Ah, Bordeaux. The capital of the Aquitaine region and de facto wine capital of the world. There are different schools of thought in wine education, but mastering the appellations of Bordeaux, before spreading out to the rest of France and the Old World, is always a good place to start. Having (briefly) studied in Bordeaux, and visited some of the chateaux (as have many francophile Brits), I’m admittedly a little bit in love with the place. It’s a mere two hours away from Paris on the TGV and with news of a potential direct train route from London in just under five hours, it should be even easier to visit (though it remains to be seen if Brexit will throw a spanner in those works).
With all that wine tasting to be had one needs sustenance. Central Bordeaux offers the usual array of eateries, from classic brasseries to Gordon Ramsay’s Le Pressoir d’Argent opposite the opera house. For an eighth of the average bill at G-Ram’s Le Pressoir, and arguably a more authentic experience, head to L’Univerre.
L’Univerre is in the south west part of the city – a little off the touristic beaten track, amongst petrol stations, drab office blocks and Ibis hotels, but within a 15 minute walk of the centre (I did the walk myself). It’s also close to the city’s legal district and Palais de Justice which might explain the omnipresence of lawyers dining there when I popped in for lunch. It is in fact two venues, separated by a narrow rue: the main bar and restaurant on one side, with an “epicerie fine” on the other (the latter is now on my shortlist of places to take shelter in the event of a zombie apocalypse).
L’Univerre is famous for its 50 page tome of a wine list… they have some 1300 wines
In the restaurant itself, the whole of one wall is a transparent wine fridge. I stared at this refrigerated wine wall in awe for a full ten minutes, wishing I had the space and financial wherewithal to install one in my flat. At the very least I was impressed by their dedication to temperature control.
At lunchtime the menu is pared back. Bistro food is the order of the day, mercifully without any of the “bistronomy” pretension that has plagued Paris in recent years. Just two or three things on the plate with nowhere to hide, like a simple steak in shallot sauce or a little pan-fried offal – just the classic kind of food you would get in a French home, changing every day according to the chef’s whims.
I started with an oeuf en cocotte – a humble dish that simply involves cracking an egg over a cream mixture and baking it. Here, the egg was embedded in a divine mushroom sauce which wasn’t overpowering. Essentially two fifths of a full English breakfast, it tasted more complex than its somewhat beige appearance. Bread was provided for moppage.
Next up, a simple dish of cod with a disc of rice. At first I was worried that this would be as dry as a mouse mat – there was no jus, no sauce, no liquid of any kind – and so everything was riding on that piece of fish being cooked to perfection. And so it was. Perhaps a julienne of vegetables in a sharp vinaigrette, or a little dash of hollandaise, could have lifted the dish further.
And then a dessert as classic as they come: fromage frais with a raspberry coulis. Perhaps not very imaginative or daring, but classics remain so for a reason and when done well they can be wonderful.
L’Univerre is famous amongst locals for its 50 page tome of a wine list. Backstage they have some 1300 wines. And yet, despite being in Bordeaux, preference is given to Burgundies, Languedocs and Rhone valley wines. For some oenophiles this is L’Univerre’s USP: if you want to change gears from a Pauillac to a Gevrey-Chambertin, this is the place. Some might criticise L’Univerre for its narrow French scope but this IS France after all, and it would be churlish to complain when you can get a decent glass for under a fiver. Meanwhile, the mark ups on bottles are thoroughly reasonable. Everyone was imbibing with gusto, including the judges on the next table who returned to their afternoon hearings with a headful of red.
In addition, the service was friendly and attentive. Unlike most of my Parisian restaurant experiences, there was no issue asking for the bill. And what a bill it was. The whole lunch – 3 courses, 2 glasses of wine and coffee – came to £25. Meanwhile, three courses at Le Pressoir was nearer £200. Perhaps it’s not all that fair to compare a bistro against a Michelin-starred resto, but I think I know where I’d rather go.
40 Rue Lecocq
by J A Smith