Imagine that you’re far from home, exhausted and over-stimulated, and someone you don’t know well invites you over for a dinner party. The dining room is casual, the food simple but generous, with wine from nearby and the offer of some firewater after dinner. You sit and chat with your fellow guests, so relaxed that the night gets late without you even noticing. Sounds lovely, doesn’t it, and like the exact opposite of yet another restaurant meal?
It depends on the restaurant. Not so long ago, during a high-intensity, week-long cloud conference, a pair of tired and hungry friends and I stumbled upon Chez Navarre in a quiet old part of Toulouse. Chez Navarre is a table d’hôte (“host’s table”), and the idea is to eat whatever is the meal of the day with whomever else shows up for dinner. There’s a big, open brick room with few long communal tables laid in advance with mismatched silverware. Down the middle of the table are dishes of room temperature canapés: grated vegetable salads, soft-boiled eggs in oil, pickled herring, house-made terrines. If you see something you want, you ask your neighbor to pass it to you, which is how conversations get started. There’s soup and bread on one sideboard; a simple main course (lentils and sausage the night we were there) on another; and some cheese and desserts on a third. There’s a small rack of wine at retail prices or pichets of the vin maison for a few Euros. You clear your own plates. Total cost: 20 Euros plus wine.
Au Gré du Vin is around the corner from Chez Navarre. It’s small—8 tables, 24 seats, with just the chef in the kitchen and his wife in the dining room—and the only decisions you make are between two menus (one seasonal, the other following a theme) and whether you want four or five courses. I say get all five—the food rocks. It’s flavorful and imaginative without being pretentious in the least. There’s the inescapable duck confit, for example, but served shredded and lean (well, as lean as duck simmered in its own fat can be) and topped with grilled sweet and salty onions. It was the best meal of my week in town.
What struck me most is how different these restaurants are in conception from restaurants in the U.S. The closest analogy to Chez Navarre is something like an all-you-can-eat buffet. But there’s nothing welcoming about a buffet, nothing convivial, and you wouldn’t expect food of the quality served at Chez Navarre. And in the States, I think, only a very high-end restaurant would only be willing to offer as few choices as Au Gré du Vin does, and the limited choice would come with the attitude “we know best what you should eat” instead of “we’re going to do a few things well and hope you like them.” In both places I felt well-fed and well cared for in the least ostentatious way possible. Call it hospitality. I’ll take that over mousse de foie gras de oie almost any day.
Chez Navarre 49 grande rue Nazareth, 31000 Toulouse (05 62 26 43 06)
Au Gré du Vin 10 rue de la Pleau (across from the Musée Dupuy), 3100 Toulouse (05 61 25 03 51; augreduvin.com)