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Postcard - A Perfect Afternoon at Oustau de Baumaniere
Kathy Wood (Kaydee)
When I left my job of ten years to pursue our dream of spending a year in Europe, my 15 business partners gave me a wonderful going-away dinner. They also surprised my husband Charley and me with a very special gift: a meal at one of the most famous restaurants in Provence, Oustau de Baumaniere in Les Baux-de-Provence. The CEO of our company - my former boss - had eaten there several times, and he and his wife (who is fluent in French) made arrangements for our meal and the bill. Our afternoon at Oustau de Baumaniere was - without question - the best dining experience I've ever had.
The French eat dinner quite late, normally at 8:00pm at a restaurant like this, or later. The intent of the gift was that our 11-year old daughter Kelly would be included, so we decided to go for lunch instead of dinner. Our reservation was for Sunday lunch at 1:00pm (13:00, as they say in France). Les Baux was about seventy minutes from our house, and it was an absolutely beautiful drive on a crisp autumn day. Although it was late October, it was still warm enough for me to comfortably wear sandals. We drove through the pretty town of St. Remy, by the sanitarium where Van Gogh stayed for a year just before his death (and completed 150 paintings), past the two enormous Roman monuments over 2000 years old, and up into the jagged little range of mountains called the Alpilles, which seemingly arising out of nowhere. The village of Les Baux is perched on its own rocky hilltop in the Alpilles, an ancient site that has been occupied since the Iron Age. Today Les Baux is a popular tourist destination due to its extraordinary site and array of impressive old buildings. The area is rich with vineyards and groves of olive trees.
The exclusive hotel and restaurant Oustau de Baumaniere is situated in a valley just below the village of Les Baux, centered in a 16th century farmhouse. The valley is surrounded by rocky limestone outcroppings, a truly beautiful and peaceful setting. The current chef (and owner) is the grandson of the original owner. Oustau de Baumaniere was the first French restaurant outside of Paris to earn three Michelin stars. They apparently lost their third star after a change in chefs in 1990, though several reviews I read reported that the third star is once again deserved.
We were greeted and seated at a table in the main dining room with a fine view of the shady outdoor terrace. During our three-and-a-half hour meal, at least six waiters attended to our every need. The service was excellent. The maitre d' checked on us periodically, and we noticed the chef (in his white chef suit and hat) chatting with a table of eight French diners who seemed to be repeat visitors. Every table in the main room was full by 1:30pm, and when I stepped out to use the restroom, I noticed that all the tables in two other dining areas were also full. We were surprised to find most of the diners very casually dressed, one man even in blue jeans and a denim work shirt. Perhaps the French dress up more for dinner, or perhaps they are like we are in America, sliding into casualness for even the most special events. Charley was wearing his coat and tie, bending to my request for a dress-up day. Charley and an elderly gentleman in his 80's were the only guests in a tie. This was the only time Charley wore a tie during our 14 months in Europe.
And so our grand meal began. We were served a plate of six tiny appetizers, and we ordered aperitifs of Kir Royale (black currant liquor and champagne). The waiter pointed at the little appetizers and told us what they were. We didn't really understand, but ate them all - delicious! There was no hurry, and eventually we were presented with oversized menus, which we studied carefully - well, which we pretended to study carefully! I thought I knew how to read a French menu, but I was at a loss with the intricacies of this menu. What was a dos de chevreuil? Or perdreau au four? Did I want to try pigeonneau cuit en cocotte et pieds de porc? Or caneton de Challons? What kind of fish was a loup? Even when I could translate part of the description - for example, I knew clearly that veau was veal - I sometimes wasn't sure about the preparation or cut. What part of a calf was a jarret? After all, the French eat parts of animals that most Americans (including me) aren't comfortable with! One of the waiters very graciously went through the entire menu with us in very good English. Kelly's eyes grew wide at some of the descriptions: "and the next one is the stomach of a sheep." We questioned him to learn what they considered their real specialties and then deliberated over our order.
After we finally placed our order, Charley consulted at length with the head sommelier about our wine selection. Jim, my former boss, had encouraged us to get a very good bottle of wine, or maybe two. The wine list was 64 pages long! They selected a Rhone vin rouge, a 1996 Hermitage Jaboulet called La Chappelle.
For my entree (what the French call the first course), I had oysters (les huitres) on the half-shell, served with just a hint of cognac. These were the largest, most luscious oysters I've ever had. Charley had a cold pate de fois gras, spiced with figs and accompanied by a silver rack of toast points.
After the entree, we were each served a little espresso cup of a cold soup, something the waiter described as a red pepper mousse. We ate it with a tiny spoon, and it was very good, unexpectedly good. Bread was served continuously throughout our meal, with a choice of three individual breads. Kelly especially enjoyed the tiny baguettes.
For our main course, Charley and I had one of the house specialties, canon d'agneau en croute, a loin of lamb so tender you could almost cut it with your fork. (Two people were required to order this dish, so we did end up having the same thing.) The dish was served with lamb juice and wonderful au gratin potatoes.
We had the cheese course too. One of the waiters brought a cart full of cheeses to our table - the top shelf filled with "cow cheeses" and the bottom shelf filled with "goat cheeses." There must have been 30 cheeses. I asked the waiter to put together an assortment for me, specifying only the highly aromatic Epoisses, a soft cheese we first encountered during our stay in Burgundy. He also selected two goat cheeses and a wonderful cow cheese from Normandy, arranging them on my little plate and suggesting the order in which I should eat them, from the mildest to the strongest, with the Epoisses at the end. Charley also selected the Epoisses and pointed out three other cheeses that interested him. The cheese was served with a small basket of crackers and breads. We consulted with a young man who appeared to be the assistant sommelier and ordered a demi-bottle of Cote de Provence white wine (Domaine Ott Blanc de Blancs 2000) to drink with our cheese and dessert. Throughout the meal I furtively scribbled down the proper names of everything we ate and drank. I wanted to record everything so I could give Jim a detailed report on our wonderful meal.
At this restaurant you're asked to order your dessert at the time you place your main order. The waiter explained that their desserts are prepared to order and many require special preparation time. While we waited for our main desserts, we were served a little plate of six bite-sized desserts. Kelly scooped up all those appearing to be chocolate. This was just enough to shift our appetite to the sweet, grand finale.
Kathy and Kelly and our beautiful desserts
I haven't mentioned Kelly's meal, for a reason. Like most American eleven-year olds, she has a very limited palate. After looking at the restaurant's website, I realized it was unlikely she'd be willing or able to eat the elegant dishes on the menu. This was not a place that served roast chicken or even a beef steak, and there wasn't a Menu Enfant. Charley had called earlier in the week to explain we would have some special needs, and when we arrived, we found the staff very accommodating. Kelly had a simple green salad and then a plate of fresh pasta, lovingly and artistically arranged just-so on her plate by two waiters, with tomato sauce and fresh parmesan cheese. She drank several glasses of jus de pomme (apple juice), but declined to taste the Kir Royale or the wine. She was happy with her meal, but especially happy with the dessert.
Charley's dessert was one of their specialties, a plate of three small gateaux: a light butter cake, a chocolate mousse cake, and some type of rum cake. I had crepes filled with fluffy souffles and served with a sauce of orange peel and Grand Marnier. Kelly had the "chariot de glaces, sorbets et fruit rouges", her choice from a dessert cart of ice creams, sorbets and fresh red fruit. The ice creams and sorbets were served from beautiful icy silver containers. Kelly selected vanilla ice cream and passion fruit sorbet and then figs, quinces, strawberries, and grapes. (Figs? Quinces? Our risk-adverse daughter had tried them both earlier in our trip and actually liked them!) The ice creams and fruits were served separately. At nearby tables, we saw men selecting after-dinner cigars from a big wooden box, but Charley, fortunately, did not indulge!
By this time, the late-October afternoon had turned sunny and warm, perhaps in the mid 70's and according to one of our waiters, unusually warm for this time of year. So even the weather was perfect! We asked to have our coffee out on the terrace. (The French always have their coffee after, not with, dessert.) The terrace was beautiful and relaxing, shaded by two large plane trees and looking out over the still, rectangular swimming pool. While we waited for our coffee (hot chocolate or chocolat chaud for Kelly), I took a short stroll around the landscaped grounds, looking up at the sharp, rocky peaks above. We finished our afternoon in this peaceful setting, feeling prosperous, pampered and certainly well fed! I snapped a couple of photos, trying not to look too much like an American tourist.
Kathy and Charley in the gardens at Oustau de Baumaniere
Three-and-a-half hours after we arrived, we decided it was time to wind our way back to our farmhouse in the Luberon. Jim had made special arrangements to handle our l'addition, and the waiter discreetly did not present Charley with a final bill. We really don't know how much this wonderful meal cost, but I suspect it was at least $600 and probably more. Charley had the only menu with prices, and we had decided not to discuss prices during our meal. Kelly was dying to ask how much various things cost, especially the wine. (Charley did tell me that our first wine cost over 100 euro.) I'm sure everything was wildly expensive, reflecting not just the exquisitely prepared food, but also the perfect surroundings and the impeccable service. Jim had advised us to add 5% to the bill if we thought the service was truly outstanding. In France a service charge is normally included in the menu prices, and any additional tip recognizes exceptional service. We decided it was definitely earned in this case and asked the waiter to add 5% to the bill.
A few weeks after our lunch at Oustau de Baumaniere, I got an e-mail from Jim saying that although we'd "certainly tried hard," we hadn't spent all the money my partners had contributed for our gift. There was enough money for us to have another special lunch, though not as spectacular as Oustau de Baumaniere. So a few weeks later we drove back into the Alpilles for a Sunday lunch at Le Bistrot d'Eygaliere (also called Chez Bru). It was interesting for us to compare the two experiences. We thought the food was comparable, but the extent and attentiveness of the service at Oustau de Baumaniere was the real differentiator.
We eat out a lot at home but on our long 14-month trip, it was a treat for us to eat out anywhere, even lunch in a cafe. We couldn't possibly have planned an elegant meal like our afternoon at Oustau de Baumaniere. We had anticipated this special gift since the night of our going-away dinner in early June. And now, a year later and back home in the USA, we continue to savor the memories of our perfect afternoon at Oustau de Baumaniere.
Woods Family Grand Tour of Europe: List of articles and photo albums by Kathy Wood
www.oustaudebaumaniere.com: Oustau de Baumaniere in Les Baux-de-Provence
www.chezbru.com: Le Bistrot d'Eygaliere (also called Chez Bru), Eygalires, Provence
© Kathy Wood, 2005
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