An April 2005 trip
to Provence by jaybroek
Quote: Its Provence, its lunchtime – what are you going to do? Select a restaurant that has a terrace that is just so, select a local rosé, and choose the plat du jour. You might get lucky and pick offal, but I can’t guarantee it.
Provence is an excellent place to take such an approach. The French treat meals with the gravity they deserve; lunch breaks are commonly 2 hours and are far more likely to feature a three-course meal, with wine, than the equivalent in the UK. With the region also being a hotbed of tourist activity and second-home ownership, there are a plethora of restaurants to meet this demand. The vast majority of these serve local cuisine, which in Provence means a menu featuring a wide range of meats, fish, and delicious vegetables supplemented by localized specialities such as daube (stew, often beef) or saucisson of various types. The only "foreign" establishments you are likely to encounter outside of the major towns and cities are Italian.
In the course of our extensive (!) research, we didn’t encounter a restaurant that didn’t offer a prix-fixe menu at lunchtime. Prominently displayed on chalkboards and menu stands outside, these offer a limited range of starters, mains, and desserts (don’t even think of trying to get away with any cutting courses!) to choose from and may include a glass or small carafe of house wine. Prices vary a little; expect to be able to dine well for €10 to €15, rising towards €20 in the most popular towns and villages, including Aix, Gordes, Rousillon, and along the coast.
As might be expected, the Tomato was best catered for in the smaller family-run establishments, with a high chair being produced, food warmed, and general fawning being the norm. The chic establishments of the Cours Mirabeau (Aix) and the like were somewhat less prepared, with the boy confined to his buggy for the duration. On these occasions, we were not popular parents.
We kept the Tomato on English time, which meant he would be reaching his pre-lunch "Whole World Sucks" nadir around 2pm rather than 1pm. This meant we could enjoy a happy, prolonged lunch en famille with minimal risk of tantrum. We could then drive somewhere else in the afternoon, fairly confident that the boy would get the required nap in the car. The downside to this, of course, is that we put in a lot of miles traveling from one side of the region to the other (or taking particularly scenic routes) while Little Grumpy slept.
As far as choosing restaurants goes, check out the highchair (chaise haute) provision– not all places have them, and our son did not appreciate being stuck below table level in his buggy, as the squawking and frequent tugs on the tablecloth testified.
The region’s main airport is Marseilles. International flights also serve Nimes, Nice, and Lyon. The TGV, France’s excellent high-speed train service, provides connections to Paris via stations in the same cities. We couldn’t imagine exploring Provence without a car, but then we’re bone idle and also buy large quantities of wine that needs transporting home. It would appear that some people enjoy such perverse pursuits as walking and cycling, and apparently you can use these rather crude methods of transport for getting to and from your lunch. There’s no explaining some people.
We both opted for a coarse pâté to start. For a main course I spotted a dish on the menu that intrigued me; a check in the guidebook’s food glossary quickly confirmed my suspicions and I placed my order for the Andouillette. The waiter double checked in English – ‘You do know that this is…?’ I nodded with the confidence of a seasoned explorer of international cuisine. Several times in my past I have plumped for the offal by accident; this time I had the upper hand.
Like so many other countries across the globe, a significant number of French country dishes originate from the thrifty use of every last edible chunk of the beast. Stews and sausages are a common means of concealment for assorted animal viscera – in the case of Andouillette, it’s a fat, grayish tube stuffed to near bursting with bits of pig intestine and stomach lining. Visually appealing? Far from it. Tasty? A blend of spices ensure that the relatively neutral flavour is perked up. Pleasant? Well, it’s all about the texture. The sausage has a degree of give when applying the knife that is similar to a semi-deflated inner tube, and there’s no getting away from the slightly furry chewiness.
The Blonde opted for Rouget pistou, red mullet baked with a basil-and-garlic crust. Her dish was far easier on the eye and jaw muscles. It was duly pronounced delicious. The Tomato viewed proceedings with interest from his pushchair, his endless fidgeting ensuring that fragments of baguette crust got everywhere. The occasional tug on the tablecloth reminded us to ask about high chair provision before settling down next time.
The €14 set menu was rounded out with a couple of sugary indulgences, the omnipresent and irresistible crème brulée for me and ile flottante for the Blonde, fluffy whipped egg white bobbing around on a pond of vanilla custard. And so began our descent into holiday rotundity, a route the Tomato seemed keen to follow after a mouthful or two of custard.
Most of the restaurants along the canals offer three-course prix-fixe lunches in the €12 to €20 price range. With two or three dishes to choose from for each course, you can be assured of delicious cuisine for a reasonable price, whether offal is your thing or not.
Member Rating 4 out of 5 on October 13, 2005
Le Bouchon - offal on the Isle
10 quai Jean Jaurès
04 90 20 67 44
Restaurant | "Lou Fanau - on the tourist trail to La Source"
I can’t pretend that Lou Fanaù was our first choice of restaurant, but crowded terraces, a little anti-baby prejudice, and an endemic high-chair shortage gradually edged us towards it by a process of elimination. We found a table that looked onto the main square, and the Tomato took great delight in settling into his first French highchair. Unencumbered by straps, he could turn and shout at a wide range of diners, while the wooden table made a pleasingly loud noise when banged repeatedly with a spoon. The big, gummy grin suggested that all the boy’s criteria for a good dining experience had been met and he may allow us to enjoy ourselves. The arrival of a waitress with particularly jangly jewelry nearly pushed him over the edge.
The two- course, €12.50 prix-fixe lunch offered a surprisingly large choice of dishes. The Blonde opted for the Aioli Provençale from the seafood section, while I figured it was high time I reacquainted myself with entrecôte. A half bottle of Luberon rosé was selected to wash it all down. The Tomato gave the waitress his most charming chuckle as he sent her on her way.
There are times when picking a vaguely mysterious dish that sounds like a local specialty doesn’t pay off. The Blonde’s dish proved to be an abundant mound of white fish and shellfish (generally regarded as a good thing) on an uninspiring bed of vegetation (not so good when somewhat limp). The huge accompanying bowl of garlic mayonnaise served to mask the least interesting parts.
My entrecôte was a little more pleasing, and the Tomato certainly enjoyed the odd frite that came his way. The wine was as uneventful, as ordinary rosé has the capacity to be, and the crème brulée had a lot of work to do to lift the dining experience out of the distinctly mundane. Luckily, when it comes to crème brulée, I’m easily pleased, and French kitchens seldom produce a bad one, so I left with a smile. The Blonde, being much harder to please, did not. Fontaine is a tourist spot, and this restaurant seemed to have the lack of imagination that complacency can bring.
Having said that, the waitress did have particularly jangly jewelry…
Member Rating 3 out of 5 on October 13, 2005
04 90 20 31 90
Restaurant | "Le Grillon - a study in chic on the Cours Mirabeau"
As it was, she was right. We had so successfully melted into rural Luberon ways that a visit to the big city jarred completely. Traffic queues? Underground parking? Crowds? It was all wrong. The kerbs were too high for the buggy; it was freezing in the shadowy narrow streets and too bright in the sun. Luckily, we’ve been together long enough to recognize where this day was going if we didn’t take remedial action. When the going gets tough, the tough get lunch.
A quick piece of map work got us to the Cours Mirabeau, stylish epicenter of all that is Aix. This is where one sits behind one’s shades and is seen loitering over your mouthful of coffee. The Blonde donned her sunglasses, adopted her best aloof French-café face, and selected our venue, just enough shade for the boy, just enough exposure for us. After an artful promenade or two up and down the avenue, we settled on Le Grillon.
The crowded terrace of Le Grillon was far too chic to have its elegant lines marred by anything as crass as a high chair, so the Tomato had to make do with his buggy and we had to settle for a table out in the social tundra of the terrace. Behind her shades, the Blonde remained inscrutable, her antipathy towards Aix vindicated. The boy shared his mother’s disgust and his grumbling from somewhere below the table continued until he got his baguette. The meal would have to be very special to please this audience.
The set menu offered a choice of three starters and three mains. The Blonde opted for Salade Camarguaise, a dish she did not anticipate to be quite as cold beef-orientated as it proved to be. My coarse pâté was much preferred and, therefore, much shared. For the main course, I continued my exploration of offal and enjoyed a delicious boudin (black pudding) with apple sauce. I recommend you abandon any squeamishness you may have and indulge; leftover animal has rarely been put to such good use. The Blonde claimed her cod was equally delicious, but her glances at my pudding left me skeptical.
The stylishly slow service gave us plenty of time to glance around surreptitiously and gauge our position in the fashion strata. This traditional French pastime whiled away the crème caramel course, too.
Le Grillon is a famous café on the Champs Elysées of the south, so around €17 a head for lunch is only to be expected.
49 Cours Mirabeau
04 42 27 58 81
Restaurant | "Le Pasta ‘Flo - less charm, more substance"
As is the way of such things, our saviour appeared when we had stopped looking. Driving out of Cadenet, we happened upon a cluster of parked cars around Le Pasta ‘Flo, an unassuming modern building on the edge of the village. There was still a risk of rejection; 2pm was perilously close, and it wouldn’t have been unusual to receive a firm but polite "je regrette… ." We adopted appropriately harried looks (not difficult) and displayed our son prominently as we entered. Cynical, but few waitresses can resist the Tomato’s chubby-cheeked charm.
We were found a table in the typically small nonsmoking area. The dining room was well lit, with a conservatory extension running down one side. Walls painted a golden Provençal yellow matched the table linen and infused the room with a sunny glow. The Tomato became a different baby; dropping the howls of starvation, he set about drawing attention to us by reeling in every susceptible female in the place. We attempted to peruse the menu while fending off a particularly ardent little red-haired girl who had been drawn by the boy’s cherubic features and was seemingly intent on taking one of them as a souvenir.
For the foolishly low price of €10, ‘Flo offers a salad, any pizza, dessert, and 1/4 litre of house wine, with the price rising to €13 if you extravagantly choose the plat du jour. When faced with such economy, it is only natural to squander the savings on aperitifs. Sipping on pastis, we attempted to feed the boy. He, in turn, was busy distracting the young woman dining alone at the next table. These combined activities could only have one outcome and proved that having food smeared all over your face is not necessarily a barrier to true love.
The plat du jour was rustically simple and delicious, breasts of turkey rolled and stuffed with a tomato and mushroom sauce. The accompanying rice and ratatouille was equally pleasing and made fitting in a choux pastry dessert something of a challenge, to which I rose with aplomb.
The restaurant emptied around us and we paid our pleasingly low bill. With the incorrigible Tomato about to start work on the waitress, we left, more than satisfied by our lucky find.
Le Pasta ‘Flo
46 Avenue Philippe deGirard
Provence, France 84160
04 90 68 19 79
Restaurant | "Le Carillon - family-run charm in Goult"
I do take lunch a little too seriously sometimes.
We had fled the overblown prices and self-importance of Gordes restaurants in search of something altogether more down-to-earth. We headed for Goult, some 6km south, and pulled into the main square. Before us was a straight choice of two restaurants, the Café de la Poste (which makes an appearance in "A Year in Provence") and Le Carillon. Both offer similarly priced prix-fixe menus (around €14 for three courses) and have pleasant terrasses on the main square. Our decision was based on shade. Le Carillon had a couple of tables in shady alcoves either side of the entrance, just enough room for a highchair and two rapidly expanding waistlines.
It was while getting settled that the Tomato took the opportunity to show us up as the amateur parents we are. We had taken great care to minimize his salt intake, as all the guidance warned of the delicacy of little kidneys. This had meant close inspections of jars in French supermarkets (as French babies have much sterner viscera it would seem), quibbling over tenths of grams. The Tomato chose to undo all this by going straight to the source and emptying the salt cellar into his mouth. Bless. Still, it served as an icebreaker with the proprietress, who was soon exchanging baby-raising stories with the Blonde as I nodded like an imbecile after losing track shortly after, "Quelle age..?"
The prix-fixe menu featured a choice of three starters and three main courses. The highlight was my faux-filet, a tasty steak done bien-cuit, which sits to the more well done end of the French steak spectrum, but is still a pleasingly tender pink at its succulent heart. The Blonde’s "fish of undetermined genus" (the specifics of translating species and local variations tests even the most linguistic!) was delicately prepared, fish done at its simple best.
At €14 a head for three courses, Le Carillon is, frankly, a bargain. I can’t wait to return.
Member Rating 5 out of 5 on October 13, 2005
Avenue du Luberon
04 90 72 15 09
Restaurant | "Le Golfe - how to ruin a great location"
We arrived mid-morning, along with the rest of Provence. The drive to the old port takes you downhill through ever-narrowing streets. Vine terraces give way to concrete villas and apartment blocks on the edge of town leading into the old village itself, where the scramble for parking began. We secured a slot some way back up the hill and began the steep descent.
Cassis is all about the harbour. Boats cluster along the jetties separated by a wide promenade from the row of cafés that seem to merge into one endless terrace. It is only the forcefully contrasting furniture that enables you to see where one ends and the next begins. The odd narrow street leads away from the harbour side; cobbled streets suggest a glimpse of Cassis before tourism got here, but gift shops spill out their wares and mask the history.
A quick turn round the harbour and lunch was upon us – at least it was if we wanted the opportunity to choose where we ate. Tables at many of the restaurants were filling up fast, and I suspect that we rushed our decision somewhat. We chose Le Golfe, situated at the far end of the promenade. The terrace looked spacious enough to take a buggy, and the waiters had a brisk and purposeful air about them – important factors ticked off. We molded ourselves into the canvas director’s chairs and perused the salad list. Potential exposure on a beach does that to a person. Of course, it’s too little, too late, but the psychological impact is important.
We both chose the Salade Transalpine and a 1/2 bottle of Coteaux d’Aix Rosé to wash it down. The waiters showed early promise with the prompt arrival of the wine, but after that things quickly fell apart. The terrace reached half-full, and this seemed to trigger a wave of panic across the staff. The Blonde cast her experienced former waitress eye over the carnage and sighed. Our salads would not appear anytime soon.
In such circumstances, one would hope the experience would be salvaged by the sheer quality of the food. Alas, no. I have vague recollections of brown bits and a general impression of green. In what way this was transalpine, I couldn’t tell you. My notes fail me and my memory has blocked it out.
We headed for the beach and ice cream on the sand. The Tomato laughed a lot and the day picked up.
Member Rating 2 out of 5 on October 13, 2005
3, place du Grand Carnot
Provence, France 13260
04 42 01 00 21
Edinburgh, United Kingdom