Until recently, visitors to Tain l’Hermitage had very few choices when it came to serious or even halfway-serious dining, much less wining. There’s always the Michelin-starred Michel Chabran just down the road in Point de l’Isere, as well as Chabran’s sometimes very good (but often not) bistro, Le Quai, which sits on the bank of the Rhône. But beyond that there was basically nothing else on the left bank of the river worth mentioning. In fact, most regular visitors to Tain learned long ago that if they wanted anything more than basic sustenance they needed to cross the river to Tournon, which is home to a fair number of solid, even very good bistros, brasseries and restaurants. In my experience, though, nothing is truly exciting in Tournon except for the free wi-fi at the McDonald’s, on the south side of town. Don’t laugh.
Things took a dramatic change for the better in 2009, when Umia opened in a 19th-century mansion located at the bottom of the Hermitage hill, smack in the middle of the vines. The owners, a young French-Japanese couple, Rika (the chef) and Frédéric (front of the house) Bau, offer a menu that is heavily Asian-influenced, with high-quality ingredients and prices that are quite fair, although the tariff has been steadily creeping up lately. It’s hard to go wrong with anything on the ever-changing menu but game is always a good bet. The manageable wine list is, predictably, Rhône-centric, with selections from the region’s best producers, but it also includes some inspired choices from outside the region. On this year’s visit I found the ciders of Eric Bordelet, wines from Château Simone and a vertical of the amazing rosés of Clos Cibonne (running back to the 1980s!), along with some interesting Champagnes. There’s a connection to the Tain-based Valrhona chocolate company going on here so the dessert menu runs heavily to their chocolate, which is nothing to complain about. Expect to pay around 18 euros for entrees and 25 Euros for main plates and 23 to 70 euros for prix-fixe menus. Wine pairings (three glasses, plus filtered water and coffee or excellent tea) are also offered for the prix-fixe menus at 23 and 34 euros and the selections are always top-notch.
Le Mangevins, situated in the middle of town, practically on the main drag (the RN7), is currently one of the hottest restaurants in the entire Rhône Valley, as it has been since opening in late 2007. You’ll recognize it immediately by the empty bottles lined up on the outside windowsills. The restaurant is owned and run by another French-Japanese couple, Vincent and Keiko Dollat, and as at Umia, she runs the kitchen and he takes care of the floor. The extremely limited menu (three choices of entrees, three choices of main plates) offers some of the freshest, lightest and most carefully prepared and presented food in the region outside the best Michelin two- and even three-star restaurants, but in a setting that is minimalist to a fault. I’ve had a number of meals here that were superior, even far superior to those I had at Michelin-blessed establishments on the same trip, but at a mere fraction the price. The fare is classic French but with a light touch, like the rabbit rillettes that are enriched with stock rather than fat. The daily menu here will run you around 25 euros and the wine list is packed with Rhône Valley rarities as well as values. The by-the-glass list is excellent as well and extremely well-priced. Call ahead (they do not have a website) to check on securing a table as there are only 22 seats and there is a single lunch seating (12:00) and one for dinner (8:00).
The best discovery of this year’s trip, hands down, was La Cave du Taurobole, a tiny wine bar on the RN7, just across from Tain’s main parking lot, which has been partially replaced by an aesthetically and commercially questionable, not to mention controversial, plaza and fountain. Owned by yet another young couple, Nathalie and Xavier Monterastelli, it offers a focused, tapas-style menu and a superb, incredibly well-priced wine list, with an ever-changing selection of wines by the glass. The reasonably priced menu includes a plat du jour at about 12 euros; a full, charcuterie-based meal will run you between 14 and 20 euros, unless you go nuts, which I highly recommend.
Selections include Iberico ham, regional sausages and cured meats and well-aged local cheeses, but what blew me away was Nathalie’s terrine of foie gras, which is made from her mother’s recipe and served with fig compote made with fruit from the Monterastellis’ own trees. I had that terrine (two thick slices for 12 euros) three times at the bar while I was in town and bought a whole one (about a kilo) to take down south for some gourmand friends who declared it among the best renditions they had ever tasted. I even traded a slab of it with a truffle hunter for a three-ounce black truffle he’d found in Lirac, and according to him I got ripped off.
As for the extensive wine list, it offers a crazy variety of the best French wines you can imagine. I’m talking about Raveneau, Rousseau, Ponsot, Liger-Belair, Leflaive, Clape, Chave, Rayas, Ogier, Rostaing, Janasse . . . you get the picture. Prices for these trophy bottlings are ridiculously low, sometimes jaw-droppingly so, which would make it easy for a group of serious winos to spend a whole day, or even a week, here. There’s also a wide range of wines starting at 12 euros a bottle, including the 2008 and 2007 Château des Tours Vin de Pays for those who want a glimpse of the Rayas mystique for 14 euros a bottle. Or you could step up to the Vacqueyras 2008 or 2007 for 22 euros. The by-the-glass list (priced from 3.5 euros) includes choices from all over the region and always features top producers such as Ogier, Gerin, Combier and Gonon. English is spoken here, which is no small consideration in this neck of France, and they’re open late, also a rarity here.
Umia, Domaine Gambert de Loche, 2 rue de la Petite Pierrelle, Tain l’Hermitage; 04.75.09.19.85. www.umia.fr
Le Mangevins, 6 Avenue Docteur Paul Durand, Tain l’Hermitage; 04.75.07.73.85
La Cave du Taurobole, 36 Avenue Jean Jaures, Tain l’Hermitage; 07.75.07.48.67. www.lacavedutaurobole.fr