Perestrello Geller ate at The Renaissance Restaurant,
Address : 2 Place Malherbe, 83470 Saint-Maximin-la-Sainte-Baume Téléphone :04 94 78 00 27
**** No need for toothpicks, Menus from 17 euros
It has always been a tempting stop-over. Unwary travellers finding themselves an hour or so shy of their Riviera destination, have responded to their rumbling tummy by turning off the A8 at Saint Maximin la Sainte Baume. To these poor souls the guidebook ingredients must have seemed right – market town, old abbey, not too close, yet not too far from the motorway. And then it would have happened, the moment they committed to the exit, some bright spark in the back of the car would say ‘looks like a bit of snarl up down there.’ Cue the mother of all holiday rows and the mother of all queues.
Saint Maximin was a bottle neck to rival the Hanger Lane gyratory and you don’t find a nice spot of lunch on London’s north circular.
I say Saint Maximin was a bottle neck, because something dramatic has happened. In an infrastructure project as long awaited as the Barcelona TGV extension, Saint Maximin has got itself a bypass. The effect has been dramatic, the centre of town has become what it always should have been and of course once was, quiet, leafy, and spacious. As a result in the last year three new cafes have opened. Previously the terraces of all three would have been blighted by traffic fumes offering a dash of diesel exhaust to compliment the peppery nose of a decent red. Now old ladies sit on benches, children whiz by on scooters and locals bask in the sunshine and revel in
the fact they no longer have to shout over the engine noise to be understood.
I dined in the last one of these three cafes to have a spare table, appropriately named the Renaissance. The small exterior terrace was full and so I took a table by the window. The interior is simple and clean, the menu short. Tables and chairs are bare and wooden and the kitchen half open so that you can watch the chef weave between the puffs of steam. Spare cutlery lined up on a nearby serving table gave the place an unwanted canteen feel, as did a wall full of poorly framed photos. The only nod to the historic interior is an old fashioned bar, with a large mirror, gold trim and optics. In all, it looks like a cafe that wants to be treated as a serious restaurant but one which forgot to dress properly for dinner.
The reason I’d stopped was that I was on my way to Cannes to see an old flame. Already late, I chose to forego a starter of young sprouting local spinach and head for the mains. Early signs were worrying. A request for chips to accompany my Aberdeen Angus Ribeye steak, was mysteriously brushed aside – the chef would be serving me a patate au four, whether I liked it or not. In my hot headed middle-age years, I’d have demanded to see the owner. These days I am a calmer soul. I counted to ten and took a sip of the local red, and by the time I looked up the waiter had gone.
As it happened I liked the patate au four very much – two small slices of baked potato, which had been cooked so gently that the skin was still soft, were complimented by a bowl of truffle foam. The steak was one of the best I have had in France with a well hung gamey taste. It was topped with caramelised red onions and served with meat juices. God it was good. Nothing like the Entrecotes they serve up on the coast where fat hangs between the meat like g-strings on a washing line. The Renaissance Rib Eye was steak with attitude, whatever fat there once was had dissolved in the cooking, leaving moisture and flavour.
I finished with an excellent fondant chocolat accompanied by a chocolate mousse served in a shot glass, clichéd maybe, but also extremely good. Everything I saw coming out of the kitchen was well thought through, simple dishes like rack of lamb with a herb mash were beautifully presented. Fellow diners cleaned their plates, lingering over the last remnants of finely reduced sauces.
Saint Maximin is back on the map. Visit the Renaissance soon. Just don’t ask for chips.