A regular summer tradition -- for a few years now, one thing my friends and I do without failing each time we reunite in Provence is enjoying a scrumptious diner at the local restaurant, le Bistrot du Paradou, located in ...Paradou, Provence. The rustic severe whitewash building is off-set by typical pale blue-hue shutters.
The fixed-price menu is also a fixed-choice menu that offers no choices at all, so you better call in advance to check what is offered for the night you decide to go. No way to try without a reservation anyways, that's how good it is. Some August, we had to wait a week to get a table for six.
The menu is a four-course traditional affair of Mediterranean cuisine, with soup, appetizer, main course and dessert, plus wine. Please note that in French, entrée means appetizer, not like the American entrée. And so the main course is called plat principal, the dessert is the same word, soupe and salade are close enough to be guessed, and most people are familiar with the words vin (wine) and fromage (cheese.)
The menu is 50 Euros, and if you consider that the drinks are aplenty and keep on coming, it's a good deal for the region, and for great food. Typical provençale cooking includes aïoli -- fish in garlic mayo; pistou soup -- vegetable with pesto-similar sauce; lapin à l'ail (rabbit in garlic), gratin d'aubergines (eggplant gratin), gigot d'agneau (leg of lamb). The homemade tarts are to die for. Better be a carnivore to eat here, and digest garlic well, or else...
The village of Paradou is on the other side of the Alpilles when coming from Saint-Rémy, a low altitude end of the mountain range that starts in the Alps. You have to drive through canyon-like rock formations that become pink at dusk, after the cigales (cicadas, cousins of the crickets) have stopped clapping. The very dry landscape is victim of violent fires every summer months, and the access to certain parts of the hills is restricted from June to September.
Another awesome tradition we safely preserve, and share with very few, is in an off-center location of Saint-Rémy, a hotel-restaurant hosting gypsy soirées, complete with tapas by the pool and live music. You enter the sunken garden by steps of stones and suddenly discover a pool encased in grass. Tables small and large, low and high are set up for the weekly Friday night occasion; some are simple coffee tables, some are high counters, others are surrounded by couches and poufs (Moroccan-style low stool, usually made of soft and comfy leather), and if more space is needed, a few guests are welcome to sit at the covered bar, under the stone canopy that is situated, if I visualize the thing right, under the parking lot.
Le Mas de l'Amarine (mas is another word for house in Provence, some say mah, others say mass, depending on where you come from in the South) is well hidden from tourists paths, so much so that we get lost each summer when we go. Having no street lights in the surrounding country fields does not help. Each time we swear we'll find it better next year, to no avail. It's almost part of the game now, we argue in the car as to which turn to take, and which cow we've already seen, twice.
The owners of the place definitely don't want any PR, and the secret is somewhat guarded with gusto. Except of course, I just told you. The formal restaurant is hard to book, with wait time exceeding 45 minutes, even if you have a reservation. Of course, once you already drove out there, you are going to stay. Hotels guest have the privilege of being able to book a table just the day before.
The menu is also typical Provençal fare, with lots of fish (écrevisse, sole, crab, rouget), loads of cheeses (such as chèvre chaud), and desserts to die for, true overdoses of sweet, smooth, iced, warm, bitter, and caramelized (peach tatin tart, roasted figs, lemon cream, basil and thyme sherbet.) The chef creates mini versions of the dishes from the menu to serve as finger-food at the pool. The music changes throughout the summer months, last time we went, it was a gypsy violinist, with his brothers playing guitar and cello. No, they did not play anything by the Gypsy Kings (who are French by the way.)
The last eatery for today's column is located in L' Isle-sur-la-Sorgue, a gorgeous town living on, and by a river/canal. Famous for its many vintage stores, art dealers, unique local designers, the chic little hamlet is busting with people in the summer, mostly French, British and German visitors. Even ice creams are expensive here. I always salivate in front of the linen hand-dyed clothes in a few windows, but at a price so high, three dresses would cost me as much as my airfare from America!
Here the restaurant le Jardin du Quai has a very pretty garden setting, slightly on-purpose overgrown, with fragrant flowers surrounding tables. You sit on authentic retro metal chairs, and if you're lucky, yours has a cushion. Besides the routine local market cuisine, the chef offers dishes from over the World, gathered during his overseas travels and work. The renovated stone mansion is right across from the train station, hence its name. In a region where air condition is definitely not always offered, this place is a cool shaded respite from the heat when you sit under the large oak tress canopy.