We drove down the main street of Mondragon, an unremarkable town in France’s Rhône Valley, in greedy anticipation of the combination of black truffles and an extraordinary wine list that has enticed so many over the past three decades.
As we emerged from an avenue of plane trees and turned into the car park of La Beaugravière, memories of our last dinner here more than 25 years ago flooded back. The battered hotel sign (there are also three bedrooms); the sight of about 20 men and a solitary woman finishing their lunch in the dappled sunshine under the broad chestnut trees. Here is a restaurant that has defied the march of time, fashion and, certainly on the part of its owners, Guy Jullien, chef and obsessive wine collector and his wife, Tina – whom he describes as la patronne – any thought of avarice.
In fact, as we settled down to dinner several hours later, it occurred to me that this is perhaps one of the few remaining restaurants in the whole of France that still resembles those that inspired Elizabeth David, our greatest food writer, more than 50 years ago.
La Beaugravière has been run by the Julliens for the past 37 years. He still cooks from a relatively low-tech kitchen next to the main dining room and the tables outside, so that the cooking smells permeate. On our arrival, our noses were struck by the aroma of ripe French cheeses, while upstairs our bedroom was perfumed by rich meat stocks. The main waiter has been working here for 27 years and knows all about the ingredients and vintages he is selling. And the 44-page wine list is hand written by Jullien himself – there is not a computer in sight.
Guy Jullien is slight, an extraordinarily hard worker like his wife, and extremely passionate about his restaurant. We left him, at 11pm, talking to a table of local vignerons and I saw him again at 7.30 the following morning taking in a delivery of Clos des Papes and local goats’ cheeses. Then he was off to the fish market, from which he returned with an 8.3kg turbot. He proudly showed me the fish, saying, “I’m not sure why I bought this, it was so expensive, but it was just too good to miss.” Our breakfast was punctuated by the sounds of his filleting knife.
Jullien’s menu is extensive. Eight starters, three fish and several meat courses, and an entire section devoted to dishes incorporating black truffles. These come from the village of Richerenches about 30km away, which, during winter, is the trade capital for these culinary gems.
February is the month for anyone seeking the freshest black truffles, but Jullien preserves enough to serve them throughout the year in an omelette or risotto, on scrambled eggs, or impregnating sweetbreads, a Bresse chicken, or the mashed potato in a glorified shepherd’s pie.
The €50 menu opened with a stunning amuse bouche of a pale green asparagus mousse on top of a much darker green, rich chive sauce and then truffles two ways: diced into a vinaigrette and served over a warm salad of French beans, carrots, mange touts and slightly overcooked asparagus, and generously studded through an omelette (for a €25 supplement). Next came a well-cooked saddle of lamb for two, alongside a garlic mousse, a tian of courgettes and a thin flan of tomatoes. Excellent cheeses were followed by my choice of that classic, crêpes Suzette, as dessert because the setting and the style of cooking reminded me so strongly of meals of yesteryear.
Our discussion over Jullien’s wine list started an hour before we looked at the menu, and eventually we chose a 1992 Meursault Les Tillets from Patrick Javillier that combined freshness and richness, and a stunning Domaine Jamet, Côte Brune 2002 Côte Rôtie (€125).
Both were in tip-top condition and the following morning, as I followed Jullien into his four cellars, I came to appreciate just how much passion he has put into his collection, which includes numerous vintages of Château Rayas, the renowned Châteauneuf-du-Pape, and the greatest collection of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti I have ever seen in one place.
The phrase Jullien used to describe Beaugravière was a “maison simple”, and aesthetically little has changed. There is not a jot of glamour, and the nearby railway line and road are drawbacks for those who stay here. But La Beaugravière unquestionably passes the ultimate test for any great restaurant – I wanted to make another booking for the following week.
RN7, 84430 Mondragon
+33 (0) 4 90 40 82 54