French Wine Dinner: Oo la la, it was delicious!

As the Tenant sits down to review yet another special Bistro dinner, she is reminded of the first time she ever sat down to a classic French meal: when she was in high school French Club, dining with her classmates at a lovely old French restaurant in Shaker Heights with the not-very-French-sounding name of The Wagon Wheel. Perhaps some of you are old enough to remember it. I recall the name as the subject of much joking at the time; we were from Lake County and lived close enough to Geneva-on-the-Lake that the most familiar restaurant to us with the name “Wagon Wheel” was a burgers-pizza-and-beer joint near the beach. Classmates who heard the name of the restaurant we had selected for our club dinner thought we were going to the one in Geneva, and joked that the only French food we’d find there would be “French fries.”

I tell this story only because sometimes things come full circle in the most amazing way. One of the courses we dined upon that evening in Shaker–the Wagon Wheel there turned out to be very French–was Coquilles St. Jacques, baked in a scallop shell. It was amazing. And, as it happened, some time ago I was in the Bistro, and happened to overhear that the recipe for the Bistro’s own version of that dish, one of its most popular starters, was influenced by none other than…the old Wagon Wheel. What a coincidence!

While Coquilles St. Jacques was not on the menu at Wednesday’s French Wine Dinner, it certainly carried on in the tradition of that long-ago French meal I so enjoyed…while introducing me to at least one type of cuisine I had not yet experienced. And it was all paired with very enjoyable wines provided by Heidelberg Distributing Co. of Independence.

Our first wine at this dinner was an aperitif: Cremant de Loire, a truly charming sparkling wine that started things off well indeed. From there, we made a little trip back to the Bistro’s Julia Project with one of its very popular dishes from that era: Potage Parmentier, or Potato-Leek Soup. Dressed with frizzled onion and a sprinkling of chive oil, t was heartwarming and rich and full of flavor as ever, an ideal first course. It was also well paired with Chateau L’Hoste Bordeaux Sauvignon Blanc 2008, a soft, light, slightly buttery wine, dry without being extremely astringent or puckery.

For our second course, we were served something brand-new to me, but which Marc (who prepared this particular dish) and Ruth explained is a classic type of French lunch: Cured Salmon in a Jar. We were each served a large, shallow jar and a plate of toasty baguette slices. Inside the jar, under a bay leaf, we found tender morsels of salmon that had been cured in oil for five hours, flavored by slices of potato, onions, olives, carrots, lemons, peppercorns, rosemary and thyme. As Ruth explained, these could be placed on the toasts and eaten, or enjoyed straight from the jar. I found it really tasty. I wouldn’t mind having a jar of this combination in my fridge all the time! The wine for this course was Domaine du Pere Caboche Chateauneuf du Pape Blanc, a blend of white grapes from the  Southern Rhone region that was a bit drier and just as pleasant as the Sauvignon Blanc.

Our third course was as rich and rewarding as could possibly be: Coq au Vin with Fingerling Potatoes. Ruth explained that this dish was prepared by browning the skin of the chicken first in olive oil, then marinating it overnight in a petit Syrah before being finished with mushrooms, roasted garlic, pearl onions and the potatoes. It must have been this treatment that made it fall-off-the bone tender and yet at the same time gave the skin such a crispy, smoky flavor and made the sauce so hearty; the vegetables with it were equally sumptuous. It was served with Michel Chapoutier Crozes Petit Rouge 2008, a Syrah from the Rhone that was a perfect match.

After all that richness, a salad course was just what we needed, and this one, a French Green Salad with Brie and Pear Beggar’s Purse in a Balsamic Reduction, was a fine choice. The salad was accented with spears of white asparagus, and the little phyllo-dough purses of cheese and pears tasted marvelous with it; they provided a warm, flaky contrast to the cool lettuce and tart dressing. So did the wine, Simmonet Saint-Bris Sauvignon Blanc Burgundy 2009. This is a fresh and fruity stainless steel-fermented wine from the only place in Burgundy allowed to produce Sauvignon Blanc.

To conclude this tres elegant meal, we were served an Apple-Apricot-Marzipan Tart with Soft Whipped Creme. My German side has a passion for marzipan (especially around Christmastime), and this marzipan tasted wonderful with the paper-thin slivers of fruit, crispy golden crust and gentle glaze. The dessert wine, an oak-aged Chateau Rieussec Sauterne, was also quite special. A sweet ending to an evening that brought me back in time to my first experience with French cuisine, and made me feel all the more determined to visit someday and experience the country’s cooking firsthand.

This dinner brought November to an end and provided a promising preview of some of the special things the Bistro has in store for December. With two wine tastings, a French Canadian beer dinner, a Champagne Dinner and special plans afoot for those who make reservations for New Year’s Eve, there’s something to please everyone. Make your plans (and your reservations) now!

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