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

An Improbable Foodies Destination – Lille

An Improbable Foodies Destination – Lille

Improbable? Only if one sticks to preconceived stereotypes. Northern cuisine is one of the most underrated in France. Ask any casual outsider about Lille gastronomy and you may get a snickered “moules et frites,” or at best a dismissive Gallic shrug. Yes, mussels and fries are common fare in the historic capital of French Flanders, and reliably some of the freshest and best tasting I have sampled anywhere in France, but so are many other delectable regional specialties that reflect the dual French-Flemish heritage. Step into the first estaminet and find out.

What’s an Estaminet?

France - Lille Estaminet.

L’Estaminet ‘T Rijsel is popular for its local comfort food.

Estaminets are to northern French what bistros are to Parisians and pubs to the British, welcoming casual places where to enjoy local comfort food or just drop in for a drink. They are everywhere in Lille, dishing out hearty carbonnade (beef braised in dark beer), waterzooi (chicken or fish cooked in cream with leeks and carrots), and the unpronounceable pot’je vleesch (pot-cha-flesh). Or just say “potch…” The friendly waitress will say the rest for your benefit and bring on a huge portion of potted boned rabbit, chicken, veal and pork in vinegar aspic, with a heap of crisp French fries on the side. Most things come with French fries in an estaminet, even my all-time favorite lapin aux pruneaux (braised rabbit with prunes in a cream sauce).

L'Estaminet Chez la Vieille (at the Old One)

Boughs of dry hops hang from ceiling beams are a tradition at Chez la Vieille (at the Old One).

Estaminet ‘T Rijsel (that’s Flemish for Lille) is my preferred stop for both pot’je vleesch and rabbit. With its rough plaster walls lined with old framed prints and boughs of dry hops hanging from the beams over the tightly packed wooden tables, it looks like it’s been there forever. It’s cozy, and so popular that it can get quite raucous at the height of the dinner hour.

Estaminet Chez la Vieille (at the Old One) is other fun stop for a Flemish food fix. Same atmosphere and bric-a-brac décor hanging on its exposed ancient brick walls. But here, among the traditional recipes, another local staple that finds its way into a lot of dishes is the pungent local maroilles cheese, which mercifully doesn’t taste nearly as assertive as it smells. I especially like their chicken in maroilles cream sauce, and the leek-maroilles tart. I also rather enjoy their beetroot ice-cream, but the jury is still out on the chicory-flavored one.

Le Lion Bossu

France - Lille Restaurant Lion Bossu.

The Hunchback Lion’s lair is a seventeenth century townhouse.

But a woman cannot live on lapin aux pruneaux and fried potatoes alone. On my latest visit, I opted for Le Lion Bossu (The Hunchback Lion), one of the mainstays of the old town’s gastronomic scene. Here, in a seventeenth century townhouse at the corner of the Place du Lion d’Or (Golden Lion Square), husband and wife team Laurence and Pascal Coué have been welcoming diners since 1989. Madame Coué reigns over the kitchen, while Monsieur manages the dining room. The romantic second-floor dining room seduces at “Bonjour” with its period beamed ceilings, subdued lighting and brick walls enhanced by antiques gilded frames.

Cuisine Bourgeoise at its Best

France - Lille Lion Bossu Carpaccio.

Salmon Carpaccio, Lion Bossu-style.

The menu is a dilemma of interesting temptations. I start with a marinated salmon carpaccio. Instead of the traditional fanned paper-thin slices, it materializes as a finely diced patty of raw salmon on a bed of chopped fennel, surrounded by a lemon and chive cream. It’s more tartare than carpaccio, but lovely just the same so let’s not quibble. I follow with a magret de canard, (duck breast) sautéed to a medium rare perfection and served with a peppercorn sauce; excellent with its accompanying celery risotto and spring baby vegetables.

France - Lille Lionn Duck Breast.

Sautéed duck breast with a peppercorn sauce.

My friend’s poached scrod (dos de cabillaud in French) and baby spinach topped with foie gras mascarpone et caramelized onion compote on a mild curry foam, which of course I have to sample, is voted a success by both of us. But the coup de grace is yet to come. Dessert, a generous verrine of limoncello sabayon over creamy rice pudding and red berries coulis, has me wondering if next time I could ask for a main course portion.
 

France - Lille Lion Sabayon.

Verrine of limoncello sabayon.

The well-balanced wine list, representative of the main wine growing regions of France, is priced a bit on the high side. With the help of Mr. Coué, we select a light red Bourgogne Chardonnay, Domaine de la Vierge Romaine, 2014 that nicely complements both our entrée choices. The service, while attentive and friendly could be a tad faster.

 
 

Good to Know

  • L’Huîtrerie, the venerable centenarian widely recognized as the best fish restaurant and bastion of elegant dining in Lille, which I had intended to include in this roundup, regrettably is no more. I found out, when attempting to call for reservations, that it had closed its doors permanently in late February. Although glowing reviews still figure prominently on guidebooks and websites, beware that it is, alas, gone.
  • Estaminet ‘T Rijsel, 25 Rue de Gand, Lille, http://www.ruedesrestos.com/restaurateurs/rijsel/, is open Tuesday through Friday from 12:00 P.M. to 1:30 P.M. and 7:00 P.M. to 10:00 P.M., Saturday and Sunday from 12:00 P.M. to 2:00 P.M. and 7:00 P.M. to 10:30 P.M., and Monday from 7:00 P.M. to 9:30 P.M. Contact: Tel. +33 (0) 3 20 15 01 59.
  • Estaminet Chez la Vieille, 60 Rue de Gand, Lille, http://estaminetlille.fr/chezlavieille/, is open Tuesday through Thursday from 12:00 P.M. to 3:00 P.M. and 7:00 P.M. to 12:00 A.M., Friday and Saturday from 12:P.M. to 3:00 P.M. and 7:00 P.M. to 12:30 A.M., and closed Sunday and Monday. Contact: Tel. +33 (0) 3 28 36 40 06.
  • Le Lion Bossu, 1 Rue Saint-Jacques, Lille, http://www.ruedesrestos.com/restaurateurs/lelionbossu/, is open everyday from 12:00 P.M. to 2:00 P.M. and 7:30 P.M. to 10:00 P.M. Reservations are necessary. Contact: Tel. + 33 (0) 3 20 06 06 88.

A Few Souvenirs

Location, location, location!

Lille, France

Foodie Landmarks of the Massachusetts North Shore

Foodie Landmarks of the Massachusetts North Shore

This week, I am on the Massachusetts North Shore, an especially picturesque stretch of historic New England Atlantic coast, where a sure sign of spring is the seasonal reopening of its many fresh-off-the-boat seafood eateries. From simple roadside clams-and-fries shacks to noted restaurants with impressive views of the ocean and menus to match, they are gradually emerging from hibernation to ready themselves for the swarms of visitors that will soon descend upon the area.

New England Seafood History

MA_Rocky Neck Rudder.

The Rudder has been a Rocky Neck foodie landmark since 1957.

It is my good fortune that my arrival happens to coincide with the annual reopening of The Rudder, a Gloucester foodie landmark since 1957. Tucked in a building dating back to the age of sails, the Rocky Neck harbor-front place is already bursting at the seams when we arrive at 6:30 P.M. for an early dinner. The bar is standing room-only, three deep with locals who clearly enjoy having the Rudder to themselves before the tourist invasion begins.

 

MA - Rudder appetizer.

The eggplant Napoleon appetizer.

We edge our way toward the glassed-in dining deck packed cheek by jowl with small square blue Formica tables of an other age. Thanks to my son’s foresight (he made reservations a couple of days ahead) we score a window-side table with a view the harbor bathed in golden sunset light. The décor is resolutely kitsch, the ceiling covered with faded plastic garlands interwoven with pin lights. But there is nothing kitsch about the menu, just delicious, unpretentiously prepared bounty fresh out of the sea.

MA - Rudder scallops.

My main course of broiled scallops and grilled aspargus.

We share a couple of appetizers. The crab cakes, three generous patties of pure lump-crab meat gently sautéed to a golden brown arrive on a bed of arugula drizzled with spicy aioli. As for the eggplant Napoleon, I doubt it’s named after the erstwhile Emperor of the French. But whoever the eponymous gentleman is, he gets my gratitude for the succulent plate of crisp eggplant fritters garnished with sundried tomato pesto and topped with a mound of tangy whipped ricotta. I could easily call it a satisfying meal right there.

MA-Rudder seafood risotto.

The seafood risotto and its medley of shellfish.

However, the sweet local scallops I’ve been yearning for since I started planning this trip are yet to come. A generous baking dish of them arrives, prepared the traditional way, broiled under a light topping of buttery breadcrumbs, with a dash of white wine and garlic sauce. The other notable main dishes at our table are a creamy seafood risotto disappearing under a medley of just steamed shrimps, scallops, mussels and clams, and stuffed sole. The latter consists of two delicate filets of sole wrapped around mounds of lump-crab meat and glazed with beurre blanc. A taste of each convinces me that a return visit is in order.

The Rudder offers a full array of bar beverages. The wine list features a good choice of California wines as well as a few offerings from international wine-growing areas. Most are available by the glass as well as full bottles. The service is efficient and friendly.

An Epic Lobster Roll

Ma-Marblehead lobster roll.

The Muffin Shop’s lobster roll.

On a first visit, the simple storefront of The Muffin Shop could easily be overlooked. Just walk in, grab a soft drink in the glass-fronted cooler as you go by, and order at the counter. Then find a seat at one of the dozen or so wooden tables, wait for your name to be called and come to claim your prize: on a white disposable plate, outlined by a kosher dill pickle, a long sweet bread roll, toasted on the grill and overflowing with heaps of thick lobster chunks. A few thin slices of tomatoes and a couple of lettuce leaves may be added on demand, but otherwise, that’s it, just mounds of succulent fresh lobster meat, barely seasoned with a dab of mayonnaise dressing. Well worth a detour whenever I am in the area. Be prepared to stand in line during the summer months.

Good to Know

  • The Rudder, 73 Rocky Neck Avenue, Gloucester, Massachusetts, rudderrestaurant.com, is open 5:00 P.M. to 10:00 P.M., Thursday through Sunday from its mid-April seasonal opening to mid-May, and daily from late May to of October. Call for exact dates as they may vary slightly from year to year. Dinner reservation recommended. Contact: e-mail info@rudderrestaurant.com, tel. +1 978-283-7967.
  • For the unfortunate souls with seafood dietary restrictions, the menu also offers a small selection of Italian meat dishes. And yes, there are also a few interesting dessert choices, alas beyond the capabilities of my appetite for this visit.
  • Located on a small peninsula within Gloucester’s working harbor, Rocky Neck is home to one of the oldest continuously operating art colonies in the United States. Today, it is home to dozens of galleries where working artists, painters, photographers, potters, textile designers and jewelry makers display their work during the summer months.
  • The Muffin Shop, 126 Washington St, Marblehead, Massachusetts, is open year-round, Monday through Friday from 6:00 A.M. to 4:00 P.M. , and Saturday and Sunday from 6:00 A.M. to 5:00 P.M. Contact: Tel. (781) 631-8223.

 

 

Location, location, location!

Rocky Neck