It's been a fair old time since trains stopped calling at the Gare de la Gouesniere, but still the car-park is packed. After all, this is that sacred time of the week in French family life, Sunday lunch. Rising majestically, the newish Hotel Tirel-Guerin is a gloriously vulgar salmon-and-white trifle of a tribute to le gout francais. The building has the reassuring, self-satisfied bourgeois air that promises excellent cooking in the best of French tradition.
Long ago, grandmere Adelaide, ran the "bistrot-dancing" at the old station. She married her neighbour, Robert Tirel who worked at the station. Their son, Roger, having taken to the kitchen stoves, fell head over heels for the young Annie Guerin and they married. Her brother, Jean Luc also happened to be a chef, and by happy chance he fell for Roger's sister, Marie-Christiane, and she for him. They too married, and came into the family business. Now the four of them run the Michelin-starred restaurant together en famille.
A few months ago, the third generation, in the person of Roger's twentysomething son joined the family firm, after learning his trade at the knees of great chefs all around France. Proudly, his father and uncle have placed a prominent announcement on the menu, "Jean Luc et Roger sont heureux d'avoir avec eux en cuisine `Guillaume Tirel' apres son Tour de France". Surrounding this are five set menus ranging from a modest 125F (pounds 12.50) to 410F (pounds 41) for the degustation meal.
It's amazing, really, when you think about it: pounds 12.50 for a four course meal in a restaurant with a Michelin star. It is possible, I imagine, because they are blessed with superb local supplies. This little corner of Brittany, only a few miles from the Cote d'Emeraude is heaving with abundant produce, most notably shellfish and crustacea, but also some of the best lamb in France, the pre-sale lamb, and marvellous vegetables.
With aperitifs, come the first little surprise. In front of each of us is set a classic bouchee a la reine, a little vol-au-vent of high-rise puff pastry, oozing ham and chicken in a cream sauce. The children think they are marvellous and we agree. Five minutes later, a second unexpected treat appears - thin slices of terrine de mer, dotted with the orange of the sweet little bouchot mussels that are grown in the bay some five miles away.
From the 180F (pounds 18) menu, I chose for my starter, if you can call it that after such extensive preambles, what Michelin tells us is one of the restaurants specialities. The tete de veau aux aromates is an almighty upmarket slab of a charcutier's standard - veal head (minus bones) pressed into a terrine with a light jelly. If you like this kind of thing, which I do, very much, then this one is tremendous with soft, gelatinous, sticky layers on the outside, sheltering the shreds of meat and jelly inside. On top is an array of finely diced vegetable matter, a herby, substantial sort of a vinaigrette to take the edge of the richness off the veal.
William, meanwhile, is engrossed in his salad dressed with hazelnut oil, and laden with scallops and langoustines. The seafood is very fresh, as indeed it should be round here, the salad beautifully dressed. His mother is looking even more content as she begins making inroads into the 395F (pounds 39.50) menu, kicking off in royal fashion with a slab of terrine de foie gras, which is as smooth and heavenly rich as you would expect, accompanied by finely shredded beef scented with truffle. The sturdy flavour, sharpened by a hint of vinegar, works magic against the insistence of foie gras.
She draws the top prize with her main course, too, as she is presented first with a red bib, inscribed with an angry lobster, followed swiftly by the creature itself, now at peace, having been braised Jean-Luc-style. If you have ever eaten lobster and wondered what all the fuss is about (I have, frequently), then let me tell you that this one explained absolutely why lobster carries such an enviable, luxurious reputation. The flesh was sweet and full of the sea, with a texture like smooth buttered silk. It was napped with an intense creamy sauce, based on a reduced stock, but it was the sheer, unabashed excellence of the lobster meat itself which stood way out. I'd ordered a pastilla, thinking I would be receiving something along the lines of the Moroccan dish of paper-thin pastry, interleaved with sweetened pigeon meat. Instead, what turned up was a breast of tender pigeon meat, stuffed with cabbage puree and wrapped in puff pastry. Nice enough, but not what I'd expected and rather poorer for it. William also faced disappointment with his roast turbot which he mournfully pronounced not as fresh as it should have been.
In simple accord, we had all chosen tarte tatin for pudding. I'm not sure why I go on ordering tarte tatin in restaurants, because I never think it as nice as the one I make at home. The problem lies, principally, with the pastry. I don't like puff pastry on tarte tatin, and remain firmly convinced that a sweet shortcrust is the thing. The crumbling texture is wonderful against the melting, caramelised apple. Our individual tarts duly arrived, complete with puff pastry. I sighed, but rallied at the sight of an egg-cup bearing a scoop of all but burnt caramel ice-cream, so deep of flavour that it almost eclipsed the tart.
As we left, we spoke with Madame Annie. When I commented on how lovely the staff had been with the children, she smiled: "But of course, we welcome children. It is so important for them to learn to enjoy civilised food and to educate their palate. They are our future." And she should know, as she stands at the helm of this generous-hearted restaurant founded on the strengths of the family.
Next week in the Sunday Review the first part of the exclusive serialisation of Sophie Grigson's and William Black's new book, `Fish'Reuse content