July 8, 2021

Since I was a child, I’ve never regretted sneaking a snickers bar from the snack basket. I’ve always enjoyed a treat, and the same goes for fine dining. Deep in wine country sits a boutique inn, that not too recently, gave Michelin inspectors a reason to take a breather. Six cosy minimalist rooms lie yonder the property’s luscious apple and pear orchards but they are careful not to upstage the inn’s star attraction: its food. Auberge Pom’Poire, after Troisgros is my second reentry to the fine dining scene since lockdown, and it also represents a transitional step into illuminating what the Loire Valley has to offer.

A place I now call home. Warning: Spoilers ahead.

As you approach the auberge located on the perimeter of the little town Azay-le-Rideau, you notice a shy Bambi leaping amongst the apple orchards. The city kid in you would let out a yelp, causing the deer to scurry away. Don’t be surprised, but Touraine is one of the greatest fruit-producing regions and that draws in the wildlife. The panache of chef Bastian Gillet’s season-led menu does the trick as well, luring you to the bucolic countryside.

This young chef together with his wife Émile have been making waves ever since taking over the kitchen in 2016, winning a Bib Gourmand a year and a half into service and then the illustrious one-Michelin star in 2021. The inn was started by Christian Gillet, Bastien’s father and his wife Florence—third-generation fruit producers—who suffered a bad economic blow in the early 2000s and were forced to consider retraining. So they poured their efforts into an inn, and in 2006, Auberge Pom’poire opened its doors. Their young son, Bastien jointly pursued his cooking career at 19 and after numerous internships in Paris, returned to helm the cuisine by spotlighting freshly foraged ingredients.

Pulling up to the nondescript auberge set on gravel stone, you’ll have no inkling of what awaits on the inside. Clue: it’s a wallet-busting reset, full of toothsome courses, with a soupçon of resourcefulness. The framework is a 5, 7 or 9-course tasting menu, depending on how ambitious you are; or the composure of your younger dining companions (sulks and pouts included), because the sterling wine pairing is de rigueur and that’s going to lengthen dinner substantially.

The sharp showers prior to our 7 o’clock reservation eliminated our chances of basking in the outdoor patio, but we probably dodged the l’apertif trap anyway. Whoever thought to dress up the space with curated art pieces and vibrant wall colours is a genius, because on this mucky Sunday evening, the restaurant felt bustling, vast and cosy all at the same time. Just a mere coax from the hospitable crew was enough to tempt us into gracing that first glass of Franck Breton extra brut cuveé. Blimey. The staff despite coming from the tamest parts of France, were some of the most skilful practitioners I’ve ever encountered. Beneath their professionalism underlay grace and good upbringing.

We opted for Menu Sensation with hopes of retiring early since the next day was a school day. Alas, adulting! On that subject, parents towing little people would be happy to know that the kids’ menu is devoid of the regular junk. Instead, the restaurant dedicates a special menu for kids under 12 and 14 that is aligned with the adults’ menu—allowing kids to discover flavours and tons of textures. Our little man took moreish bites of escargot croquette and green pea tartlet: two ingredients that would have normally been met with frowns at the dinner table.

Forging on with a suite of starters, Auberge Pom’Poire set the tone with the usage of local ingredients such as catfish from the Loire and escargots raised in Touraine. There was a ‘variation of aubergine’ that materialised as a massive flavour bomb adorned with trout roe, and by the fourth amuse-bouche, I decided to stop breaking down what makes each dish so delicious. It was a never-ending rabbit hole of textures, sauces and secrets.

Dishes continued to defy the norm, championing local produce above all. Oysters from the Morlaix Bay in Brittany were mixed in with versions of cucumber, a delicate quenelle of caviar ramming up those deep resonating briny notes. The masterful wine pairing commenced with a chenin blanc from Le Sot de l’Ange, an artisanal vigneron from literally down the road in Azay-le-Rideau. It had the vibrant, golden-toned touch of a cheeky lover; lofty and buttery and spoke of the labours of the land. If the first pour was anything to go by, wine pairing is mandatory.

I loved the langoustine course; a stellar dish of roasted langoustine flanked by the tempura crumbed iteration. The crux of the dish, the bisque of sabayon added considerable layers of flavour complexity. One could comment on the lack of seasoning on the millefeuille of courgette, but this slight misstep and portioning of garnish to main ingredient might be the only shortfall in this entire experience.

After a slight hiccup with the pacing, the next dish picked up right where we left off. Maigre fish mingles with mussels and fresh pea tendrils may not look tampered with, but the depth of flavour from the saffron and mussel jus took me by surprise. This was followed swiftly by a clever palate cleanser of tomatoes with black olives and Kintoa pork hailing from Basque. A melange of red and beige, it was not a looker but the pork and cold tomato melded together with the floral accents of black olive and black sesame culminating in a slick masterpiece.

The savoury courses concluded with a treat of wagyu beef which isn’t typically known here, flanked with roasted and glazed carrots and a bowl of beef tartare, that was good enough to leave a lasting impression on its own.

Desserts were a serious affair—strategically placating both the spring embracers and the chocolate romancers. Pine nut and chocolate were tucked neatly away in chocolate cigars, underscored by a sense of rich, woody spice. It was majorly decadent and served with a milk chocolate ice cream. Since summer is upon us, the finishing raspberry dessert would jolt you awake with its slightly tart cascades of rouge fruit.

Eventually, we stumbled out of the restaurant at 10pm, and marched towards our bed and breakfast just 800m across the farmlands. There’s something so wildly charming about visiting a Michelin-starred restaurant set against such vastly untouched landscape in stark comparison to manicured skyscrapers. During the start of the pandemic, amid all the loss and turmoil, I sulked and wailed at the loss of my so-called ‘privilege’ of being a food & beverage writer. And as the past year unravelled itself, I inadvertently became a rural resident, alienated from big cities’ multiculturalism. My life, which used to revolve around the resounding clatter of silverware being changed and plates cleared in unison, is now from a bygone era.

As restaurants slowly awaken from their slumber, the new challenge is the tangible distance from our countryside residence to any restaurant. In fact, I much prefer this arrangement. After all this time, I still deeply adore dining out and writing reviews more than any other kind of writing. 

We paid S$543.84 for a 7-course menu for two including wine pairing, a bottle of Philippe Alliet L’Huisserie and a kids’ menu.