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.) But wait, there’s more!