Guru restaurant critic Perestrello Geller reviews La Louche a Beurre
Back in the 1980s I dabbled a little at being a theatrical angel, one of those kind-hearted souls who pump money into West-End shows in the vain hope that they are on to the next Mamma Mia. Anyway it was the spring of 1981 – Thatcher was in power, power suits and brick like mobile phones were all the rage – when I received a call from Lloyd Webber’s people. They pitched a show called Cats to me ‘T S Eliot’s poems, set to music, sung by actors in leotards’. The idea sounded worse than awful, but they wanted to talk to me further about it over lunch at the Ivy.
I considered it (and still do) terrible manners to ever turn down an Ivy invite. As you enter the revolving doors there is a sense of expectation, not for the food but rather the identity of your fellow diners. There’s always a celebrity hiding in a booth somewhere, it’s just a question of spotting them and enjoying the frisson of knowing that once upon a time Kate Moss’ bum has occupied the same seat as you.
Back in the 1980s, the lunch began well. I tossed in the odd Eliot quote, “April is the cruellest month breeding lilacs out of despair’ which seemed appreciated. Elaine even came over from a nearby table to enquire how things were going. For a full hour I managed to keep my mouth shut, and then one of the suits began explaining the Macavity the mystery cat sub-plot. Well I just lost it. I told them that in my esteemed opinion, making a musical out of a series of loosely connected poems about Cats, was the most ill-conceived ridiculous idea I’d ever come across. The rest as they say is history.
I was ruminating on all this, while sitting lunching in the Louche a Beurre in Lourmarin. The place always brings back memories of the Ivy. It’s not really the decor – although the low spots strung from black metal stanchions across the ceiling, have a theatrical feel. More it’s the feeling engendered of being part of a club, the in-the-know crowd, who eschew other, showier, flashier, dining experiences in return for that almost intangible sense that they are amongst their own.
The place was full, which for a Saturday lunch time in Provence in March is a spectacular feat of restaurant management, and no doubt the envy of local Michelin starred places which often don’t even dare open their doors till the beginning of April.
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I looked at the menu. A laminated folded piece of paper with the plastic corners frayed from over-use. Really though it was totally unnecessary – a hole in the wall takeaway joint under a railway bridge with a microwave for a kitchen offers a greater choice of food than the Louche a Beurre. For a starter there was basically salad, done in any number of different ways, green, goat’s cheese, garlic, you get the idea, and for main course there was steak, with an option of three different sauces, shallot, roquefort and mustard. For the kids there were crepes.
That was it – the KISS (Keep it simple stupid) 1960 design principle of the US navy applied to a restaurant. The wine list was equally short, largely consisting of offerings from two large Rhone negociants Tardieu and Jaboulet. The entry level red started at 20 euros. The Jaboulet ‘Secret of the Family’ was out of stock so instead I chose the Tardieu, Bec Fin. A well made, full bodied Rhone at a decent price. In the nearby cafes inferior bottles are being sold at 28 euros a pop.
To start with I had a garlic green salad. Not one for a Valentines Day meal, but a Provencal staple of which I have grown more and more fond. It was copious, fresh and punchy enough to make a Vampire recoil. The faux filet that followed was served sliced into long thin strips. It was cooked perfectly medium as requested and served fanned out and surrounded by the accompanying shallot sauce. A large bowl of heavily salted Parisienne brasserie style French fries completed the dish. The steak was tender, the sauce a little thick and low on flavour, the chips a little too moorish.
And yet, and yet, everyone in the restaurant appeared to be enjoying quite the most convivial lunches. The tables were spaced far enough apart so that eavesdropping was impossible. The flickering fire lent a feeling of being at home in my own living room. The wine slipped down and gradually I found myself munching happily away chatting gregariously to my companion for the day, a former Bunny girl from the early days of Stringfellows. The plate of diminishing food in front of me was little more than background music to an enjoyable hour of conversation. Sometimes when you dine out you want a symphony, you want your taste buds to soar, to vibrate with pleasure. In other moods all you want is the equivalent of David Gray’s Babylon.
What I’d never realised before La Louche a Beurre was how secondary the food can be to enjoying a meal. I could go to a Buffalo Grill and enjoy – or rather digest – similar food, but I wouldn’t feel part of a club. At the end of the meal I went to the loo, and sure enough plastered all over the walls were photos of the residents of Lourmarin, including some famous faces. Everyone was laughing, smiling and joking. Nobody had presumably arrived expecting a gourmet evening, they knew it was going to be salad and then steak and chips – Keep it simple stupid. Which is precisely what I advised Lloyd Webber’s people to do.
La Louche a Beurre 04 90 68 00 33 · Le Rayol, Route d’Apt Lourmarin