SIGHT UNSEEN: At a quaint restaurant in Pezenas in southern France, guests dine on steak tartar (left), something not often seen in Santa Monica. (photo by Merv Hecht)

I am interrupting my series on old-time restaurants in Santa Monica because of a very different experience I had the other day.

My wife and I were staying with friends in a small town near Montpellier, France. They offered to take us, along with another couple, to visit a medieval town nearby. I offered to buy lunch for everyone.

We toured the small town of Pezenas in the wine region of the Languedoc, saw the lovely old buildings, the many antique shops, watched the local folks come from church, and bought a silk tie (Pezenas was once famous for silk).

Then my friend Edouard mentioned that he had made a reservation at a restaurant a short walk away. We easily found Le Pres de St. Jean, near the entrance to the village. It was a small but clean looking restaurant in the old walls, with a few steps down to arrive at the entry. It was nothing fancy, but there were white tablecloths on the dozen or so tables.

My first surprise came from looking at the wine list. There, nestled away apparently unnoticed by most guests, lurked a bottle of 1983 Pommard Premier cru for less than $100. That was such a good year for that region that I thought the Japanese collectors had all that remains in their cellars.

We ordered that bottle, along with our lunches. And then I noticed something that was a second surprise. All of us ordered dishes that were rarely found in the U.S. My friend Isabelle had “tete de veau,” a type of terrine made with various parts of the veal in a chilled aspic. Helen ordered rolled tripe in a tripe sauce, something I had never seen before. Louis-George ordered a rare steak of toro, perhaps one of those bulls killed in the fights now very popular in the old Roman arena in Arles. And Edouard and I had “ris de veau,” an organ meat dish sometimes found in French restaurants in L.A., but not often, and not cooked like this. Instead of small pieces smothered in a mustard sauce, these were larger, bite-sized pieces with only a touch of broth for moistness.

It was a wonderful lunch, in an exciting setting. But so different from the same kind of lunch in Santa Monica. And that’s part of the fun of traveling.

Merv Hecht, the food and wine critic for the Santa Monica Daily Press, is a wine buyer and consultant to a number of national and international food and wine companies. He can be reached at mervynhecht@yahoo.com.

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