In the past week we’ve been to two of the great restaurants of Provence: one - L’Oustau de Baumanire - because of its history; the other, L’Atelier de Jean-Luc Rabanel, for its incredibly creative and exciting food. My first reaction was that I infinitely preferred Rabanel for its superior cooking and what the French refer to as qualit-prix (value for money). But there are many things about L’Oustau, which has hosted the world's superstars for over 50 years, that makes it an equally special experience.
L'Atelier and L'Oustau
It depends what you’re looking for from a restaurant. Like most food writers I’m constantly on the look-out for genuinely original cooking and that is what Rabanel offers in spades. I first came across him two years ago when he was cooking at an extraordinarily beautiful restaurant called La Chassagnette just outside Arles which had (in fact, still has) its own organic garden and was entranced by his vegetable-based, no-choice, stylishly presented menu. I remember grilled sardines coming to the table on a mini-grill and ice cream being spooned from a miniature milk churn. He then moved to Arles where he opened his own modern bistro, rapidly picking up a Michelin star and a glowing review from Gault Millau.
The menu is still no choice, still vegetable-inpired but includes many more meat, fish and dairy ingredients than before (like Alain Passard at Arpge I suspect he has had to bow to demand for a less obviously vegetable-based menu and is out to get the second star he undoubtedly deserves).
What is particularly clever about his cooking is that he’ll take an ingredient and play it several ways, just as a jazz musician might improvise on a theme. For example there were three different spins on a creamy pure - the first in the form of whipped mascarpone served over a soft boiled egg yolk and a ginger puree with a crisp ‘soldier’ of chard, wrapped in filo pastry, dipped in sesame seeds and deep fried. It was accompanied by a colourful ‘confetti’ of dehydrated vegetable flakes - orange, yellow and pale green. The second was a classic French ‘pure’ of potatoes flavoured with lime, lemongrass and sesame oil - served with strips of salmon a la plancha. The third appeared in a ‘tiramisu’ of light, lime-flavoured cream sandwiched with raspberries and almond crumble.
Dishes at L'Atelier
Why might you not like it? Well, if you’re conservative in your tastes you may resent not being able to choose what you eat and having to place yourself in his hands. If you’re a meat lover you won’t get much satisfaction. It’s one of those places like the Fat Duck which is more like an edible performance than a meal. The wine list is also limited and there’s no real attempt to select wines that would go particularly well with the food (with 15 courses it’s not easy, admittedly) But if you’re a culinary thrillophile you’ll love it.
L’Oustau de Baumanire on the other hand was something of a disappointment. I opted for the vegetarian menu as I was curious to see - post Rabanel - what they would come up with. It was exactly what you’d expect from a Provencal restaurant which isn’t to condemn it but a bit of a let down from a chef Gault Millau describes as a ‘grand de demain’ (literally ‘great of tomorrow’. And it was hard to see how the proffered dishes - summer vegetables la grcque, vegetables and pasta in pistou soup (particularly disappointing) and stuffed vegetables plus cheese and dessert could justify a price tag of 120 euros (more than you’d pay for a set lunch in many more highly rated three star restaurants)
Dishes at L'Oustau
The service was also pretty haphazard. Wine was included in my husband’s lunch menu (also 120€) but didn’t seem to relate to the dishes that were actually being served. (It was curious that one of the two starters, seared tuna, was ‘not ready’) The red that was served with the main course of lamb (which was actually very good) was so oaky as to be unpleasant and was replaced with ill grace. Although I had asked for the same arrangement with my menu, no wine was served with the main course until we reminded them then they again came up with a red that was so powerful that it overwhelmed the flavour of the vegetables.
So why go, you might ask? Largely because of the quite stunning location of the restaurant, out in the open under the trees of a beautiful garden, surrounded by craggy rocks. Because it has a fine wine list (if you have a bottomless purse). And because there is a magic about the place generated by the ghosts of the glamourous guests it has entertained (Clark Gable, Bardot, Cocteau, Sartre. . . ) It is one of Europe’s grand old restaurants and reminds one that food isn’t everything when it comes to a dining experience.
I’m glad we went but wouldn’t particularly want to go again. Whereas I can’t wait to get back to see what Rabanel does next.