Les Français, bien sûr, are a people notoriously impervious to the charms of vegetarianism. To a culture whose self-image is founded on a colossal back-catalogue of protein-rich cuisine-stroke-art-form, any volte-face is an insult to their national pride and a slap in the face to all they hold dear. Think of the contempt in Gérard Depardieu’s voice as he spat out the word ‘végétarien‘ in the film Green Card. Think of the word itself, which contains within it the dull slur of ‘nothing’.
No surprise then that Le Bistrot Pierre’s lunch time menu is – shall we say – a soupçon grudging in its concessions to meat-free eating. You could even say that the whole thing reads like an exercise in distancing the art of fancy French cooking from whatever unfortunate vegetarian dishes they’ve been forced to embrace for appearance sake. “You jumped-up accompaniments are nothing to do with me” it hisses. “And I’m going to make sure that no one in their right mind thinks that you are”.
First then: starters. From the ‘amuse gueules’ section, you can choose ‘olives marinées’ – in practice a dish of very salty olives and bits of garlic, whose inclusion was presumably rationalised by chef on the grounds that this is not really ‘cuisine’ at all, it’s just, well, a dish of olives. Alternatively, you can have ‘whole roasted garlic bulb with artisan bread blah blah blah’, which I suspect is merely the French having a laugh at our expense (ach, these vegetarians, they even smell bad…).
Moving on to entrées, you could, I suppose, risk the ‘soupe’ – although it’s not guaranteed to be vegetarian – or opt instead for the ‘brioche et champignons’, a basically omnivore dish whose vegetarian potential may have been fortuitously discovered only when some dozy commis (English, sans doubte) accidentally forgot to add the expected leavening of Alsace bacon.
But although it’s obviously unsuitable for vegan (don’t push your luck) or gluten-free diets, if you can stomach the bread and the creamy sauce, this is really very enjoyable: a sort of posh Chesswood’s on toast, trilling notes of parsley and black pepper backed by deep rumbles of white wine, the whole lot sprawled over a slice of sodden, slightly sweet brioche. I polished it off in minutes. Bring on the mains.
Ah. With the mains, the strategy was to offer a choice between ‘salade’, (again not really haute cuisine – even the notoriously obtuse British can probably cope with tastefully arranging a few bits and pieces on a plate), or food that most of us would usually associate not with La France at all, but with Italy: risotto and pizza. Well, I say ‘pizza’; I say ‘Italy’. Technically, it was a ‘tarte’ flambée’ from the Alsace region, but more typically enjoyed in southern Germany, of which Alsace was once a part. I bet it had a sister called Margherita though.
I chose the courgette and goat’s cheese incarnation. It was an oddly ethereal offering – a paper-thin crust spread with crème fraîche mixture, then meagrely dotted with dainty cubes of courgette, onion, red pepper, the inevitable goat’s cheese (there was an awful lot of goat’s cheese on the menu) and a dusting of what tasted like dried herbs. Its anaemic whiteness, together with the smallness of the vegetable dice made me fancy it a candidate for a buffet served to the Faerie Queen. If it had arrived on a carriage drawn by a cavalcade of coachmen-mice, I wouldn’t have been surprised.
Its taste however, was all too earthly: the cheese too salty, the topping too acidic, the vegetables too insubstantial to add either texture or flavour. And for all its airy fragility, the layer of crème fraîche made it unexpectedly cloying.
I can’t say I liked it much, but perhaps I wasn’t supposed to. Perhaps it was the restaurant’s way of telling me to man up and get my thrapples round some proper red meat (my omnivore companions highly praised their servings). But even if I didn’t like it, I sure as hell can’t blame the French. Le Bistrot Pierre did everything in its power to assure me that none of it was their idea.
Le Bistrot Pierre, 28 Park Street, Leamington Spa, CV32 4QN (and other locations). Two course lunch menu £10.95