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BY NEAL MARTIN | SEPTEMBER 27, 2019
Cucumber and Granny Smith mousse with Chantilly cream infused with ginger
King black tiger prawns with seaweed biscuits and satay emulsion
Smoked salmon and gravadlax
Fillet of tuna, root vegetables with rocket coulis and citrus wasabi dressing
Perch gratiné from Sainte-Maure in Tourraine, beurre blanc and mashed potato
Shortbread cake with pistachio cream with honeyed roasted apricot and rosemary
2017 Domaine des Deux Vallées Savennières 88
What do Napa, Alsace, Piedmont and the Loire have in common? The answer is that I have never stepped foot into those wine regions. I guess that’s because from the early days of my career, long before attaching words to wine, I was being corralled into Bordeaux and Burgundy and, in retrospect, rendered less peripatetic than I would have liked. On the other hand, there are plenty of wine regions that have suffered my presence, from Mendoza to Hemel-en-Aarde, Irouléguy to Irancy and Central Otago to the Surrey Hills. When I recently booked a much-needed holiday down to the Pays Basques for a bit of R&R, I decided to drive rather than fly – not to decrease my carbon footprint, but see a bit of rural France and enjoy the empty motorways. It was too many miles to tackle in a single stretch, so I stopped over in the city of Tours and ticked off a wine region that I had flown over countless times but never visited: the Loire.
The 455-mile schlep to Tours deserved a decent restaurant at the end of it. On friends’ recommendations, I reserved a table at L’Embellie. Located in the picturesque pedestrianized old quarter of the city, the restaurant is ensconced in a centuries-old building made of ancient oak and history, its backbone warped so that the upper floors seem to be on the verge of toppling over. The streets are thronged with locals and tourists, fostering a lively atmosphere that seeps into the restaurant’s two floors. The interior is dimly lit, with a single candle feebly illuminating the table, making it difficult to really examine the food but lending a cozy ambiance.
I’m not sure why the tiger prawns were kept hidden underneath the seaweed biscuits
The menu is limited to around half a dozen choices per course and consists of classic French cuisine with few unexpected twists and turns. First an amuse-bouche arrived: a zinging cucumber and Granny Smith mousse topped with ginger-laced Chantilly cream. Light and revivifying, it set up the tastebuds for starters. We shared plates of black tiger prawns with seaweed biscuits and a satay emulsion. The prawns were fresh and delicious, though the seaweed was a tad too salty. Fortunately, the other plate of smoked salmon and gravadlax was spot on, the latter perfectly seasoned. My only complaint is that I wish there had been more.
The highlight at L’Embellie, this baked perch was absolutely delicious, even if it did not express the greatest culinary expertise
For mains, I plumped for the baked perch (zander), sourced from the Tourraine and topped with cheese gratin, and accompanied by mashed potato and a sea of beurre blanc. Bingo! I have a passion for this poisson. We don’t eat enough perch. This one was moist, flaky and flavorsome. It married perfectly with the gratin, the subtle vinegary bite of the beurre blanc and the fluff-tastic mashed potato. Simple yet superbly executed, this dish left me mopping my plate. It worked better than the fillet of tuna, served with seasonal vegetables and a citrus wasabi dressing. Tuna is a tricky fish to cook precisely and I might quibble that it was overdone by a minute. Perch 1, Tuna 0.
This tuna dish had good intentions but failed to really make the grade
To finish, I opted for something different: a shortbread cake topped with twirls of pistachio cream and honeyed roasted apricot with rosemary. The combination worked well, although the sweetness would have benefited from a citrus element. Still, the honeycomb ice cream in the middle of the plate was an absolute knockout.
The wine list is not enormous, and I would have preferred a choice of more regional wines. This deficiency was compensated by some choice reds from Domaine Marc Colin, though in the end I was compelled to go local(ish). The 2017 Savennières from Domaine des Deux Vallées was delicious. The nose is ripe and generous for a Savennières, offering scents of apricot, dandelion and nectarine and slightly heady in style. The palate is well balanced – a little rich, perhaps, but counterbalanced by acidity – and reveals fleeting tropical notes toward the clean finish. It lost some definition as it warmed in the glass, though slightly chilled I found it worked a treat.
L’Embellie was thoroughly enjoyable. There are plenty of tourist restaurants in the center of Tours offering mediocre fare, but L’Embellie is a step above others in the vicinity. Still, my wife made a good point when she remarked that we ate nothing that she could not rustle up in our kitchen. Not every dish worked, though frankly the perch was so good that I did not regret my choice. If you are in Tours visiting wineries or the picture-postcard Château de Villandry and its famous geometric gardens, then L’Embellie comes recommended, provided you enter with modest expectations. From Tours I headed south toward the Basque coastal towns of Ciboure and Saint-Jean-de-Luz, where I enjoyed some dinners on a much higher level. Expect these to be served up on Vinous Table soon.