Provence Restaurants – Jamie Ivey reviews L’Ane Sur Le Toit, Merindol
Years ago my wife crashed our car in Merindol. She arrived home sobbing. With a heaving chest and eyes streaming she described the driver of the other car, a horrible woman, who had berated her for half an hour over her poor driving. As it turns out this whirling dervish of Gallic anger had good reason to lose her temper – Tanya was driving the wrong way down a one-way street and had knocked the open door off a parked car.
This however is not the point, the point is that the incident lingered in Tanya’s memory and then probably her subconscious with the result that we haven’t been back to Merindol since. In any event Merindol is a very easy place to whizz past, set back as it is from the road, and famed only for the slaughter of hundreds of Protestants. Unless one is feeling particularly macabre, there is no real reason to stop.
We were lured back to Merindol by lunch at L’Ane Sur Le Toit, which we’d heard was one of the best restaurants in the region. Before eating we strolled through the streets of the village. There were three boulangeries, two butchers, a mini supermarket, and countless bars and restaurants. Houses had well-kept gardens and plenty of renovation work was on-going. We exchanged polite bonjours with everybody we passed and couldn’t help but conclude that, one very irate driver and a grizzly episode in the history books apart, Merindol was a very pleasant place. Perhaps not as picturesque as some of the neighbouring southern Luberon villages, but with an authentic feel.
L’Ane Sur Le Toit is located up a side street. It has a large garden/terrace, but as is the French way, with a slight chill in the air and the occasional cloud, no tables were laid up. Instead we ate inside, descending a set of stone steps into the basement dining room. As we began our meal the room was empty, but it was still an attractive place to eat, well lit, with a stone fireplace in the corner and an arched ceiling. The table was beautiful laid with expensive china and glasses. The napkins were held in place by ringlets of costume pearls.
Alluring scents drifted from the kitchen. According to the small blackboard resting on our table, three courses were on offer for 20 euros. In recent experience there’s nothing worse than expensive restaurants serving up cheap cuts of meat at lunchtime to balance the books. Diners want to enjoy themselves not marvel at the fact that cheek and tongue can taste reasonable if stewed for days on end.
I glanced down the menu. The only starter on offer was a taster plate of mixed appetisers, the first of which was boudin noir. Apparently another unpleasant offal fest was about to ensue. I read on – daube of Camargue piglet, petit bouillabaisse, or roasted leg of lamb, no innards in sight for the main courses.
‘Perhaps they’ll be sweet meats for dessert’ I said sarcastically to my wife, not quite believing the too good to be true menu. Instead we were offered profiteroles or chestnut fondant. Basic economics led to one of two conclusions: either all the ingredients had fallen off the back of a lorry, or to fill empty tables the chef had slashed prices and was soon to go bust.
The meal started. The tables around us filled with customers. The taster plate of mixed starters arrived, smoke salmon and crème cheese on toast, a goat’s cheese cheesecake, a courgette tian and the aforementioned boudin noir, all served with a green salad. The courgette tian was superb, the smoked salmon and goat’s cheese good, the boudin noir, the best I have ever eaten. A combination of any three of the four offerings would have been plenty, four was too much.
Main courses were smaller but the quality was exceptionally high. My wife said her lamb was at least as good as the spit roasted gigot served at Loubet’s new bistro in Bonnieux, with the added benefit that the entire menu at L’Ane Sur La Toit was cheaper than the one dish chez Loubet. My pork daube, was deliciously full-flavoured, served in a small Le Creuset pot with a delicately cut selection of local vegetables. The meat was succulent, the sauce rich and the whole ensemble a welcome change from chewing through an old tongue to please restaurants accountants.
The chocolate profiteroles came with a rum and raisin ice cream which added a welcome alcoholic kick to the dish, the chestnut cake with a scoop of chestnut ice-cream. Both were impossibly good in the context of the price of the menu. We’d been served not a single bad dish, our stomachs were full and with wine and water the bill was under 60 euros. I had to ask how it was done.
‘We are a family restaurant. We open only at lunch time in the week so we can spend time with our children in the evenings. My husband’s the chef and I do serving. Once a week we run a cookery course and on the weekend evenings we serve a slightly more expensive menu. People come back, they must like what we do.’
And the name? Is there a donkey grazing on the roof above us?
‘My husband’s favourite restaurant in Paris is La Boeuf sur Le Toit and my favourite animals are donkeys.’
I can’t recommend the place highly enough, go, eat, enjoy yourself, unless that is you are partial to the more exotic varieties of local saucisson.