and imposing châteaux. Clisson is a prime example, its appeal being the ruined 13th-century château, its Medieval market hall, the tiny stone bridges dating from the 14th and 15th centuries and its post-Revolutionary architecture, which has a distinctly Tuscan feel. The sculptor and architect who rebuilt the village after it was destroyed during the Guerre de Vendée, François-Frédéric Lemot (1772 – 1827), had spent many of his years in Italy.
You might wonder what relevance this history has to the Restaurant de la Vallée. Well, I am hoping it gives you some idea of the view I enjoyed from my table, on the first floor of this restaurant, when I dined here. Seated right at the window, looking out onto the darkening waters of the river, its burbling weir and just one of those Medieval bridges, I watched as day turned to dusk, and the lights illuminating the ancient château opposite flickered into life.
Let’s just say, for once, I think I had the best table in the house.
The Restaurant de la Vallée is home to husband-and-wife team Hervé Derame, who takes charge in the kitchen, and Sandrine Derame, who works front of house. I was amused to learn from Sandrine that they first met when working in the Peebles Hydro, a popular hotel, spa and function suite in Scotland not a million miles from where I live. That was more than a few years ago now, and today the couple are well-known in the region for their tenure of this eminently positioned restaurant on the banks of the Sèvre Nantaise.
There was no possibility of me drinking anything other than Muscadet with this dinner, so my choices on the evening were made with this in mind. I started with financier au crabe et gambas poêlée, croustillant de poisson et bouillon thaï; the financier, usually a small almond-flavoured cake named for its resemblance to a gold ingot, was here reshaped and infused with a savoury crab flavour, supporting a dainty spring roll filled with fragrant fish, and a solitary langoustine tail. Complemented by the bouillon of coconut milk and Thai herbs, this was a nicely thought-out dish.
It was bettered, however, by the burrata aux herbes et crumble au parmesan, crémeux de petits pois et tomate confite. Now while I am a strong advocate for looking beyond seafood when it comes to Muscadet (although I admit I didn’t exactly bang that drum with my choices on this occasion), I would not have thought Muscadet would have worked as well as it did with this delicious dish. The Italian cheese was the perfect foil for the confit tomatoes and creamed pea, both of which were vibrant in their flavour intensity. What the burrata gave in texture it perhaps lacked in flavour, but that is where the Parmesan came in. In realised I should have chosen this dish instead. I reached this conclusion after just two mouthfuls; sadly I was not permitted a third.
Sitting in the centre of Clisson, I naturally wanted to drink a cru communal wine from this cru’s vineyards, but I am afraid I was swayed by the presence of a wine from just downriver, the 2015 Gorges from Domaine Brégeon. This showed brilliantly, as expected, the only issue being it took an hour or so to open up by which time we were tucking into our main courses. I would say this is a lesson for me to learn for future dining, but I am reluctant to commit as I know I have made this mistake – of choosing the grander cuvée over those less prestigious wines which are ready to drink – more than once or twice before. I think I need a wine teacher to give me one hundred lines on this subject; perhaps then it will finally sink in.
My choice for the main course was filet de daurade poêlée et chutney de mangue au curry Madras. I am perhaps guilty of being a little ‘safe’ in my choices when dining and curried dishes are not usually my first choice, but this worked quite well, the curry spices were used in a measured fashion, and the mango worked well in the spice. I am not really sure whether this combination did the sea bream any favours, but the latter was so precisely cooked it almost didn’t matter. Once again, however, I chose the inferior dish, as the filet de bar poêlé avec crème aux girolles was superb, the sea bass no less sensitively cooked, but here the subtly flavoured girolle-laden cream sauce felt a more integral part of the dish, and less experimental.
The puddings were good enough. The comme une Forêt Noire aux cerises à l’eau de vie, biscuit au cacao et ganache montée au chocolat noir presented some good, dark chocolate intensity, while the savarin au rhum agricole, fruits frais et chantilly was rather delicately flavoured, while the fresh fruits included a healthy dollop of mango, perhaps not ideal after sea bream in a curried mango sauce. Nevertheless, these were mere afterthoughts to what had been a good meal, with the sea bass and burrata dishes particularly memorable. I will certainly come back to the Restaurant de la Vallée again in the future. I just hope I get that same table by the window again. (23/9/22)
Prices: Dinner for two came to €144, which included two chef’s menus which were €38 each for three courses, €42 for the 2015 Gorges from Fred Lailler, €12 for aperitifs, €9 for water and €5 for coffees.