My Favorite Table in Aix-en-Provence

My Favorite Table in Aix-en-Provence

Hard to imagine that in the historic center of Aix-en-Provence, where even the tiniest of squares is crammed with bistro terraces thick with tourists, cookie-cutter menus and hurried waiters, there still exist an intimate heaven where you can enjoy imaginative cuisine and considerate service in a relaxed atmosphere.

A Seasonal Feast

France-Aix Table Relaxed Atmosphere.

An intimate heaven of imaginative cuisine in a relaxed atmosphere.

Until I stumble onto La Table des Saisons, an unassuming little hole-in-the-wall on a narrow cobbled lane of the old town, somewhere between the throbbing, cigarette smoke-filled Place des Augustins and the trendy Place des Cardeurs. The jewel-like pastries lined in the refrigerated display case by the open French doors first catch my eye. But before I have a chance to consider skipping dinner and going straight to dessert, the plat de la semaine (weekly special) announced on the blackboard by the door straightens things out. Herb-encrusted filet of cod, served with a zucchini and red-pepper custard, carrot puree and baby string beans? Yes please! My friend, a red meat aficionada, is already sold on the filet of Charolais beef, the most prized cattle meat in France, served en croute, (in puff-pastry, Wellington-style) with shallot and port wine sauce.

France-Aix special cod.

Herb-encrusted filet of cod weekly special.

These simple dishes are flawlessly prepared to order and artfully presented with garnishes of spring vegetable. Because of our disparate choices of main courses we order wine by the glass, pleasing local offerings at friendly prices recommended by our knowledgeablel server. I won’t pretend we’ve left room for dessert, but we indulge anyway. My pistachio Bavarois over a “heart” fresh cherries is pure poetry! And a taste of the exquisite lemon cheesecake earns it top billing on my “next time” list.

A Family Affaire

France-Aix local artists.

The decor makes room for works by local artists.

La Table des Saison is a chef-owned family affaire. In the open kitchen, Lionel officiates with the enthusiasm and efficiently of a one-man orchestra. In the dining room, Martina welcomes guests with all the attention of a gracious hostess. The atmosphere is warm, the décor unpretentious. Comfortable wicker chairs, tables set with casual linen, soft lighting and art by local artists all around the room (yes, it is for sale in case you happen to fall in love with a particular piece).

Filet of Charolais en croute, with shallot and [ort wine sauce.

Filet of Charolais en croute, with shallot and port wine sauce.

The menu, a showcase of ultra-fresh seasonal ingredients from the market and local artisan suppliers, offers a range of options to satisfy the varied demands of the guests. There are imaginative grandes salades: Quinoa taboule with magret de canard (quinoa with grilled duck breast, cherry tomatoes, garden fresh radishes and cucumbers, sautéed baby carrots and black olives, served on a bed of mesclun). Tempting. But so is the Mediterranean-style vegetarian candied zucchini salad, bursting with roasted vegetable, pine nuts and the chef’s own pesto. Then there are the tartes salées (savory pies) that also make for a satisfying lunch or light dinner: red snapper with tapenade or goat cheese and cherry tomatoes. Both are served with a choice a mixed greens or assorted spring vegetable at the time of my visit.

France-Aix Tapenade.

This week’s special is rabbit with tapenade.

But my favorite remains the plat de la semaine available Monday through Friday, a new one offered each week. On my second visit it’s a succulent rabbit leg, in Lionel’s homemade mild tapenade sauce, served with grilled polenta triangles, crunchy string beans, and more of that lovely zucchini and red pepper custard.

 

Guilty Pleasures

France-Aix Bavarois.

Pistachio Bavarois filled with fresh cherries.

By now, La Table des Saisons is my own guilty pleasure in Aix. I stop for coffee and one of their irresistible pastries in the afternoon whenever I am in the neighborhood. And I manage one more visit on my recent stay there, a late lunch antidote to a particularly hectic morning. It’s Saturday, no plat de la semaine today. No problem though, as I have had my eye on one particular item on the regular menu. For me, it’s Gigot d’agneau de Sisteron today, a pan-grilled steak of delicate milk-fed lamb from the Provencal Alps, just one hour north of here, served with garlic cream sauce and eggplant “caviar”. As I pause by the door to let a young woman pass by, she whispers confidentially: “tout est très bon içi ,” and vanishes without breaking stride. The word is out: everything is delicious here!

Good to Know

  • La Table des Saisons, 6 Rue Lieutaud, Aix-en-Provence, France, latabledessaisons.com, is open 12:00 noon to 5:00 pm on Monday, Tuesday and Thursday, 12:00 noon to 10:00 pm on Friday and Saturday, and 12:00 noon to 6:00 pm on Sunday. It is closed on Wednesday. Reservations are prudent on weekend. Contact: e-mail contact@latabledessaisons.com. Tel: +33 (0)4 42 22 97 07.
  • The overall menu is seasonal, updated every couple of months to take full advantage of local offerings at their prime.
  • Lionel, who originally trained as a pastry chef, creates some of the most tempting desserts ever, showcasing local seasonal fruit. His creations can be enjoyed on site, or purchased to go.
  • In addition to featuring vegetarian options on the menu, Lionel is happy to recommend choices and substitutions for gluten-intolerant guests.

A Few Souvenirs

Location, location, location!

La Table des Saisons

Aix-en-Provence Baroque Landmark Reborn as Art Center

Aix-en-Provence Baroque Landmark Reborn as Art Center

In Aix-en-Provence, where a stroll along the narrow streets of the historic center reveals a gem of French Baroque architecture at every turn, the Hôtel de Caumont still stands out as a unique treasure.

France-Aix Caumont Garden

A classic Jardin à la Française welcomes visitors of the Caumont Art Center.

That was exactly what François Rolland de Réauville, Marquis de Cabanes, had in mind when he commissioned Robert de Cotte, the principal architect of King Louis XIV (think the Royal Chapel of the Versailles Palace and Grand Trianon) to design a mansion that would befit his position as President at the Court of Auditors of Aix-en-Provence. The first stone was laid on April 4, 1715, in the center of the fashionable new Mazarin district.

 

A Baroque Masterpiece Reborn

France-Aix Caumont Foyer

The entrance foyer

Construction was to span three decades and ownership change a couple of times until the end of the century when the superb mansion became the property of Pauline de Bruny, Marquise de Caumont. Born in 1767, during the reign of Louix XV, she had grown up at the court of Versailles and acquired its taste for luxury. The mansion, by now known at Hôtel de Caumont became the setting for lavish receptions, plays and concerts. Then the aftermath of the French revolution extinguished high society life.

France-Aix Caumont Facade.

The sober stonework of the facade and the elaborate gilded ironworks are prime exemples of Aix-style Baroque.

Fast-forward a century and a half during which the property experienced varied fortunes, including serving as a sanctuary for members of the French Resistance during the Second World War. It was then purchased from its last private owner by the city of Aix in 1964 to house the Darius Milhaud National Conservatory of Music and Dance. Finally in 2010 the mansion, by now a historic monument since 1987, was acquired by Culturespaces, a foremost private organization for the management of French monuments and museums.

The Caumont Art Center

France-Aix Caumont Music Room.

The exhibits space is entered through the music room.

Several years of planning, 18 months of intensive work and 12.6 million Euros later, the newly minted Caumont Art Center was revealed in all its restored eighteenth century glory on May 6, 2015. The ground floor with its soaring central foyer houses to its right a remarkable bookstore and gift boutique reminiscent of the libraries and cabinets of curiosities that were de-rigueur in such homes at the time. To the left, the inviting formal dining room leads to the upper terrace of a classic jardin à la Française (formal French garden). The grand three-story central staircase of the 2,500 square meter (27,000 square foot) mansion leads to Pauline’s recreated apartments that mark the entrance of two stories of temporary exhibit spaces.

Turner and Color

France - Caumont Calais

JMW Turner, 1830. Calais Sands at Low Tide.

The current exhibition, on view until September 18, 2016, is a breathtaking retrospective of the giant of nineteenth century English painting, Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775–1851). This exceptionally rich exposition of over 120 watercolors, sketches and oils includes over thirty paintings from London’s Tate Gallery that were bequeathed to Britain by the artist, as well works from the London Royal Academy of Arts, the Oxford Ashmolean Museum and the Dallas Museum of Art, plus a number of rarely if ever seen pieces from private collections.

France-Caumont Vermillion Towers.

JMW Turner, 1934. Vermillion Towers.

Here the exploration of Turner’s works adopts a unique new point of view. Although still mainly chronologic, it invites the viewer to discover the evolution of this self-taught genious’ relationship with color, from his early days influenced by the great colorists of the past, from Rembrand to Poussin and Titian to Claude Lorrain, to his ground-breaking use of newly synthesized pigments (such as the whole range of yellows that had just become available through the isolation of the metal Chromium).

Journeys around Europe

France - Caumont Ball San Martino

JMW Turner, 1846. Going to the Ball (San Martino).

An important section illustrates Turner’s journeys around Europe through his travel sketches and watercolors as well that the ensuing paintings. Another thread of the exposition follows his relationship with the coastal village of Margate in Kent, which he had discovered as a child. He would then pass most of his later years there and realize his most incandescent color experimentations. It is especially eye-opening for me to detect in his bold use of color the seeds of the Impressionism movement that would flourish a few decades later.

Cafe Caumont

The Café Caumont terrace is a serene retreat on a beautiful Provence afternoon.

The serene Café Caumont terrace is a favorite with visitors.

After a dazzling afternoon in the company of Turner, I linger in the mini-Versaille vignette of the Café Caumont. The weather being its usual Provence gorgeous, I forgo the elegant eighteenth century atmosphere of the dining room for tea-time on the upper terrace, in the shade of a white canvas umbrella within earshot of a discretely gurgling fountain.

 

Good to Know

  • Getting There – Aix-en-Provence is easily reached by train, with several direct TVG (high speed train) connections throughout the day from Paris (3 hours) and Lyon (1 hour) as well as Geneva (3 hours) and Brussels (5 hours). The Aix TGV station is located 15 kilometers (9.5 miles) southwest of town, with a shuttle running every 15 minutes between the station and the bus terminal in the center of town. The MarseilleProvence airport is 25 kilometers (15.5 miles) southwest of Aix, with numerous flights from Paris, London and other major European cities. It is served by the same shuttle bus as the TVG station.
  • Getting Around – To explore the historic city, walking is definitely the way to go. Road signs at the approaches to Aix direct motorists to large facilities where they can park their vehicles for a nominal daily fee that also includes free round trip bus tickets to the center of town for all their passengers.
  • Each year, the Caumont Art Center features two large-scale temporary exhibitions. In parallel, a 20-minute film depicting the life of native son Paul Cezanne (1839–1906) is shown at intervals throughout the day in the basement projection room. From May to September, Café Caumont also features occasional Jazz evenings performances.
  • Visiting – Caumont Art Center, 3, rue Joseph Cabassol, Aix-en-Provence. Caumont Art Center. Contact: message@caumont-centredart.com. Tel: +33 (0) 4 42 20 70 01. Open daily from May 1 to September 30 from 10:00 am to 7:00 pm, with late opening hours on Friday until 9:30 pm during temporary exhibitions, and from 10:00 am to 6:00 pm for the remainder of the year. From May to September, Café Caumont remains open from 7:00 pm to 11:00 pm from Tuesday through Saturday and offers a wine and light snacks menu. It’s the perfect place to stop for a drink in a serene al fresco atmosphere just minutes away from the bustling Cours Mirabeau.
  • If you miss this landmark exhibition, which was realized in cooperation with the Turner Contemporary gallery in Margate, don’t despair. After Aix-en-Provence, the exposition will be on view there from October 8, 2016 to January 8, 2017.

A Few Souvenirs

Location, location, location!

Caumont Art Center