Although the restaurant is only half full, I have no reservation and, at 8:45 pm, have to sweet talk first the young hostess and then her mistress, Madame Marie Odile, who gets tired of listening to my sad story about not eating all day and finally puts her hand up to my face, entreating me to be quiet, winks, and then leads me by the hand to a small table on the patio near a very green and peaceful garden. Madame Odile blushes when I kiss her hand and tell her she’s just saved my life.
First things first, I tell her: wine.
She hands me the wine book and it takes me less than a minute to pick out a Tavel rose. In the front of the wine list is a quote from Salvador Dali: “Qui sait de’guster ne boit plus jamais de vin mais goute des secrets.”
Appropriately, the menu here is mostly poissons: sole meuniere, turbot, dorado, bar. I start with a dozen local oysters, served on a bed of seaweed, that are so sweet and briny that you wonder if Madame sent someone down to the shore after I ordered to pluck them out of the bay. I also get the dos de Cabillaud per sille et moutarde au jus de viande—on Madame’s recommendation—plus a plate of cheese and coffee. For 32 euros, which seems awfully damn reasonable to me. Oh! And on the table they have a large wooden tub with a wooden spoon for dipping into the famous Île de Ré fleur de sel, as thick and grainy as a snowcone but with a taste so sweet I sprinkle it on my buttered roll and lick it off like ice cream.
All around me are the most adorable French families, on their August seaside vacations, the women in polka dot silk dresses, with sad eyes and wry smiles that make me think of Juliette Binoche, who was on the cover of the Air France in-flight magazine. Their daughters, hair pulled back in sleek ponytails, wear white dresses to contrast with their chestnut-colored skin and have pouts on their bored faces that are, nonetheless, enchanting.
The old men, unlike old men in the States, look stylish, with Cary Grant smiles and navy blue sweaters tied around their shoulders.
When they roll the cheese cart out, it’s like a surprise guest at the MTV awards, all shrouded and with a long, noisy introduction. The linen is pulled back dramatically and then there they are, all the glistening cheeses that everyone, including me, oohs and ahhs about as they make their selection.
The oysters were stunning. But the local chevre—oh my god! Salty, soft, tactile, buttery, raw, intense. It’s like sex. The first time with somebody.
Madame comes over and pours the last of the Tavel into my glass. “Well?” she says with a smile. I am so happy I have no words for her (or perhaps the Tavel has gone to my head). All I can do is grin and shake my head in wonder. Madame understands perfectly.
Next time, she says, reservations will not be necessary for Monsieur at Le Chat Botte.
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