Provence restaurant review
Perestrello Geller eats near La Ciotat at La Table de Nans in his continuing series of Provence restaurant reviews
I thought it would never happen. I thought it an impossibility. I’m still shaking my head wondering whether the whole experience was real. I’m not talking about landing on Mars here, or discovering a human genome in my garage, but something even more outlandish, something that the full might of the French government has legislated against for years.
Social charges and the minimum wage have for too long destroyed the dining experience in Provence. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve sat down, drummed my fingers for half an hour, hoping at best for a drink, or at worst a glance that acknowledged my existence. Meanwhile, in the absence of other staff, the wife of this chef or that, would be rushing from table to table hopelessly trying to appease hungry customers.
So I say, rejoice gourmands of the south of France, a properly staffed Provencal restaurant, long thought to have disappeared with the Franc, has re-appeared. It’s called La Table de Nans, it was awarded one Michelin Star this February and it sits perched on a cliff between St Cyr Sur Mer and La Ciotat. The views of the sparkling Med are stunning, but it was not the panorama that took my breath away rather the small army of black clad waiting staff, that danced attentively from table to table. I was late and had only an hour and 15 minutes to eat, but I still wanted to sample the full lunch menu.
I was ready for the under the breath sigh, the exasperated shrug of the shoulders and the stage-managed conversation with the chef, which would inevitably point in the direction of one a la carte dish and a dessert. Instead the Maitre D, nodded in agreement, whilst raising one complicit eyebrow to confirm that both he and I appreciated what a fool I was not to have made more time for the gastronomic experience that awaited me.
Fresh focaccia accompanied by a tarragon mayonnaise was served with the aperitif. This was followed by an amuse bouche, melon gazpacho. All very nice. Beautifully balanced. First the palate shocking tarragon, then the soothing melon, but the clock was ticking. The staff disappeared for God knows what, a cigarette break? More likely, I thought, a raid by the tax office, where it would inevitably be discovered that every last one of them was being paid in cash.
In fact, so beautiful was my starter of octopus with an avocado vinaigrette, that I can only conclude I was wrong. The staff must have all been individually arranging my plate tentacle by tentacle. The taste was sensational. Avocado is such a dull bland fruit, but somehow the chef had conjured a violent green puree which tasted delectable on its own, and even better when combined with the succulent morsels of chargrilled octopus. I wolfed down each forkful, and scraped the last vestiges of sauce from the edge of the plate. It was all gone in a couple of minutes. I’d forgotten about my imminent meeting, it was just so good I couldn’t help myself.
Next came beef cheek cooked with summer truffle and mash potato. With the exception of the truffle, and summer truffles typically have as much flavour as avocado, this sounded like a pretty run of the mill menu dish. Something that any chef with half decent credentials could knock-up the night before and serve with plaudits the next day. What arrived was unexpected. A dense dark round ball of compacted meat, served in a dense dark pool of sauce. The presentation was of the in-your-face, eat me if you dare genre. Only the small pot of puree potato placed to the side of the plate re-assured, offering an escape route for potentially overwhelmed taste-buds.
At a press of my fork the beef ball opened up proffering petals of meat and my fear of the unknown vanished. The sauce was reduced to such a rich shiny viscosity that it bear-hugged my fork. Half the work of the winter truffle is done with its pungent aroma. The things smell so strongly that the palate responds creating flavour in anticipation. Summer truffles by contrast are so anaemic they can barely perfume an egg. Which means the chef and the diner’s palate have to do all the work. It’s a difficult trick to pull-off but even with the hearty gamey flavour of the beef cheek the subtle aromas of truffle softened each mouthful.
Everything to this point had been excellent about La Table de Nans. Presentation, taste and service were all impeccable. The dessert though slipped down a notch. The combination of tarts – chocolate, strawberry, apple and lemon, was poorly and thoughtlessly presented, with round bakery style tarts simply quartered and served up on a plate without any adornment. Each tart was good, but in contrast to what had preceded the dessert, this final course was a disappointment. It was as if the chef felt he had already done enough. Such a shame because with the shimmering sea, the shade of the sticky pines and the delicious food, La Table de Nans had been close to offering the perfect dining experience.
Perhaps it because I rushed them! I’ll be returning to find out, and also to see whether the army of staff was a mirage created by the siren song of the sea.