While we were tooling around Tuscany and Rome, an Italian friend was in Arles, for the fabulous photo show where we were heading next, and we got an email from him warning that the restaurants there “sucked” and saying he was longing for “good, honest Italian food.” I wrote it off as the usual semolina chauvinism, confident that even the worst French meal would always be more rewarding than endless plates of pasta. The joke was on me at our very first stop, in Grasse, where we found a relatively cheap hotel to break up the drive from Nice. The owner suggested some pizza/French hybrid, but we went wandering through the deserted streets of the oldest part of the city, stumbled upon Le Gazan and settled into a table outside, thinking it was the only option. I have eaten some bad French food in New Jersey, but this kicked the bar even lower. My monkfish tails were steamed okay, but the “bouillabaisse-style” sauce was the color and consistency of the squitters, and both came on more a platter than a plate, strewn with broccoli florets and boiled potatoes and a carrot flan and a single roasted slice of roasted zucchini. The whole assemblage looked as if time stopped in 1977. I wrote it off to the same rube mentality that produced a cup of good espresso topped with a Montblanc of whipped cream and dusting of shaved chocolate when I asked for a cappuccino at a cafe the next morning. Then we got to Arles, and I was ready to email Carlo for directions to the nearest honest Italian.
Without boring with details, I’ll just say sucks is an understatement for the food there. We started at a gorgeous little restaurant the manager of the incomparable Grand Hotel Nord Pinus recommended, Le 16, where both my duck and Bob’s rabbit could have been raised by Perdue for all their flavor. We continued the losing streak at the very hospitable Au Brin de Thym, where the chewy magret was partnered with a baked potato in foil(!) Gritty salads one night outside at Les Deux Fondus were redeemed only by the amazingly accommodating host and the carafe and a half of decent rose. Lunch at Le Jardin de Manon did not exactly qualify for the S word, since the appetizers were actually nicely done if American-portioned: a gateau of salmon tartare with fennel, and a sundae glass brimming with whipped cheese layered with roasted tomato, eggplant and pistou. But my braised rouget with watery pistou, beans and tomato made an unbeatable argument for grilling or sauteing that wondrous fish, while Bob’s rabbit stuffed with kidneys and more pistou gave new meaning to the words tough and tasteless (the mashed potatoes with it, however, were superb).
We did eat well in France a few times, astonishingly well once, but even a restaurant my friend led us to for Sunday lunch in Languedoc was a letdown despite the gorgeous setting overlooking vineyards, the exceptional service by the chef himself and his wife, and the world-class wine they suggested, Mas Champart Saint-Chinian made by what the chef joked was his second wife. Everything was too much muchness; it was if the French don’t have a word for restraint.
Of course I may have only myself to blame for not doing better in Arles in particular, because we resisted the insistence of a friend living in Provence that we try what she swore was the best restaurant in the region. I just could not see sitting through endless courses and dropping what the Michelin said was 55 euros a head and she warned was even higher. Of course it turns out to be the one-star getting all the press, but I’m still glad we pinched centimes now that I’m home and doing the Bush-league math. That Saint-Chinian was 27 euros. And for roughly $40, it should have been good.