Perestrello Geller reviews Les Terrasses de L’Image and Auberge Reine Jeanne
Sometimes doing this job feels like being an extra in an episode of Fawlty Towers. The fun began in the Hotel de l’Image in Saint Remy de Provence. I’d arrived at ten minutes to two, which as any long term resident of France knows, is an extremely delicate time in the restaurant world. Still, I was staying in a four star hotel and I reassured myself that surely they’d be used to guests operating on a non-Gallic timetable.
The charming girl on reception looked appropriately nervous as she picked up the phone to the restaurant. She took a deep breath and explained that a gentleman had just checked in and wanted to eat. I got the tone, rather than precise words of the response:
‘Eat, he wants to eat, doesn’t he know that I’ve been on my feet serving people for two hours now, my legs hurt, its hot, I’ve got a group of Chinese loitering in the corner of the restaurant who took fully forty minutes to decide on their order, and then he comes waltzing into the hotel, and decides he’s hungry, why doesn’t he have the common courtesy to turn up at midday like civilized people, I bet he’s English isn’t he? Bloody English, just because they saved our necks in the war, they think they can behave how they like, well it’s two clock, and I’m knocking off.’
The girl on reception coughed politely down the phone and pointed out that it was in fact ten to two. A pointless argument ensued over the respective quality of their timepieces. The Maitre D had of course, like every self-respecting French restaurant professional, ensured that his own watch was running fast. Minutes passed in discussion, the real time ticked closer to 2pm but eventually the receptionist prevailed and I was shown to a table in the verdant garden of the Hotel d’Image.
The staff, Maitre D apart, were fresh-faced teenagers, anxious to please if a little jittery in their sleek black uniforms. The food was delightful. At lunchtime there is a small menu, with only three choices of main course. I started with a Tuna sushi, which was given a moorish toasty flavour by the liberal use of sesame seeds. Next, I had duck, served with steamed vegetables and rich orange-based sauce. I cleaned my plate and mopped up the sauce. Throughout the Maitre D was polite, but the way he stood, the way he looked, and the tone he used, let me know that inwardly there was a war waging between his desire to be rude, and his professional obligations. He nearly broke when he realised I’d opted for the full 36 euro menu, and was staying for cheese.
The Fawlty Towers theme continued that evening in the Restaurant Reine Jeanne. I’d chosen the place because it’s one of the few restaurants in Saint Remy de Provence to have a decent terrace set away from the road. It’s been there for years, and has an uber-traditional ambiance. The staff all wear neat black and white uniforms and the chefs towering white hats with a ring of circular pleats at the top. It’s the type of place where a waiter takes it as a personal affront if you pour your own wine. There’s no list of desserts, there’s a tray that gets carried formally from table to table. Pomp and ceremony aside the restaurant has survived because the food is excellent.
My lady friend for the night, also from a bygone era, ordered herself a coupe, which I took to mean a glass of champagne. I signalled to the waiter that I would join her. The bubbles arrived, we ordered and chatted amiably for a few minutes and then the fun began. With a grand gesture the waiter presented us with some foie gras on toast to accompany our aperitif. We thanked him profusely but since we had ordered foie gras as a starter suggested he give the plate to another table. The waiter returned to the kitchen which was in full view of the restaurant.
Arms were raised. A gaggle of white-coated hat-wearing chefs gathered around. The foie gras went flying. Moments later the chef re-appeared with another offering this time a gaspacho sorbet. It was quite delicious, but my companion is as sensitive as a vampire when it comes to garlic. She turned hers down, which was brave, considering the efficacy of a little ball of ice as an assault weapon. The chef when he heard the news, fell to his knees and pleaded to God for more amenable diners.
Perhaps as a peace offering, perhaps because he was all out of pintard and was going to have to make a dash to the supermarket, the Chef sent the waiter back.
‘Would sir and madame care to change their main course order from guinea fowl to pigeon.’
Pigeon is not my favourite and my companion that evening makes a point of never eating it.
When the news of our intransigence reached the kitchen, there were several bangs and clatters then a splat.
‘What was that my?’ asked my companion.
‘I believe it was the pigeon hitting the fan.’
Just as at the Hotel de L’Image the food was excellent. The foie gras all the better for not having to eat a double portion. The pintard, which arrived after a noticeable delay, was moist with a crisp skin, served with a deep reduction, and a creamy corn risotto. The dessert tray was presented, but fearing for the health of the Chef, who we could both see out of the corner of our eye, watching over us, we left. As we did so the restaurant was full of couples tucking into pintard.
Back in the kitchen I imagined the head chef wagging his finger at the mangled corpse of the pigeon, frying pan raised high, ready to strike.
‘You miserable shriveled little fowl, you worthless stinking messenger bird, I’ll show you….’
Basil would be proud of the restaurateurs of Saint Remy. Worryingly for customers, the silly summer season is only just beginning.