I am mystified by the dining habits of the French. They eat three course meals laden with calories twice daily, and no one is overweight. Small plates of food meant for sharing? Not an option. Vegetarian is a foreign concept, and the term “gluten free” doesn’t exist. Caffeine doesn’t affect the French, who drink coffee (not decaf!) after every meal. Most astonishing is the fact that no one is ever in a hurry. When I finish dining, particularly at lunchtime, I want the check immediately so I can move on to the next thing. Not the French. They sit for hours, luxuriating over coffee and conversation. How bizarre!
As our ten day France vacation continues through Dijon, Lyon, Marseilles, and Aix-en-Provence, I do my best to adapt to the dining customs. However, wherever we dine I am a disappointment to servers, managers, and restaurant owners. The problem: I can never finish the food on my plate, which they seem to take as a personal affront to the cooking. The fact is that I have not trained properly for all of this marathon eating.
Here is a round-up of our meals on part two of our vacation, where I try my hardest to dine late, eat often, and not bemoan the fact that it is unacceptable here to take home leftovers. (My Paris post can be found here.)
Ma Cuisine, Passage Sainte-Helene, 21200 Beaune, France. We rent a car to visit the town of Beaune, which is 30 minutes from our hotel in Dijon. Ma Cuisine is well known in Burgundy for its regional cuisine and an impressive selection of wine. This unassuming bistro in a quiet town is bustling, even at an early hour. We have to drive back to Dijon on dark and unfamiliar roads, so my husband decides against drinking wine with dinner. This is a wise and practical decision, but it is also a shame. The wine is divine, as is the earthy food. I start with a terrine of duck and veal, followed by a crisp duck confit with potatoes. Our overall experience suffers due to service that is rather cold. I can’t help but think that service may have warmed up, had we only been able to drink more wine. Recommend (but don’t miss the wine).
Le Potager des Halles. 3, rue de la Martinière – 69001 Lyon. Lyon is the home of famed chef Paul Bocuse, whose name is synonymous with nouvelle cuisine. My decision to not dine at one of his restaurants is a tough one. Research leads me instead to Le Potager des Halles, which comes in at #2 in ranking our dining experiences in France. Chef Floriant Rémont has worked with Paul Bocuse, and the beautifully prepared French cuisine shows off his impressive skills. Our three course meal at this white tablecloth restaurant is simply exquisite.
Dinner here exemplifies just how important service is to an overall experience. A server is working hard to help translate the long and varied menu. She struggles to describes one dish, finally saying “it has to do with the movie ‘Bambi.’ ” I cross it off my list of potential entrees. She can’t think of the word for pumpkin, but is triumphant when she comes up with the word “Halloween.” Add in the French accent, and we are completely charmed. A second server is paying close attention to our reactions to each dish, after my husband fails to eat an amuse bouche of ham and pig head with mustard. She has no cause for concern.
Fish soup has a rich and creamy broth, which is poured over crisp pieces of bread, and topped with a wonderfully aromatic cheese. Baby lamb with sweetbreads, sweet chunks of roasted squash and eggplant, and lemon, reflect the restaurant’s commitment to incorporate fresh local ingredients in their dishes.
Dessert is a work of art with an intense spoonful of rich chocolate, mini meringues, goat cheese and honey sorbet, and baked milk crumbs. I love the interplay of textures.
At the end of the meal, we express our absolute delight to the staff, who seem visibly relieved. “We weren’t sure you liked our food, because you didn’t finish the bite of pig head.” One should never base my enjoyment of a meal solely on whether I finish the pig head. Highly recommend.
Chez Fon Fon, 140, Vallon des Auffes – 13007, Marseille. We are passing through Marseille on our way to Aix-en Provence. I decide that I absolutely must have the bouillabaisse at Chez Fon Fon. The restaurant is touted as the place for the seafood stew, which originated in this port town. We make it to the restaurant just before they stop serving lunch. I am breathless and a bit out of sorts after a harrowing drive to get here. A bowl with croutons is placed before me, then broth is poured into a small bowl. Next I receive a bowl of garlic aioli and one with pink saffron sauce. I am puzzled by the small portion of soup, and the absence of any visible pieces of fish. Moments later a large plate heaped with assorted seafood is brought to the table. Now I have a dilemma. I stare at the bowl of broth, and then the plate of fish, wondering what to do next. I begin cutting pieces of fish and dipping it in the aioli. I alternate bites of fish with sips of broth. A restaurant employee rushes over, wildly gesturing for me to put the fish into the soup bowl. I am an idiot. But in my defense, this is nothing like the bouillabaisse I had at Bistro Provence back home. The server brings me more broth, and I start again. Once I get the hang of it, I like it. I really like it. Chez Fon Fon is worth a visit for the traditional bouillabasse (who knew!) and a spectacular waterfront view. Recommend.
Mitch 26 Rue des Tanneurs, 13100 Aix-en-Provence. Friends highly recommend the restaurant Mitch in Aix-en-Provence. It also gets a nod of approval from our hotel concierge. Mitch is contemporary, cool, and creative. I’ve already been wowed by food photos on the website, so I am here with heightened expectations. The white brick walls and dark wood furniture bring to mind some of DC’s buzz-worthy restaurants. I’m temporarily nostalgic, but once I delve into my dishes I’m back in the moment. I start with marinated octopus with a chorizo emulsion. I am not usually a fan of octopus, but this is another one of my efforts to embrace the local cuisine. Duck breast wows me with fuller flavors than most other dishes I’ve had on the trip. My husband’s fish dish takes our breath away for its sheer beauty. The food is magical, and this is one meal where I can almost make every bite disappear. Highly recommend.
Restaurant Côté Cour 19 Cours Mirabeau, 13100 Aix-en-Provence. It’s our last night of vacation. The restaurant we plan to dine at is just too far away for the weary travelers we have become. I now must scramble to find a restaurant. It’s Saturday night and my top choices have no availability. The hotel concierge points us to Restaurant Côté Cour, just minutes away. I scan the website, and there is the sign I need to confirm our dining decision. Chef Ronan Kernen was a contestant on “Top Chef France” in 2011. Regular readers will know how appealing this is to me. Suffice it to say I am a fan of the show. And even though I have never heard of Chef Kernen, the thought of this makes me smile.
The chef’s skills are impressive, and the meal is one of our favorites. I enjoy a salad with produce from the local market, an entree of guinea hen, and truffled ice cream. If there is any question regarding the importance of the show in France, the answer may lie in the glass case next to the kitchen.
As our trip comes to an end, I take pride in my accomplishments. I’ve sipped espresso with no milk, dined at 10:00 pm, and never once did I ask for the uneaten food on my plate to be packed up to go. Although my command of the French language improved just un peu (a little) on our vacation, I am pleased to say that I now find French food to be très très bon (very, very good).