Perestrello Geller reviews the Forum restaurant in Aix-en-Provence
Sometimes you don’t want bells and whistles, courgettes twirled into spirals and sauces applied to your plate with artistic Elan.
Sometimes you just want to sit back and tuck-in to a damn good steak.
Sometimes you don’t want waiters in penguin suits, menus in leather bindings, and wine lists as long as Angelina Jolie’s alimony demands.
Sometimes you just want a blackboard with the day’s specials and a pichet of the house red.
Well you do if you are like me. I hanker after the paired down bistro experience, where the waiter is also the barman, and orders are shouted through a hatch in the wall to the chef. The kind of place where everything is reflective, from the beer taps, to the floor length mirrors, to the metallic sheen of the bar surface. The kind of place where smoke trails from the kitchen like the puffs of a departing train, and where the barman wipes away the tears of jilted lovers with the same regularity as spilt wine.
Called it the French equivalent of Cheers, ‘the bar where everybody knows your name’, but rather than popcorn there’s the best pepper sauce on the planet. If there is one sauce by which every chef should be judged it’s ‘au poivre’. Restaurants run by accountant-chefs make a mockery of this classic, preferring to tip some creamy, pepper-studded gloop from a jar. The diner pays a three euro surcharge for the pleasure of having his meal ruined.
At the Forum restaurant in the centre of Aix en Provence you get the real deal – an au-poivre sauce that would have made Escoffier sigh. Inside the restaurant the tables are close enough to the kitchen to hear the steam as the pan is deglazed with a healthy slug of brandy. A few fading puffs of smoke carry the heady smell straight up the diner’s nostrils. The steak is a thin slice of entrecote, doused with butter as it is cooked, to keep the flesh succulent. Inexplicably the sauce is served in a little pot. I dipped my fork in, took one inquisitorial lick, and then upended the contents onto my steak.
Sitting there, in the tight bustling bistro interior, surrounded by office workers mopping away the last of their menu du jour, I felt somehow close to the soul of France. Part of the feeling was nostalgic. As a young man, holiday motoring trips in England were punctuated by stops for scampi and chips, an exotic excitement which consisted of reconstituted seafood, battered and served in a faux basket. I wish I could say that the dish tasted of the sea. It didn’t. The batter had the consistency of a damp towel and the scampi inside was flaccid.
Trips to France were different. Admittedly these were in the years before the tourist trade destroyed much of the gastronomic heart of the country. The king dish for me was steak and chips. Never has dead cow tasted so good. My inner cave-man surfaced and I sought out seared flesh and a blue interior wherever I could find it.
Sitting in the Forum, dipping my chips into a sauce flecked with blood from the steak, memories of moments of pure ethereal pleasure returned. The pinnacle of civilization as far as I was concerned as a 20-year old, was a good steak-frite. The dish was as a towering achievement. Centuries of intellectual development had been condensed down into just two ingredients by who else, but the Kings of the Enlightenment, the French.
The Forum is evidence that whatever problems France faces today, from, in no particular order, the Front National, a resurgent Sarkozy, a hopeless Holland, terrorists and a basket-case economy, there is still something wonderfully noble about a country, where one can sit surrounded by gourmands, and enjoy a classic dish for a relative pittance.
God bless France and God bless Le Forum bistrot.