Jean Luc Rabanel is one of France’s premier chefs. His Atelier restaurant in Arles has two Michelin stars and in 2012 the Guide Gault Milau ranked the restaurant among the top 16 in France. Like many top chefs these days he has developed a bistrot offering to appeal to those with shallower pockets. It’s called A Côté and unsurprisingly it’s next door to the Atelier. The Menu is €29.
Monsieur Rabanel has stated that cooking alone is not enough for a restaurant to be successful, declaring: ‘We want to go further than that, and provoke in everyone a series of shocks and surprises.’
He’s a man of his word.
It all began with a telephone call. I’d booked for lunch on the terrace, but the weather was having one of those days when it can’t make up its mind, and so I called to change the table.
‘Would you mind if we moved inside?’ I asked.
‘Well, that would be easier for us.’
Already I had the feeling that I’d put the staff’s noses out of joint. Things were to get worse though, because this being the south of France the sun promptly came out. Upon arrival my companion and I debated for a while, and then, like the fickle customers we are, decided that outside was, after-all, preferable.
‘Well okay then.’
‘I’m sorry,’ I choked.
‘If you must.’
‘I’d like to,’
‘It would be easier for us if you ate inside, if you are going to sit out here then you’ll be served last.’
‘Last? But we’re the first here,’
‘Inside tables get served first.’
The whole thing was ridiculous. I felt like I was talking to a petulant child rather than a waiter. I was hungry and so I accepted a table inside. To be fair I must note that we did later receive an apology, and that the service throughout the rest of the meal was good.
Onto the food. The starters demonstrated the care and attention that I would expect from a restaurant run by a Michelin chef. The Mackerel and new potatoes were nicely presented with a pleasing vinaigrette. The taste was good, not shocking or intense, but pleasing. My partner had a waffle topped with smoked salmon and crème cheese. Again the overall impression was of competence rather than excellence.
The mains all arrived in piping hot iron skillets. The handle of each had been threaded with a sprig of rosemary presumably as some sort of Provencal certificate of origin. Their contents wouldn’t have made the tourist board happy. The slow braised pork-cheek was a little short of the melt in the mouth tenderness needed, and the overriding taste, not helped by the waxiness of the accompanying potatoes, was of grease. Chargrilled squid and moules was marginally better, largely because the shells of the moules had isolated them from the fat that coated the pan. The suspicion that somebody should be washing up better was confirmed when the crepe suzette arrived. Now I’ve had many pleasant crepe suzette, it’s a favourite dessert of mine, but none of them have ever tasted of pork before.
Mr Rabanel, I was indeed intensely shocked and surprised.