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Fine dining in France

Just some of the great dishes on offer at La Pyramide Hotel restaurant in Vienne, France.
Just some of the great dishes on offer at La Pyramide Hotel restaurant in Vienne, France. Ann Rickard

WE might have travelled the world a dozen times, but, when it came to Michelin-star dining in France, we had to admit (sheepishly) to being virgins.

So there was a sense of anticipation as we reserved our place at La Pyramide Hotel restaurant at Vienne, a picturesque city with a Roman heritage by the Rhone River, half an hour south of Lyon.

Michelin star-experienced friends had encouraged the visit.

“Don't be daunted by the wine list,'' they said.

“You'll find something decent for about 70 euros.”

Seven euros was more our style, but, hey, this was Michelin star.

We were up for it this once.

Le gastronomique experience began in the hotel's fragrant gardens with a glass of bubbles delivered by a young sommelier in formal attire right down to his white gloves.

After he'd presented the wine list – an alarming tome – we faked wine knowledge, blanching discreetly. Many of the wines were over 500 euros.

Unable to pretend for long, one of us (not me) looked up at the sommelier and nervously said: “I'll have 70 euros worth please.”

Certainement,” he replied, without changing expression, and left us with menus while he went to alert the cellar.

There were no English translations on the menus but we gathered there were set deals for two or three plats, main courses.

“Go for two plats, ” I advised knowingly.

“I'm sure cheese is complimentary. Maybe dessert, too.”

Fifteen minutes later the sommelier escorted us into the extravagant dining room where, beneath twinkling chandeliers, seven bow-tied waiters glided towards us as though they were on greased wheels.

Two pulled back chairs, three flapped starched napkins, another stood by supervising.

Bread appeared from a gliding waiter: olive, rye, sourdough ...what would Madame prefer?

Madame took the olive bread and reached for the butter ... oh, lovely butter ... wrapped in gold foil in its own little white pot.

The first plat arrived ceremoniously on a cloth-dressed trolley wheeled by three waiters.

Angels scattering rose-petals in its path could not have presented it more regally.

Silver-domed plates were reverently lowered in front of us. Two waiters raised the domes high at precisely the same moment while another stood by supervising.

A green soup with a quenelle of something silky and brown in the middle surrounded by floating shrimp with twist of grissini gleamed up at us.

It was a delicious start and by now our 70 euros worth of wine had arrived in a silver wine holder.

“Here comes the trolley again,” we said after our first plat had been removed and the gliding bread man had glided to us once more. Silver domes were again swished through the air.

Beneath lay batons of layered zucchini and focaccia topped with lobster marooned in a sea of consommé.

We gave it our respect.

By now, the gliding bread waiter had glided one too many times and we were beginning to feel full.

Finishing our second plat we reclined, content to sit and watch the trolley's graceful progress from table to table.

“This is marvellous,” we said, holding in bulging tummies and watched as the trolley glided ... oh, no, towards us.

“We only ordered two plats,” we whispered to each other as the domes were again lifted to show a large fillet of sea bass resting in lemon sauce beside three islands of gnocchi.

We pushed the fish lethargically around our plates.

When the fish remains were finally glided away we moaned, “we won't even be able to eat a sliver of cheese now,” and then recoiled as the trolley came gliding towards us for a fourth time.

“It can't possibly be,” we gasped. But it was.

More lifting of domes, the unveiling of pigeon in a thick sauce by a diamond-shaped slice of lasagne.

We now realised the soup had been complimentary and, somehow, lost in translation, we had ordered three, not two, plats.

We braved on, poking at the pigeon.

Finally, the untouched pigeons were reproachfully glided away. Now we could sit. And digest.

But not for long.

Over glided two trolleys, covered with huge wicker baskets, removed to reveal cheeses so formidable in number we almost shrieked.

Several waiters hovered importantly, offering soft cheese, hard cheese, cheese with ash rinds and wash rinds.

Cheeses in wedges, rounds, triangles and balls.

Goat cheese, ewe cheese, cultured and clotted cheese. Veined and pressed cheese. Strong and weak cheese. Smelly and flavourless cheese.

Fermented cheese. Grainy cheese. Gooey cheese. Crumbly cheese. Curd cheese.

Cheese in little earthenware pots.

Cheese as yellow as sunflowers. As orange as rust. As pale as milk. Cheese as big as half a watermelon. As tiny as a 50-cent piece.

All this on just one trolley.

The other had rows of round and cylindrical cheeses, cheeses bubbling in silver cauldrons, cheeses in small pots, a cheese so dense with black mould it could have got up and assisted with the trolley gliding.

We offered, feebly, “pas pour moi, merci'' (not for me, thank you) to the disappointed waiters.

“Then we will bring the dessert,” they said cruelly while the sommelier tipped the last of our 70 euros of wine into our glasses.

Dessert glided over: tall glasses filled with layers of orange fruit, a biscuity orange mix and then layer upon layer of swirling orange cream.

“I could cry at the waste,” I wailed softly, pushing it aside while a plate of exquisite petit fours arrived: delicate pink meringues, squares of custard, raspberry-topped miniature cakes, tiny cheesecakes with spun toffee sails, squares of sugared jelly.

“We knew what the French were like with their multi-food courses,'' we moaned.

“We should have realised one plat would have been enough with all these add-ons.”

All we wanted now was to go up to our room and flop on the bed.

But it was not to be, for just as you thought there could be no more, you detect a feather of movement on the thick carpet. A small tremor at first, it grows stronger and, yes, the trolley approaches once more.

This time it bears the real dessert: that orange thing was just a tease, a lead-in to cannelloni of fruit on a mat of liqueur-drenched cake with raspberries nestling against a scoop of pink grapefruit sorbet.

Now, I apologise, my bloated reader, but I can not let you leave the table yet and go to your big bed in your lovely room in this elegant French hotel, for here comes the soft rumble of the trolley once more.

But, relax, it is bringing just a glass of cherries in some kind of herby liqueur. A digestive I think.

Drink it.

It will help.

Now, at last, you are excused from la table.


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