03 March 2015

n.d.p. in the loire: l'ardoise, angers

Given the tumultuous social jockeying that surrounds dinner invitations during the Loire salons, I hadn't expected to get to hang with my friends Kenji and Mai Hodsgon at all this past January. So I was delighted when they proposed dinner at one of their favorite local bistrots, an unassuming place a few blocks from the Grenier Saint-Jean called L'Ardoise.

And I was more than delighted - astonished! - that the restaurant matched the quality of the company that evening.

L'Ardoise turned out to be that rare, semi-mythical destination for the wine traveler, a marvelous small-town natural bistrot that, like Le Chat in Cosne-sur-Loire or Aux Crieurs de Vin in Troyes, displays more sophistication, humour, and ambition than most of its big-city counterparts.

One typically enters small-town restaurants with expectations at waist height. The appropriate critical stance is to treat such establishments with kid-gloves, because big-city interlopers like myself can't expect to have much insight into the environmental factors and local expectations that influence the service and fare of a small-town restaurant. When traveling through the French countryside, I'm more than content with a half-decent wine list and an edible bavette.

The family that runs L'Ardoise - a pair of brothers and their mother, of whom I met only, David, the wine buyer - proved my instinctive condescension quite unnecessary.

L'Ardoise's rear dining room possesses an effortless thrift-shop chic that would be right at home in the 11ème arrondissement of Paris. Lighting is warm, and, unlike in Paris, tables have space between them.

I failed to snap a picture of the menu that evening, which is a shame, because it was written in a humorously florid style that encapsulated a lot of the restaurant's homespun charm. Ordinarily I prefer plain language in restaurant communication, but the rhetorical flights on this one scanned as a welcome reprieve from the dry, uninformative component lists that dominate most "serious" menus lately.

A pliant and lovely appetiser of squid ink spaghetti with cockles in chorizo broth handily exceeded any pasta I've had in Paris in recent memory.

The duck confit that followed it was crisped to perfection and complemented by an assortment of brightly sweet root vegetables. There really is nothing like duck fat for re-establishing the palate after a long day's wine tasting.

Kenji, for his part, had just finished packing up at La Renaissance des Appellations, where he'd been performing the bittersweet chore of greeting buyers without actually having much new wine to sell. (The couples' 2014 Chenin is apparently fermenting at a pace we normally associate with glacier movement.)

He humoured my impulse to drink local things with our first bottle, a winningly tense 2012 "La Roche" from his neighbor Jean-Christophe Garnier, a fellow Angevin winemaker who has the distinction of being 100% Mai-approved. (Mai is among the most intensely critical tasters I've ever encountered, with an almost psychic sensitivity to sulfur. The best way to bring clarity to natural winemaking standards, which I hereby propose, would be to bestow a little Mai Hodgson logo on acceptable bottles.)

One unavoidable dynamic of dining with friends who inhabit wine regions is that they necessarily are more curious about wines not from the region they inhabit. L'Ardoise's wine selection (which, I'm told, doesn't necessarily stop at the thirty or so wines listed on the blackboard) is divided not, as is traditional, between red and white, but between wines from nearby and wines from further afield.

The wine buyer, David, is a longtime supporter of Kenji and Mai's wines, as well as those of their neighbors like Garnier, Jean-François Chéné, and Clement Baraut. He distinguishes himself among the local wine professionals in his sincere involvement in the local wine community. "It's a time commitment not all the Angers pros are willing to give," says Kenji.  "Another thing about him is his humility. He's not the type to tell you how to make your wine - which we actually get from time to time. Not that he won't discuss his opinions, but you get the feeling that he treats wine as a personal experience whether you are the taster or the grower."

We wound up drinking a bruiser of a Vin de France from Gaillac-based sulfur-free winemaker Jean-Louis Pinto, whose eccentric micro-cuvées I tend to find more memorable than enjoyable. This one touched 15% and still contained distinct note of residual sugar, which, to this tired palate, was, for once, not unwelcome.

Later at the bar we tasted something - wine is not quite the right word - significantly sweeter. Aubance based Angevin winemaker Didier Chaffardon, for unclear reasons, bottled a strange substance he called "Confiture," a wine must fermented to just 1% alcohol.

Sugar in such high concentration as here plays the opposite role as the Pinto bottle: where in the latter it refreshed, in the "Confiture" it asserts its own puckering, tannin-like intensity. I have no idea to what use such a substance might be put. But I greatly appreciated the evident joy with which L'Ardoise's wine buyer, David, curates the region's outright curiosities alongside the new-classics of its vanguard natural winemakers.

7 Rue de la Tannerie
49100 ANGERS
Tel: 02 41 88 18 32

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