Last fall I tagged along with my husband on a work trip to Toulouse, France (as one does when one's spouse has meetings in such nice places). It was our first time in Toulouse, and it was stressful. I feel like the first trip to any new city is a kind of sacrifice to the travel gods, seasoned with blunders and bad maps and jet lag, especially when you don't speak the language or have a credit card with the right kind of chip inside.
But in the middle of dripping rain, closed shops, and terrible hotel wifi, our fortunes turned glowing. The reason, of course, was food, and a hospitable table spread with the comforting food of the South of France: terrines, dark soup, good bread, and a perfect lentil salad.
A table of students finishing their dinner at Chez Navarre.
I don't remember how we first heard about Chez Navarre; it's lost in the jumble of panicked research one does before landing in a new place. It was an unusual restaurant — no menu, and no real website. It's located in an ancient building that looks straight out of Game of Thrones, and when you step in you see why there's no menu. In one corner there's a stove with a pot of soup bubbling. On the long wood tables hearty food is spread out — rich country terrines, salads, vegetables, thick wedges of bread. You take a seat and if you don't like what's on your table, you can wander about and help yourself from another. There was a tall wooden shelf stacked with mismatched crockery, plates, and soup bowls with a tub below for dirty dishes. One server bustled about filling orders for wine and tallying up the bills.
Chez Navarre is what is called a table d'hôte, where a host sets out a set menu every night for people to help themselves. It was a little intimidating for us to step into a place that was so different from the known routine of urban French restaurants, but as soon as we ladled out our soup, I felt my shoulders relax. The place felt like home, or as close to home as we could feel in a restaurant in a foreign country.
The warmth of the atmosphere seeped in through the whole meal, from borrowing our neighbor's country pâté, to clearing our plates and going back for seconds, to scoping out the dessert table (rice pudding, flan, poached prunes, chocolate custard — so homey and hard to choose!). And it was cheap, bustling, and loud with what appeared to be packs of French students. This turned out to be true; my husband mentioned our dinner to a grad student friend in Toulouse and he laughed. "Chez Navarre is the best!" he said. "You can eat as much as you want!"
Well. Back to the lentils. A simple lentil salad was the first thing I piled on my plate at Chez Navarre. It looked utterly plain, but the herbs and nutty taste of the French lentils gave me one of the best moments I had had in Toulouse. This was good French food, with a taste that went far beyond its humble appearance, but it also felt familiar, like something I had made and forgotten about.
I've been a little obsessed with green lentils since that trip; I bought several bags of them from Bob's Red Mill and have been cooking them steadily. Green lentils, or French lentils like the famous Puy variety, keep their shape when cooked and don't dissolve into mush like others. I love their meaty chew and the nuttiness they bring to this dish, an old favorite.
Here I cook them in chicken broth for extra flavor, and toss them with cooked bacon, fresh herbs, and a mustard vinaigrette. It's not the same dish I ate at Chez Navarre, but it reminds me of it every time I eat it.
Warm French Lentil Salad with Bacon & Herbs
Makes 4 3/4-cup servings
1 cup green or French lentils
2 cups low-sodium or homemade chicken broth
1/4 teaspoon salt, plus more to taste
Freshly ground black pepper
4 ounces bacon (about 4 thick-cut slices), cut into small pieces
2 large shallots, cut in half and thinly sliced
4 cloves garlic, minced
2 large sprigs rosemary, leaves stripped and minced
3 large leaves sage, minced
2 tablespoons capers, roughly chopped
1/2 cup Italian parsley leaves, roughly chopped
For the dressing:
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 tablespoons Dijon mustard
1/2 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
Wash and rinse the lentils. Put in a small saucepan and cover with the chicken broth. Bring to a boil then lower to a simmer and cook until just tender, 20 to 25 minutes. Add extra water while cooking if the liquid gets low. Drain the lentils and return them to the pot. Stir in the salt.
Meanwhile, while the lentils are cooking, cook the bacon in a heavy pan over medium heat until crispy. Drain most of the fat out of the pan, then add the shallots, garlic, rosemary, and sage, and cook for 2 to 3 minutes or until the garlic is fragrant and the shallots are tender but not soft. Remove from the heat.
Whisk the olive oil, mustard, and balsamic vinegar together until thick. Toss with the warm, drained lentils, then stir in the bacon and shallot mixture. Stir in the chopped capers and parsley. Taste and season with additional salt, if needed, and a generous quantity of black pepper.
Serve warm. This keeps for 5 days in the refrigerator and is also good eaten cold.