In the Historic Center of Aix-en-Provence — A Gem of Contemporary Cuisine
The capital of the Duchy of Provence and a renowned cultural center throughout the Middle Ages, the city of Aix-en-Provence require no introduction. Its well preserved Medieval and Renaissance historic center, vibrant artistic life and colorful open-air markets draw visitors from the world over.
And where tourists abound, so do eateries of all stripes! Fast food counters line the cobbled alleys of the old town and bistro terraces invade its tiny squares. The food they dish out is mainly forgettable, the service often rushed. Their purpose is to provide sightseers with ready sustenance and the impression they are taking in a bit of the laid-back mediterranean vibe before they move on to their next selfie opportunity. To be fair, Aix is also home to a few restaurants where culinary excellence still flourishes, establishments where savvy patrons can enjoy leisurely three-course meals of the best contemporary fare France has to offer—places like NIRO by Le Gambetta.
Bistronomie at its Best
What’s Bistronomie? A culinary trend started some three decades ago by a handful of young, classically trained French chefs who saw the need to bring the traditional Haute Cuisine of the prestigious high-end restaurants — and stratospheric prices — down to earth. They focused their creative talents on simple, high quality products of the French heartland to take bistro fare to new heights. Bistronomie was born!. In the heart of the historic center of Aix en Provence, NIRO by Le Gambetta is the epitome of the Bistronomie vision.
In their elegantly casual restaurant, its owner Chef Damien Serre-Combe (in the kitchen) and his wife, the ever-charming Claire (in the dining room) deliver on the Bistronomie promise. The menu is modest in size only: four appetizers, five main courses and four desserts, with each category featuring a vegetarian option, plus a cheese board and a couple of weekly special mains. It is enhanced by a short, well thought-out wine list, a number of choices offered also by the glass to facilitate pairings. But with every dish remarkably creative and flawlessly executed, choice is still a dilemma. This is why, over the two weeks of her recent visit, a long-time friend and fellow foodie and I determined to eat our way through the NIRO menu.
Each meal began with a complimentary amuse-bouche, a few mouthfuls of a delicate treat to stimulate our taste buds while we perused the menu. One day, it was a generous dollop of shiitake mushroom mousse on a bed of creamy zucchini purée, enhanced with exotic spices and a drop of truffle oil. The next day, it was rave-worthy baby oyster mushrooms sautéed in a melange of fresh aromatic herbs. Then we got to the serious business of discovering our favorite dishes.
And The Winners Are…
In the Main Course Category — I thought I had found it on the first day with the Cochon Confit: succulent cubes of slow-cooked pork loin topped with a velvety cream of black garlic, garnished with a mousse of celeriac (a.k.a celery root) and hazelnuts. But the next day’s Saumon Laqué au Miso, a moist pan cooked slab of salmon, brushed with a Miso glaze and garnished with caramelized cumquats and a medley of crunchy seasonal vegetable, was pure bliss. Full disclosure: I ordered it a second time during our “challenge.” Therefore I suppose it should be declared the winner? But I’ll call it a draw.
Appetizers — The main course portions were so generous that wisdom dictated forgoing the starter – but my friend and I occasionally agreed on one to share, such as the intriguing Poulpe de Roche à la Galicienne: tender slices of Rock Octopus, simmered in Spanish spices, and served cold with a garlicky Aioli sauce. On an other visit I opted for the sumptuous Medaillons de Foie Gras Maison — three slices of home made Foie Gras served with toasted Ginger Bread and Mango relish. Generous enough to share or pass for a decadent main course. Definitely a winner either way!
Desserts — Always the hardest of decisions, since I’ve seldom met a dessert I didn’t like, but the honor easily went to the exotic Millefeuille Chocolat-Ananas: two wafter-thin outer layers of nutty chocolate crunch holding caramelized fresh pineapple chunks and topped with coconut mousse.
The Man Behind the Magic
Born in Martiques, a picturesque little town just west of Marseille, Chef Damien spent his formative years in West Africa, where his businessman father had settled. There, he acquired his interest in exotic spices “while enjoying home-cooked meals at my local friends.” Back in Marseilles as a university student, he took a job as a dishwasher in a top local restaurant to help finance his medical studies—and discovered his passion. He started the long cooking apprenticeship process, working his way up in the kitchen and acquiring a degree in restaurant management along the way, ultimately opening his own restaurant in 2016.
It was simply Le Gambetta back then, a neighborhood hole-in-the-wall named for its street address, just outside the boundaries of the old town. Already the vision of Chef Damien stood out: imaginative combinations of unusual spices and seasonal products of the highest quality, prepared with flair and served with spot-on timing. Le Gambetta quickly became a bursting-at-the-seams neighborhood favorite. Then the pandemic shuttered the entire country.
Chef Damien used the downtime well, scouting and ultimately acquiring his ideal location in the much thought-after picturesque historic center of town. Here, he designed his kitchen into a coherent work space, and the “front of the house” into an inviting dining room with a remarkably efficient open service area. And he found the time to finetune his seasonally-inspired menus. “I always start with spices,” he explained, “then focus on how they can enhance the flavor of the varied seasonal products.” He also favors the fresh catch from nearby small Mediterranean fishing ports and the abundance of heirloom vegetables from back-country farms. It’s NIRO now (by Le Gambetta for your loyal fans of yore) and it’s better than ever. If your travel plans take you anywhere near Aix-en-Provence, make sure to call ahead for reservations. It’s well worth a detour!
Good to Know
- NIRO by Le Gambetta , 37 Place des Tanneurs 13100 Aix-en-Provence, is open Tuesday through Saturday from 12:00 noon to 2:00 pm and 7:30 pm to 9:45 pm. It is closed on Sunday and Monday. Tel. +33 (0) 4 42 27 65 46.
- Getting there—NIRO is located in the pedestrian historic center, a short 10-minute walk from the Cours Mirabeau and La Rotonde.
- This cozy restaurant with its relaxing contemporary flair and off-street shaded terrace can accommodate a maximum of 50 guests. While it is still a word-of-mouth place at the time of this writing, the word is deservedly getting around fast. Reservations are strongly recommended any time and a must on weekends.