The Best Meal in France: Simple, Fresh and Affordable
I recently had the great pleasure of visiting a beautiful and luxurious Hôtel de Charme in Provence. The setting and the grounds were spectacular, the rooms with French linens and views of the gardens stunning, and the swimming pool, my dream come true. I wanted to chain myself to the bedpost so I wouldn’t have to leave at checkout time.
This lovely place in the heart of Provence also features a gourmet restaurant with a celebrated chef. Of course, I booked dinner there with my travelling companions, which we looked forward to, and worked for, with a long afternoon swim.
The service here was impeccable, and after being seated, we were handed lovely embossed menus with cream-coloured paper, a note from the chef, and the choices of two dining experiences. It was rather complicated, but interesting, and we finally settled on various courses of “sel” and “sucre.”
The other diners were very quiet, though the room was full. It was very formal and not quite in character with the rest of the grounds which were warm and inviting. We could watch the chef and his crew in their choreographed preparation of our plates.
There were several amuse-bouche plates served before our main courses, all beautiful works of art with flowers and foams arranged perfectly to create a feast for the eyes.
About halfway into the meal, one of my companions remarked, “It’s really beautiful. It just doesn’t taste very good.” That broke the spell we were all in, trying to figure out if we were supposed to like these mysterious foods on our plates.
We had a good laugh and wondered if everyone else in the room was in the same predicament. After all, this is a celebrated chef. This is supposed to be wonderful, right? But there were no “oohs” and “ahs” at this restaurant. And although the service was superb and the wine, delightfully crisp and flavorful, it was overall a disappointing meal.
Just to be clear, I’m not an unsophisticated diner. I’ve eaten at some of the finest restaurants in New York, Paris and Los Angeles. Still I found myself wondering at this restaurant if I just didn’t get it.
In the end, I decided that we all need to trust ourselves more when it comes to food as art. If it doesn’t taste good, no matter how artful or expensive, perhaps we should just admit it.
After leaving this lush Provençal hotel, we stopped in the little town of Saint-Rémy de Provence for lunch at a little bistrot. For a fraction of the cost of our dinners, we had plates of fresh tomatoes and burrata with basil and pesto, all drizzled with olive oil. With a chilled glass of their house white, this meal was to die for.
So from now on, I think I mostly want my art on the wall or a pedestal, and maybe not on my plate. Forget the foams, the flowers and the interesting dishes. I’ll take a beautifully arranged plate of burrata and fresh tomatoes in Saint-Rémy any day.
Photo taken at Bistrot des Alpilles in Saint-Rémy de Provence
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