How often do you come across a restaurant where all the wines on the list are available by the glass? I fear the usual answer to that question is: very rarely. But it happened to me last night when I was invited to dinner at Les Grands Buffets in Narbonne. This restaurant provides an extraordinary example of just what can be done to encourage customers to experiment, and to buy. They have a list of seventy wines covering the whole of the Languedoc – a map at the beginning of the wine list shows the geographical breakdown, and symbols give you an idea of flavour, whether the wines are light and fruity, or rich and full-bodied. Astonishingly perhaps, the wines are the same price as in the wine grower’s cellar, and if you buy a case of six bottles of the wine you have drunk with your meal, that bottle is offered free of charge. What could be better than that?
Les Grands Buffets is in a large sports complex in Narbonne, very close to the motorway exit for Narbonne Est. First we went down into the basement, where there is a wine bar that looks like an old fashioned English pub, with appropriate artefacts, including a boat hanging from the ceiling that might have been used in the Oxford and Cambridge boat race. Maybe the Georges Brassens songs were slightly out of context, but they were hugely enjoyable none the less. The sommelier, Sophie Veyrat, has a selection of a dozen wines or so by the glass; you can taste just 2 cl. of something you might not know, to see whether you like it or not. It certainly encourages experimentation. In the course of half an hour or so we enjoyed sips of Clos des Paulilles Collioure – quite rich and oaky; Haut Terres’ Limoux – lightly buttery – rosés from Roc d’Anglade, and also Milles Vignes – that was a new name for me. I didn’t know Enfants Sauvages Carignan either nor Clos des Fées Images Dérisoires. Other reds, unknown to me, caught my eye, an oaky Minervois la Pradi Mari and a perfumed la Clape from Domaine Sarrat de Goundry. And you could help yourself to nibbles of tapenade and thinly sliced Spanish ham.
Then we went upstairs to the main restaurant. My intention is not to write about the food, just to observe that the choice is overwhelming. It is just what it says it is – a huge buffet. Entrées included three different variations of foie gras, umpteen things from the sea, fish soup, salads – and for main courses there were the classics, traditional dishes like daube and blanquette de veau, as well as roasted and barbecued meats. The choice of cheeses and dessert were equally varied and tempting. The price is extraordinarily good value at 29.90€ per head. And I was allowed to play with the wine list. Each glass arrives with a label on the stem telling you what the wine is, to avoid confusion.
Roc des Anges, Cuvée Llum was rich and weighty; les Murailles blanc from Domaine de la Ramade in la Clape was fresh and sappy; la Butinière from Anne de Joyeuse in Limoux was elegantly buttery. I did not know Clos des Fées, white Vieilles Vignes, which proved to be beautifully mineral, from Grenache blanc and Grenache gris. And the red discovery of the evening was Mas des Armes, an estate in Aniane, next to Mas de Daumas Gassac and la Grange des Pères. We had two different wines from this estate, Grains de Sagesse which was very fresh, with some lovely red fruit and Cuvée 360, which rich and powerful with some oak ageing. And to round the evening off there was a small selection of dessert wines, so I opted for the Cave de Maury’s Cuvée Centenaire, with some rich walnut fruit. Louis Privat talks about his wine list with great enthusiasm; he wants above all to highlight the wine growers of the Languedoc, both newer and more established growers. And he certainly succeeds. So do go and experiment, and be warned, booking is essential. It’s a large restaurant and it was packed out on a Monday evening in November.
Les Grands Buffets, Rond Point de la Liberté, Narbonne 11100 Tel : 04 68 42 20 01