Perestrello Geller reviews Ze-Bistro Aix en Provence, lunch menu €23
It’s not a good start when a restaurant can’t even put the right location on Google maps. After all this is not ‘Pin the tail on the donkey.’ There’s no blindfolds and spinning around. You just enter your address and send it to the overlords at Google.
I’d been walking around for twenty minutes when a kindly gentleman told me that Ze-Bistro, had relocated to the other end of town. The new premises, as it turned out, was right next to my rheumatologist where I’d just had an appointment.
JC the Canadian waiter was apologetic, blaming a software glitch, which meant that anyone searching for the restaurant on an i-Pad was directed to the wrong place. Apparently I would have been fine on a PC, which is scant consolation when one’s knees and ankles are throbbing from the seasonal curse of arthritis.
At this point what I wanted was a warm fire and a comfortable leather sofa in to which to settle. Instead Ze-bistro is an uber-modern restaurant whose sofa benches reminded me of an airport terminal. Somebody had cut various holes in the wooden partition walls. Maybe it was an attempt at installation art, maybe the carpenter was a trainee let loose with a chainsaw. In any event, through the numerous peep-holes, it became clear that I was the only person in the place.
At that moment the renowned chef Olivier Scola came through the door. Now this is not a man without an ego. The restaurant website describes him as a phenomenon. According to the site if you give Olivier some seasonal vegetables, and a Mediterranean fish, he will compose a tasting symphony. In the promotional material, Olivier is dressed immaculately in chef’s whites and his food looks delicate enough to have been assembled by the flicks of a conductor’s baton.
However, instead of a maestro of the stove, the Olivier Scola who appeared before me, resembled a brick layer knocking off for lunch. He was dressed in a loose fitting tracksuit, that had he bent over would have quickly become inappropriate. Next a Frenchman pretending to be a Texan walked in, wearing cowboy boots and a Stetson. He was clearly a friend of Olivier’s and they sat down to taste wine together.
At this point I was getting weak with hunger. Thankfully JC (remember JC, and the software glitch) turned up with some bread on a slate platter, complete with knife and small empty glass bowl. He tipped a tiny amount of a renowned Les Baux olive oil into the bowl, and preceded to tell me all about its provenance. Of which, I can remember nothing. I’d had a blood test at the rheumatologist and my sugar levels were low. The room began to blur.
Now the thing about olive oil and bread, is that it’s a very good combination, perhaps even better than bread and butter. However you need plenty of oil. One’s bread needs to be dripping in the stuff, and the spoonful of liquid gold I was given from Les Baux barely lasted one dunk.
I asked for some white wine, a sauvignon if possible, and JC returned with a bottle from the Languedoc. Another long explanation of provenance followed. I used my finger to eke the last drops of oil from the bowl, and hungrily licked them before cramming in another slice of bread.
‘It’s made from a Grenache grape, so you’ll see the colour is very full for a white wine, yet the flavour very delicate, like a Sauvignon.’
JC poured and what came out was a rosé. Now I’ve never ordered a Sauvignon before and been served a rosé. I held the wine up to the light and pointed out to JC that my wine was in fact pink. JC disagreed and said it was definitely white. Now I know that Pinot Grigio is made from a red grape and can sometimes be tinged pink, but in my glass there was more than a tinge. Nevertheless JC was technically right, the bottle was labelled blanc. Maybe the vigneron was colour blind.
Now at this stage I would like you to disregard everything I have written about Ze-Bistro. While an accurate recollection of my thoughts at the time, I have realised that reviewing on a sugar-low is a very bad idea.
My main course arrived, JC was a descriptive as ever, only now, with some bread working wonders in my stomach, and the misunderstanding with the Sauvignon forgotten, he seemed charming and attentive. The soup, if that is how I should describe it, was sensational. In reality, rather than a soup, it was a whimsical play on the possible textures and temperatures of onions. First I was served a bowl in the centre of which sat an onion biscuit/crouton. Next JC poured a white onion soup into my bowl, turning the biscuit into a floating island. Then with a final flourish JC crowned my biscuit with a swirl of onion cream. The dish was delicious to eat, crunchy, soft, warm, enveloping, in fact an arthritic’s dream.
I ordered some more white wine, this time insisting on something fuller bodied. When it arrived, it was, well white, oh and buttery, and probably something my doctor would advise me against indulging to frequently in. The main course was chargrilled squid, saffron rice, and small balls of chicken and citron-confit in bread crumbs.
It looked delicious, but I couldn’t help feeling that something was missing. As I picked up my knife and fork, JC stepped from behind my shoulders where he had been hovering and spooned a frothy bouillabaisse reduction onto the rice. Once again there was a delightful play of textures, the crunch of the chargrilled squid and the breadcrumbs, the soft give of the rice, and the unctuous foam. I could have eaten three plates of the stuff.
To finish, chef Olivier, he of the tracksuit and the conductor’s magical hands, had conjured, for sorcery it was, a squash and chestnut patisserie, topped with a thin slice of white chocolate. It was simply the best dessert I have eaten all year. Once again the flavour and textural combinations were sensational, with the sweet chestnut in total harmony with the vivid orange squash puree. The plate was a dream to look at when it arrived, all dots and artisan touches, within seconds, in a frenzy of iconoclasm, it was gone.
I leant back in my seat and discovered an ingenious sliding mechanism, allowing me to recline into a suitably replete position. The restaurant I noticed was now full, the wooden panels I so derided earlier broke up the chatter of all the other diners, and offered each table privacy, while still creating a sense of space. Even my arthritis was feeling better.
And the price for this sensational lunch time menu was €23. Bricklayer my a**e, Olivier’s more like an alchemist.