It’s probably one of the best lessons that a summer in France has to offer: anyone who loves the good food of Gaul should get out of town and travel on les departementales, or little country roads, in the hopes of finding someplace like Le Chat in Cosne-Cours-sur-Loire.
Determined to avoid the numbing dullness of the autoroute on our way to a little stone cottage in a quiet valley in the Lot, we decided to leave the main road as often as we could. Breaking free of Paris traffic, we sped to the Loire, with the idea of stocking up on some good summer drinking in Sancerre and Menetou-Salon. After visiting a couple of caves in Sancerre, we were hungry and so asked a friendly caviste for an idea for a good, cheap, fast lunch. “Le Chat—it’s about fifteen kilometers from here, but the food’s delicious.” And so we backtracked, and after a series of rond-points, we finally escaped the dreary suburban landscape of shopping centers, muffler franchises, etc. that now sadly surround most French towns of any size and ended up in a sleepy little village that seemed stunned by the heat.
I loved Le Chat right away. With a bar behind a counter, simple Fifties style tables scattered around the room, and a friendly welcome from the waitress, we were propelled back to a mid-1950s France where the idea of having a bad meal, or even a bad casse croute (snack) was still considered to be a tragedy.
So we sipped a delicious glass of Domaine Philippe Gilbert white Menetou-Salon and studied the brief chalkboard menu, which proposed two courses for 16 Euros. I decided on the chilled broccoli veloute with morteau sausage and pine nuts, a sublime summer starter, and Bruno opted for the lentil salad with herring, which came with a deliciously pungent sweet-and-sour vinaigrette. Both were delicious, as were our braised lamb shanks with chick peas, raisins, and lots of coriander. When we decline dessert, the waitress brought us a chocolate-tobacco ganache to share over our coffee, and was charmingly guileless before my compliment:
“If I lived locally, I’d come for lunch everyday.”
“Oh, yes, of course,” she said. “Many people do.” And finally it was through a pleasant chat with the owner of a local garage that I got the back story here—chef Laurent Chareau has worked with Giles Choukroun and Inaki Azpitarte (Le Chateaubriand) in Paris before falling in love with the wines of the Loire and deciding to throw over life in the big city to become the owner of a village café where he cooks a different menu daily for a happy crowd of locals and lucky travelers like ourselves. And what gives this very happy little story an even happier ending is that hundreds of similarly talented young chefs are making the same choice all over France, which means that there probably hasn’t been a better time to eat in rural France since the 1970s came along and set the country on an American style course of suburbanization that almost ruined everything.
Le Chat, 42bis rue des Guerins, Cosne-Cours-sur-Loire, Tel. 03-86-28-49-03. Menus: Lunch: 10 Euros—main course and a coffee; 14 Euros—main course, starter or dessert, coffee; 18 Euros--three courses and coffee; Dinner: 16 Euros for two courses; 20 Euros for three courses; 30 Euros for the tasting menu.