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August 2, 2017

Postcard from France: Provence

AIX-EN-PROVENCE, France — There are a number of reasons tourists flock to Provence in summer.  There are the pristine beaches that line the glistening blue Mediterranean waters.  The ancient Roman and Greek ruins are an attraction, too.  For art lovers, many of the quaint villages of Provence and the Cote d'Azur were the inspiration for Van Gogh, Chagall and Matisse.  And for some, the unique gastronomy is the lure.

My personal Tour de France in the summer of 2017 was inspired by a food and wine experience some 17 years ago, which culminated with a dinner at the Michelin two-star restaurant Bastide Saint-Antoine on a rather significant birthday.  I still have the menu from that evening, signed by chef Jacques Chibois, in a prominent space in my wine cellar.

The next day, following the gastronomic tour de force,  I lunched outside at Bastide Saint-Antoine and enjoyed the warm summer weather with a dry rosé wine from Bandol.  As it turned out, this was the dawning of my appreciation for the excellent dry rose wines of Provence.

I tried as best I could to recreate the experience of 17 years ago while lunching once again at Bastide Saint-Antoine.

I am happy to report that the kitchen hasn't missed a beat in the intervening years and the selection of rosé wines is every bit as good as I remembered.  The precision of the service staff combined with the excellence of the cuisine and a broad selection of wine from Provence, Burgundy, Champagne and the Rhone Valley made for a memorable stop on the drive from Nice to Aix.

I was not so fortunate after I arrived at my destination. I booked a reservation at L'Espirit de la Violette, formerly Clos de la Violette and once the finest restaurant in Aix.

I fondly remembered meeting chef Jean-Marc Banzo on the same evening he learned the Michelin Guide had elevated Clos de la Violette from one star to two.  At that time, Clos de la Violette was also a Relais & Chateaux hotel on the edge of the Old Town.  Chef Banzo left about five years ago, and new ownership closed the hotel and gave the restaurant a face-lift.

It has lost one of its two Michelin stars, and from my experience, I believe Michelin has been too kind.  The dinner was fair at best.  One of the three amuse-bouche presented was inedible, and the meat course, a roast rack of lamb, was overcooked and hopelessly botched by the server making a feeble attempt to carve it.

Dinner was saved somewhat by the excellent wine service.  The house coupe de Champagne was a Bruno Paillard Brut, a stunning wine.  And the sommelier steered me away from a light Burgundy with the lamb course to an outstanding Rhône blend from Saint-Chinian, the 2014 Domaine Rimbert La Mas au Schiste.  The match would have been magical if the lamb had been anything like the lamb chop I enjoyed two weeks earlier at L'Atelier de Joel Robuchon in Paris.

My disappointment in Michelin was short-lived, however, for I took the guide's recommendation on a casual restaurant in the Old Town of Aix, Vintrepide.  The food was simple and honest and made from local ingredients.  The first course of zucchini blossom was probably the best I've ever had.  The wine list was exceptional and well-priced, though most of the offerings were either current or very recent vintages.

Quite by accident, I saved the best for last.  A brief visit to the Relais & Chateaux hotel in Les Baux, Baumaniere, turned out to be food and wine nirvana.

Chef Jean-Andre Charial was the brilliance behind the Michelin three-star L'Oustau de Baumaniere when I dined there 17 years ago.  He has since retired from the kitchen, but he happens to own the restaurant and hotel, so his influence continues unabated.  Under Charial, L'Oustau Baumaniere was at one time the longest-running Michelin three-star restaurant in France.

Without Charial in the kitchen it has been reduced to two stars, but in my humble opinion, it remains three stars in every sense.  The five-course "Evolution/Tradition" tasting menu on the evening I was there was an extraordinary dining experience.  Just as important to me, the wine list was sensational and deep, sprinkled with many older vintages from France's most important producers.

I found it surprising that the best value wines on the list were the older vintages, so I took the bait, ordering a 1993 Bonneau du Martray Corton-Charlemagne for 250 Euros.  My idea of value doesn't necessarily mean cheap.  I would have expected to pay much more for a 24-year-old white Burgundy from one of France's greatest chardonnay vineyards, one known for its remarkable ability to age.

When I inquired with the sommelier about whether the wine was in good condition, he was firm.  "Of course," he declared.  "This was a fresh vintage."

Bingo.  It was the wine of the night, indeed the finest wine I had tasted in my two weeks on the French Riviera and Provence, and probably the best wine I have tasted this year.

Seventeen years ago, chef Charial took me into the wine cellar at L'Oustau and chose a 1927 Clos de Vougeot, a Grand Cru red Burgundy, to serve at my pre-birthday dinner.  It was a stunner. I happily report that some things never change!
Posted by Robert Whitley at 10:36 AM