It's always a pleasure to sit down at a familiar restaurant and tuck into something you've had before and know you'll like. But it's a pleasure of another kind to come upon a good restaurant accidentally, unexpectedly, and have a truly delightful experience.
That's what happened to my wife and daughters and me recently in the little town of Roquefort, in the Landes, in southwestern France. This is a modest village, known in medieval times as a stop on the pilgrimage route to Santiago de Campostella in Spain — and not to be confused with the famous cheese town, which is Roquefort-sur-Soulzon in the Aveyron, 150 miles or so to the east.
We ended up in Roquefort because it was lunchtime and it was just off the autoroute. We'd considered just stopping at a gas station mini-mart for shrink-wrapped sandwiches and chips, but decided instead to find a café where we could have steak frites or something similarly simple.
We passed a likely looking place and were searching for a place to park when one of my daughters summoned up a regional restaurant guide on her iPhone and said "There's a place called Le St. Vincent about two minutes from here that's supposed to be okay." Why not? we thought. We found it easily — an unassuming-looking hotel-restaurant in a nineteenth-century building with wrought iron balconies and a deep red door.
I went in and asked if it would be possible to have lunch. The young woman behind the hotel desk said "Oh, I'm sorry, I don't think so. But I will ask." She went down a corridor to the kitchen and came back to say, "Yes, all right, you can come in."
We were ushered out onto a narrow terrace with four or five tables — only one other was occupied, by a French family — overlooking a hidden garden enclosed by stone walls and old houses and green with herb beds, a few fruit trees, and a palm. The menu we were offered was minuscule: two first courses, two mains, some cheese, and two desserts. "I had to ask the chef if we could serve you," our hostess explained, "because we buy everything locally, fresh every day, and I had to make sure that we had enough food." (She, we later learned, was Aurore Jarrige, proprietor of Le St. Vincent with her husband, Benoît, who is the chef, and whose professional résumé includes a stint at the Michelin two-star Jean Sulpice in the ski resort of Val Thorens.)
We ordered some of everything: a plate of chopped, bright red tomatoes flavored with lavender; a small roasted eggplant topped with tomato confit and wisps of serrano ham and parmigiano; a perfectly cooked piece of skin-on lieu jaune, a variety of pollock also called kevin, on a bed of white beans with a mild, horn-shaped red pepper on the side; and some pieces of sweet roast pork with haricots verts and rounds of grilled corn cob about an inch thick.
Along with some good bread from the Boulangerie Belmonte just down the street and a few plates of thin-sliced local sheep's milk tomme, this made a perfect meal. The small, smart wine list included well-chosen offerings from various southwestern French appellations, like Irouléguy, Jurançon, and Côtes de Bergerac, as well as a scattering of better-known bottles.
There was nothing shockingly innovative about the meal; there was no show-off technique or artistic plating. It was just plain good cooking, based on impeccable ingredients, served unpretentiously in restful surroundings. We couldn't have been happier.