Friday, July 13, 2007

La Tupina, Bordeaux

It’s a well known phenomenon that when a restaurant is able to claim “the best” of something and that claim is replicated in a few trusted places in the media it really doesn’t matter how many Michelin stars it has or indeed where it is, it will always get a regular stream of customers eager to “try” whatever the superlative item is and thereby judge the claim for themselves, La Tupina is such a place. The item in question at this particular establishment is the ubiquitous “chip” (or French fry). It seemed strange to me that a restaurant in a back street of Bordeaux, France would claim to offer the best chips; surely that honour would fall to a suitably endowed Belgian or English café, mais non!, and I during my recent visit to this fair city I couldn’t miss the opportunity to try them.

How to describe La Tupina, well, imagine a Provençal kitchen complete with roaring fire, chequered table cloths, suitably rural paintings and decorated plates nailed to rustic stone walls (a little worse for wear). Then picture every nook and cranny of those old walls filled with dusty old bottles of exotic looking fluids and shelves lined with Armagnac stretching back to before the First World War and you are just about there.

I’d say the atmosphere was “casual”, no fussy waiters or intimidating doormen, it seems almost like a bistro, however it’s quickly evident that this is a “serious” establishment, good quality stem-ware, crisp service and my goodness the odours coming from the kitchen and the open fire, just heavenly. It was clear from the menu that this is the kind of place that knows what it does well and sticks to it; mainly traditional dishes not too many choices and a simple wine list with the usual token 1st growth at a ridiculous mark-up. We opted for a set menu as it seemed to cover the highlights well, I chose a foie gras terrine to start followed by “7 hour lamb” and my wife went for a hot goats cheese salad with roast duck as a main course (we carefully noted that the duck came with the celebrated “chips” that I was so anxious to try). For the wine geeks, I chose a Lafon-Rochet 2001 at 60 Euros; I had never tried this vintage before but had enjoyed a few bottles of the 2000 and 1997 previously, I hoped that the lighter style and smoky-plumy character of this 4th growth St. Estephe wine would provide a reasonable backdrop to the various roast dishes we had ordered.

Quickly and efficiently an appetiser of bread, charcuterie, raw vegetables and what can only be described as an assortment of “pork scratchings” appeared with this we started to understand what this place was about. The deep fried meat wasn’t actually pork; it was duck fat or skin deep fried until crispy and coated something nice, yum, but not for the feint hearted! After finishing our starters (not that memorable) and an appropriate break the mains arrived, the lamb looked wonderful, almost black in colour still on the bone with some kind of wine based sauce which it had obviously been basted in; had it really been roasting for 7 hours, well a single touch of my fork practically melted it, I have never tasted such tender and flavoursome lamb superb. I didn’t actually try the duck, it looked good however my wife thought it was just OK, nothing special. Now for the main event, the chips, these weren’t your average MacDonald’s fries or even premium M&S oven chips, oh no, hand cut, irregular shaped fantastically crispy "door stops"; deep fried in duck fat over the open fire in tiny iron skillets, boy oh boy, these were chips with secondary flavours; crispy, ducky, creamy in the middle, salty with a finish of pure wood-smoke, I could have eaten many times my own body weight of these. Were they “the best”, well, I’ve had some great chip experiences in Belgium and Holland double fried, with mayonnaise etc.; it would be a close run thing, but just maybe! After the main courses we had some cheese and finished off with chocolate cake (oh my!) with custard and I had cooked pears & ice cream.

In summary this is a great little place, simple and rustic but of very high quality, if you have any concerns about cholesterol, fat, offal and blood or don’t like duck then don’t bother, but if you are looking for an authentic south-western French style of cooking then La Tupina is not only Robert Parker's favourite Bordeaux eatery but definitely one for your list too!

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