Thursday, May 28, 2009

Sometimes the Best French Dining Comes in Surprising Places

I'm back in my beloved Shenandoah Valley this week.

The top of the hill behind the cows

I'm in the early stages of a project thatwill give me the excuse to visit the valley and the surrounding environs often over the next few months and nothing could please me more.

Last September, when I was vacationing in the area, I discovered that the valley is a little foodie paradise; especially between Strasburg and Roanoke. The key to discovering this land of tiny but fantastic restaurants, farm stands filled with just picked produce, and shops filled with local delicacies is to get off the Interstate and drive Route 11.

Tonight, while staying in Lexington, I had the pleasure of dining at a French restaurant that was as much at home in Virginia as it would be in any small French village or New York City for that matter, Cafe Michel.

I admit, I had done a little research before descending in Lexington for the evening. I googled "Best Restaurant Lexington, VA" and Cafe Michel kept popping up with every link. After visiting the restaurant's webpage and checking out the menu, I knew that was were I was going for dinner.

When I arrived in my hotel room, I called to see if I could get a table for one. Luckily, I was able to and now let me tell you why, the next time I'm any where near Lexington, I'm going to make it my mission to go back to Cafe Michel.

Even though this was my first visit to the restaurant, I was greeted like I was a returning regular. Maybe I'm jaded, living in the greater NYC area by the typically cold or lack of any greeting when I enter a restaurant but nothing makes you ready for a good dinner than a friendly, we are really to happy to see you and we want to make sure your dining experience is good greeting by the host or hostess.

After being shown to my seat, which wasn't off in the corner which is somewhat typical when you are dining alone, I was given the menu and wine list and a basket of nice soft bread was placed on my table. I ordered a nice Oregon Pinot Noir and told the evening specials.

I was pretty sure when I walked in to the restaurant that I would be ordering the smoked salmon but when my waitress mentioned that the house special country pate was the appetizer special, I quickly decided that I would have the pate.

I wish I had remembered to bring my camera in to take a picture of the textbook pate. It was perfectly marbled with meat and fat and wrapped in country smoked bacon. On the plate with the generous slices of pate were grilled slices of the same bread in the basket, a small herb salad with a Dijon mustard vinaigrette. The pate was absolutely fantastic. In fact, it was the best pate I've had since my last visit to Paris. I could eat Chef Michel Galand's country pate every day for the rest of my life and die very, very happy. Yes, very happy indeed.

Had I known that the pate was going to be that fantastic, I would not have ordered a salad but the champagne vinaigrette on the salad was the perfect combination of sweet and tangy that vinaigrette should be and the shaved carrots in the salad were nice and crisp, perfect to be dipped into the vinaigrette.

I was in the mood for a light pasta dish for dinner so I ordered the Chicken Bianco. It was also very, very good. The chicken wasn't over cooked, the white wine sauce well seasoned and the pasta perfectly done. I especially liked that the parmesan cheese was tossed into the pasta and not just shaved over top. The heat of the pasta caused the parmesan cheese to begin to melt and helped form these tight swirls of pasta to collect the sauce with.

I finished my meal with a creme brulee cheesecake that was every bit as good as anything I get at Juniors in Brooklyn. Come to find out, they get their cheesecakes shipped in from New York City but other than the cheesecake, they make all their desserts. Another reason to come back to try the crepes and the creme brulee.

The best part of my dinner, besides the pate (did I mention how good the pate was?), was the nice long chat I had with Chef Galand while I finished my coffee.

He told me about coming to America after working at resorts in Bermuda to cook as a chef at the Homestead. After a stint in Wisconsin, he came back to Virginia to open his first restaurant in Coventry before opening Cafe Michel in Clifton Forge. About five years ago he moved his restaurant to Lexington, including the customized ice box that serves as the wine cooler and is prominently displayed in the middle of the restaurant. After showing me the kitchen, we went out to the bar area where he has pictures of his hometown on the Swiss border prominently displayed.

Besides the wonderful pictures of the local food market, I especially loved the pictures of the communal oven where the residents of his tiny home village still bake bread. I wanted to run right over there and shove a loaf of my pain de champagne right into the blackened brick maw.

We then walked over to the wall where Chef Galand's many, many awards and reviews are displayed including his prized signed photo of Gordon Ramsey and a signed article from the Washington post about his best friend, former White House pastry chef Roland Mesnier.

We stood and chatted about the joys of tripe and pigs feet before he sent me on my way back to my hotel with fresh strawberries sliced on the last half of my creme brulee cheesecake. I can't wait to come back to Cafe Michel on my return to Lexington and have the smoked salmon for a starter.

Chef tells me he cold smokes it fresh and I'm a sucker for cold smoked salmon...