playing my part at a 3 star michelin restaurant on the côte d’azure
When I told a friend that I had reserved a table at a 3 star Michelin restaurant, she laughed and encouraged me “to spend away my retirement cash.” I reminded her that our plan to eat lunch at the French Laundry in California would have cost more than what I had estimated for the lunch at the 3 star restaurant in France. I reasoned that I was saving money by eating in France. That is silly, of course, because both restaurants are expensive and indulgent, and one wonders, “What is the point?”.
I prefer a bar à vin or a typical bistro that serves three simple courses and where the waiter serves a decent espresso at the end. I pay attention to what the Michelin guides say about the other restaurants, the ones without the stars. If a restaurant receives a Bib, I take notice. ‘Bibs’ are awarded for simple yet skillful cooking: “Bib Gourmand: good quality, good value cooking.”
If a restaurant has “simple fare,” I go. The words “Assiette MICHELIN : une cuisine de qualité” and “standing simple” are good signs, and I consider a restaurant even better if I see “Belle carte des vins.”
I know then that an “inspecteur” has been there and thought it worth a visit. It is one way to limit the choices from thousands of restaurants.
Eating in a starred restaurant is like taking part in a play, and you are one of the actors. You do not know your lines but improvise along the way, hoping to say the right thing. You take your cues from everyone around you, the many waiters, the maître d’, the sommelier, the young woman who brings a tray of fish to your table for you to inspect and whom you will never see again. It is even more difficult to play a part in a foreign country where speaking the language is difficult.
Before reading further, you might watch a minute or two of an Anthony Bourdain episode “Marseille,” originally broadcast on his series Parts Unknown. He eats lunch at Le Petit Nice with his traveling companion chef Eric Ripert. It starts around 07:10.
They order the Ma Bouille Abaisse, as chef Gérald Passédat calls his deconstructed version of the Marseille bouillabaisse. I ordered the same meal.
The Ma Bouille Abaisse cannot be ordered from the table; it has to be requested with an advance reservation. When you sit down, the only carte you will be given is the wine list. Your meal was being prepared well before you had arrived.
What is it? What is on the menu? How many courses are served? I looked at the menu, of course, before going, but it was the waiter(s) who explained as the courses were served. I will break the meal into six parts, although the Ma Bouille Abaisse is three courses.
First, there was the Avant-Goût which was an appetizer. Next came the Premier Palier, or coquillages crus et girelles en beignets, sucs de girelles. The third stage was the Deuxième Palier with poissons et crustacés au bouillon safrané. The last course of the Ma Bouille Abaisse is the Troisième Palier, or as the menu says, « Pour arriver en profondeur, trois pièces de poissons cuits entiers, soupe de roche aux favouilles ». The last two courses, if you will, were Une Douceur and the Mignardises. I ordered an espresso to drink with the mignardises.
I mentioned earlier that eating in a starred restaurant is like being an actor with a role in a play and not knowing the blocking or the lines. I was ready to improvise my way to the end.
When I arrived at the restaurant, I could not figure out how to enter. I had walked there from my apartment in Malmousque along the back streets. I tried to enter from the back entrance, which had a sign pointing to the delivery door. A door that I thought I could enter as a person who belongs, having earlier made a reservation and who was about to spend a small fortune and not the milk man, had two buttons. I pushed them and spoke into the speaker. No response. Finally, a voice said, “Push the door.” I had been trying to open the door by pulling on it. (Why did I not push in the first place? I blame the design of the door, and that is another story.)
I did not have an auspicious beginning. I had bungled my entrance. I was offered a seat on the balcony and an aperitif, or I could go to my table tout de suite. I decided to go right away.
The dining room is open and white, very white, the walls, the pillars, the table cloths. The waiters and staff wear black. I was given one of three tables that lined the window area that overlooked the Mediterranean Sea. In other words, I had a scored a great table. I had a panoramic view. In one direction, I could look toward the calanques, and to my right I could look toward Malmousque and the Château d’If.
I asked for a coupe de champagne. I did not ask how much it was. Nor did I ask to see the list of aperitifs so I could see the price. I had learned at another starred restaurant that une coupe will be expensive and it will be good. So it was at Le Petit Nice.
I sat down, and in front of me on the table were two rather large white rocks. Were they keeping me from something? Guarding the table top? Were they souvenirs? Did the chef believe in feng shui? Eventually they were removed and various white dishes were placed on the table. The meal was about to begin.
The carte des vins was brought by the sommelier. It was a large imposing book. Here, we engaged in a small scene of our play. I did not want to pretend to examine those wines and maybe live another day to describe how many of them involved spending the last of my income.
The sommelier was good. After some discussion about what I liked (in French) , she suggested a demi-bouteille de vin blanc ( 500 ml) from the local area that she assured me would be good. She was right. (One of my regrets now is that I do not remember the vineyard.)
I enjoy the ritual of opening a bottle at the table and tasting the wine before the first pour. The wine is always drinkable, not corked. I know all is well when I smell it; I don’t need to taste it, but I do because it is expected. When I smelled the wine that the sommelier had suggested and had opened at my table, I whispered, “Whoa!” and she laughed. The bouquet had exploded in the glass. That was a good sign. (Click on any photo to see it larger and in more detail. Cliquez sur une vignette pour l’agrandir.)
At this point in my narrative, I wish I had the writing skills of A. J. Liebling, a writer known for his appetite and his skills at describing his meals. Read, for instance, Between Meals: An Appetite for Paris. If only I could channel Anthony Bourdain. Again, my suggestion would be to view his episode on “Marseille” and listen well and look at their faces. (Click on any photo to see it larger and in more detail. Cliquez sur une vignette pour l’agrandir.)
The light fish broth served during an earlier course was astonishing. I was told to drink it after waiting a few minutes for the tea bag to steep, extracting and blending its flavors with the broth. The waiter had placed it in the broth. I had had other choices, fresh herbs, for example, but chose the oriental tea. The combination of the thin fish broth and the mild, complimenting flavor from the tea made me sigh. I kept thinking, “Oh.”
The rich, thick bouillabaisse soup was the best I have ever tasted. In the video Bourdain describes it as, “. . . broth so rich it requires ten kilos of rock crabs and various tasty fishes to make one kilo of broth.” I have eaten vraie bouillabaisse in several restaurants in Marseille and elsewhere. The vraie bouillabaisse soup distinguishes itself from the ordinary bouillabaisse or soupe de poisson by the selection of ingredients and the fish that are chosen and the preparation. The bouillabaisse soup at Le Petit Nice was extraordinary.
After the main courses, I was served various chocolate delights and other goodies. It was like a café gourmand but much more fancy. I ate those while drinking an espresso.
I will say that paying the bill, after a coupe de champagne, a 500 ml bottle of excellent wine, and a superb meal, was easy. I saw the amount once when I signed the credit card slip and, walking out the door, thought how beautiful the day was while walking home.