France Restaurant Rundown

France Restaurant Rundown

I’m about to turn 37 (yikes), and the older I get, the less tolerance I have for bullshit — especially when it comes to restaurants. Complicated “do you know how our menu works?” ordering regimes, the tiresome fetish for fatty pork parts cultivated by nearly every restaurant chef in New York City, rampant overuse of the word “sustainable” on menus…enough already. I was really looking forward to our trip to France as a return to restaurant sanity. Give me three well-prepared courses, served in a moderately comfortable environment by competent waitstaff — and of course accompanied by a good bottle of wine — and I’d be happy.

It was kind of a tale of two cities. Paris had a few highlights — this very simple fig and mozzarella salad at Autour d’un Verre, a little wine bar in the 9th arrondisement, was awesome. The mozzarella was insanely creamy (I have a theory it was actually burrata, which is mozzarella enhanced — as if it needed any help — by cream in the center), the figs were perfect, and a drizzle of olive oil brought the whole thing together.Fig Salad

The restaurant itself, however, was kind of my worst nightmare. The crowd was somehow hipster-y and yet uncool — as if they had all just stepped off a Lucky magazine photo shoot.  The tables were lined up tightly against both walls and you couldn’t help but jostle your neighbor. Between that and the dingy yellow lighting, it felt like dining on the R Train at rush hour.

Despite the “wine bar” tag, the waiter was absolutely zero help when I asked him to compare and contrast two bottles on the list. He said the equivalent of “they’re both fine” and left it at that. I ended up going with La Treille Muscate, from Corbières in the Languedoc, in the foothills of the Pyrenees.

It delivered a nice smoky, herbal, blackberry kick, and for about $30, the price was right. Our mains were fine, we both ordered a kind of Scandanavian meatball concoction. OK, yeah, I know, so that was kind of a misorder on our part, but it was either that, fish in creamy sauce — my nemesis — or confit de canard, and at that point we were thoroughly duck-ed out. One of the few other upsides of the place was that we bonded a bit with our neighbors about the surly waiter. Nonetheless, we left feeling harried and unsatisfied.

Bandol, on the other hand, was dreamy. We stayed Les Quatres Saisons, this bed & breakfast near Le Castellet, a slightly Disneyfied fortified medieval village a few minutes away from Bandol. The Web site truly does not do it justice — this is the first time I’ve ever been to  a hotel that looked much more beautiful in person than it did online. Our little duplex suite, which had a spacious deck looking out onto the vineyards of Bandol, was beyond charming, and the setting was incredibly peaceful.

However, the highlight of staying at Les Quatres Saisons was the nightly dinner 3-course dinner. No choices, just whatever happened to look good that day at the market. Always a gamble, but luckily, the market highlights during our stay included pretty mainstream selections — no snails or liver or sea urchin. There were some welcome stylish touches — a very cool “tapas de volaille” starter that was a variation on a theme of poultry: smoked duck over spicy couscous, a tiny, zesty chicken wing, duck sausage over deliciously olive oil drenched vegetables, a chicken and duck terrine with a chunk of foie gras in the center — but nothing was overworked. Desserts were exceptional, and I managed to get a shot of Paul’s moelleux au chocolat before he devoured it.

Moelleux au ChocolatExtra props to Didier and Patrice for making such an effort with the food when, as you can see from the lead photo of this post, they really could have phoned it in. The could have relied on the beautiful setting to justify the 40-euro per person price tag and left it at that. Instead, they put forth a million elegant little touches — the very aromatherapeutic logs of pine burning in their outdoor oven, the apéritif of local vin d’orange (orange-scented fortified wine) and Muscat to open the meal — that made the dinners so memorable. My dream for my 40th birthday is come back here with Paul and a few of our besties. Presumably at that point I’ll have even less tolerance for BS, and Didier and Patrice’s no-fuss elegance will be that much more welcome.

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