Eating Out: Breaking past barriers

CHARLES BARRIER; 101 Avenue de la Tranchee, 37100 Tours, France. Tel: 00 33 2 47 54 20 39. Open for lunch Monday to Sunday, noon to 2pm, and for dinner Monday to Saturday, 7 to 10pm. Set menus of FF230 (pounds 24) and FF470 (pounds 50). Average a la carte price for dinner, FF500 (pounds 53) per person. Credit cards accepted
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WHEN I WAS a child, Barrier was definitely considered the top- of-the-league restaurant in the Loire valley town of Tours. As far as I remember, anyway - it is certainly a name that has lodged itself firmly in my brain in the way only childhood certainties and extraordinary or totally irrelevant facts do. It had Michelin stars, it was grand, and I was never taken there.

At last this column has pushed me to make a booking and sit down at the Barrier table. Rather too late, as it turns out. Barrier no longer reigns supreme in Tours (that accolade has gone to the palace that is the kingdom of Jean Bardet; two Michelin stars to Barrier's one, and infuriatingly for them, just down the other end of the road). And the eponymous M Barrier is long gone, with the Barrier premises and name sold, the waiter told us, to a wealthy businessman, and the kitchen baton handed on to his son Herve Lussault.

Having arrived more or less on time and found a parking space close to the restaurant, I was feeling pretty pleased with myself. Horror descended as we rounded the corner to discover that the place was shut. "But I phoned and made a reservation this morning," I wailed pathetically. The children looked hungry. And then the light dawned. The Barrier outposts, the traiteur's counter (for takeaway meals of a grand sort), and the cheaper brasserie were taking their annual summer holiday, but just a few yards on, the doors of the restaurant proper beckoned with the sonorous, serious gleam of an expensive establishment. "Ha, ha, ha, folks. Of course I really knew all along ... just my little joke." I prayed that the two infants would behave themselves and strode in.

The dining room, with its old rose-pink walls, is boxy and modern, trying gently to disguise its lack of proportion. The crystal chandeliers were a great hit with four-year-old Florence. The waiters, togged up smoothly to the waiterly nines, were handsome to a fault, and utterly charming, at various points ignoring the disappearance of the two little terrors under the table. Children's meals (smoked salmon and pasta, ham and mashed potato) were sweetly suggested and gratefully accepted.

The meal began with delicious little amuse-gueules, including a dash of first-class, well- seasoned rillettes (a thready pork spread), and a small chicken wing glazed with a sweet, salty coating. This was followed by another surprise in the form of a little bowl of thick carrot, star anise and langoustine-stock soup, outrageously orange in colour, a touch tepid, but with a marvellous, unexpected depth of flavour.

I am a sucker for foie gras and so my meal proper launched with a tremendous start in the form of a hot sandwich of foie gras (double layers on the exterior) and apple, served with an immaculate roast fig and a sweet, sharp dressing to balance the richness. Unfortunately, my curious daughter decided that she also likes foie gras, and so, in self-sacrificing maternal vein, I passed an inordinate number of little tastings on to her .

The home-smoked salmon was fine by any standards, though cannot match the finest that we produce in the British Isles - not that my French friend Bernard seem to care too much about that. Meanwhile, Barbara had landed herself with the second outstanding dish of the meal: four generous langoustines, wrapped in crisp vermicelli, moistened with a sweetish, but well-spiced jus with hints of Southeast Asia. Not too much, of course, because here in France furious debate is fuelled by the introduction of "foreign influences" on the purity of classic haute cuisine. As it happens, handsome young Herve was born in Laos, and adopted as a baby, so he has a fairly valid excuse for allowing exotic ingredients to creep into his cuisine. Not that you'd guess from the menu, which is steadfastly French with only the most minor excursions, the langoustine being the most noticeable.

My main course, on the other hand, was about as French and as local as they get. Matelote d'anguille is a dish firmly rooted in the gentle inland landscape of this region. Eels from the Loire and its meandering tributaries are the main ingredient, accompanied by large chunks of salt pork, cooked long and tender in the red wine of Chinon (there are versions cooked in white wine, but this one predominates), sweetened most wonderfully with swollen, melting prunes. Tours was once as famous as Agen for its prunes, and though large-scale production has long ceased, the tradition lives on in this dish, and in the marvellous pruneaux farcis de Tours - lush, stuffed-prune sweetmeats. This matelote was good, dark and richly flavoured, the eel falling tenderly from the bone.

It had politely been suggested that we order pudding at the start of the meal, as they are all made to order. It's a neat trick, for by the time we'd finished our main courses, none of us could countenance eating any more. Too bad, the puddings were well on their way. Too bad, too, that they turned out to be the lowest point of the meal. Perfectly pleasant, and in other circumstances we might even have praised them, but as it was we were disappointed. The lemon verbena sorbet, that sat atop the biscuit tart topped with thin slices of peach, was probably the most exciting bit. It was certainly more interesting than the dull gateau au chocolate chaud which was meant to be coulant (runny), but wasn't, or the mille-feuille of raspberries that Bernard tackled, completed and then could think of nothing more telling to say of it than that it was "correct" - as it should be.

It's a funny thing, but despite frequent visits to Tours for this or that, this was the first time that I've sat down to a proper meal in the town. As introductions go, it was pretty encouraging. Now that I've broken through my Barrier barrier, I can start to explore the other possibilities that abound. Maybe this time next year, I'll be able to update you on my progress.