57 avenue de la Vallee des Baux
Le Paradou, France
+33 4 90 54 32 70
As a teenager I applied to study at Cambridge. Horror stories about the interview process abounded. There was a Don famous for issuing the two word instruction ‘surprise me’ to prospective candidates. He would then sit back in his chair and read his newspaper. Some candidates indulged in monologues about Proust, others danced, others said nothing, but the Don only ever twitched to turn a page and to show the interviewees the door.
In the week before my interview a particularly ingenious candidate took out his lighter and lit said Don’s newspaper. The fire spread from the paper to a pile of unmarked exam papers and in the end took several minutes to put out. The Don was surprised. The candidate was admitted.
So as I entered the room for my entrance interview I was primed with all sorts of strategies to get myself noticed, including a pair of scissors to snip a hole in any offensively raised newspapers.
‘Perestrello, what sort of name is that?’
‘A family one’
‘Bloody odd if you ask me,’ grunted the Don, who was sitting with his feet crossed on the desk.
‘Tell me Peri, what constitutes a historical fact’
I resisted the urge to stick the end of the scissors into his big toe, and answered ‘My name, is Perestrello, not Peri, you can check the birth certificate.’
I had much more fun at Edinburgh, anyway, where it was so cold and so dark that one had little choice but drink whisky endlessly. I did for four years and I haven’t touched the stuff since. Fact.
I’ll give you another fact – Bistrot du Paradou is a great restaurant. No, let me rephrase, Bistrot du Paradou is one of the most famous restaurants in Provence. The point the Don was trying to make all those years ago is that it is very hard to know anything for a fact. So much is opinion, and these days so much opinion is hype, so despite the praise, among others, of renowned food writer and cook Patricia Wells, and The Sunday Times wine critic AA Gill, I was prepared for anything as I pushed opened the door of the Bistrot. Rather than the scissors I’d carried for my Cambridge interview I was armed with the critic’s pencil, sharpened to a scalpel.
Restaurants frequented by celebrities tend to have to work out a method of keeping prying eyes at a distance. The classic example of this is The Ivy in London, where the entrance set of revolving doors leads to the cloakroom. Another door, guarded by a member of staff, admits to the inner sanctum of the dining room.
So to with the Bistrot, frequented in the past by royalty such as Caroline of Monaco. Here the anteroom is dominated by deep shadows and the smell of freshly baked bread. The Bistrot is an old Provencal farmhouse and staging post, converted into the village café after the second world war and then in 1984 into its current Bistrot format. Light was never the friend of Provencal builders, who, miserly to the last, built their houses to keep the warmth out in the summer and in, in the winter. Hence the lack of windows and the shadows.
Architecturally the act of going from small to large, from dark to light, is perfect for a restaurant. Moving out of the ante-room there’s an uplifting feeling, a sense of fulfillment before a morsel has passed the lips. A long bar stretches the length of the room. On the walls are black and white photos of celebrity clients. Tables and chairs are wooden and perfunctory. The knives, forks, and glasses scarcely above the standard of a school cantine. There’s a mixture of long communal tables and tables for two and four. Each table has a bottle of red wine sitting proudly on it, opened and ready to go.
As a rule I don’t tend to like clubs. They’re full of bigots. And when I arrived, the Bistrot with its decorative air redolent of the past, and its single old man drooped in the corner with a posture that suggested he no longer bothered to get up between sittings, evoked the word ‘clubbable’. I was on my guard.
The first thing I did was pour myself some wine. The bottle on the table was a light red Cote du Rhone. I longed for a wine list. To picture the dishes being served and to send a questing finger down a list of potentially appropriate bottles. My choice had been removed. It’s the same with the food. The Bistrot offers only one main course, which changes every day of the week. I visited on a Thursday – roast chicken and a morilles pasta day. Had it been Friday it would have been aioli, Wednesday, roast lamb. It comforts club members to know what to expect on what day. Life is full of enough nasty surprises without having to worry what’s on the menu.
So here’s what I think. If a restaurant takes away choice and consigns it to the dustbin of dining history, the chef better be incredibly confident in what, and who he is serving. I started with foie-gras. Damn the dictator in the kitchen, it was good. Rich, unctuous and served at the perfect temperature, just this side of chilled.
Next came the roast chicken. I watched through the open window to the kitchen as the bird was dismembered and its limbs plated. A swirl of pasta with a creamy morrille sauce and, a spoonful of roasting juices were then added. Conceptually it was perfect, and maybe I was just unlucky in getting a scrawny leg, and a morilles-light ladle of sauce, but when I finished my plate I was still hungry.
Next came the cheese-board. At this point, most reviewers of the Bistrot, have swooned with gratitude, at the old fashioned concept of a large tray of cheeses being left on your table. Diners can help themselves. They can choose from over 15 different varieties. To me there’s something ironic about the whole process. First choice is removed. Then it is re-instated. It’s like Putin playing with democracy, elections are fine, as long as he is elected. Or in the case of the Bistrot you can choose your cheese as long as you eat the chicken (scrawny or not).
For dessert I had a chocolate mousse, washed down by the last of my bottle of wine. I confess I hurried a little, I wanted to breathe the free air again. Fact – I am not like other people, I am a cantankerous difficult old man. As I left the Bistrot on a cold February day, it was completely full of people having a wonderful time. They all felt at home. They all no doubt had been before and would no doubt come again. There wasn’t just a pleasing murmur of conversation there was a rush of contented voices. The whole experience left me thinking that maybe, just maybe, I need to try harder to be one of the gang.
Deep down though I know it’s fruitless, deep down I’m a newspaper burner, and such people don’t belong in clubs.