Monday, December 4, 2017

One Restaurant I Love: A Guest Post



You can't live in Provence and not be passionate about food.  The cliché is that the French spend much of each meal talking about what they ate at their last meal or what they'll eat at the next. The produce here is so good...and there's so much culinary talent...there aren't enough days in a month to try a fraction of the restaurants I'd like to. Many of my friends feel the same way so of course we trade notes constantly. Periodically someone will rave so enthusiastically about a meal that I'll ask them to share the info with all of us, through a guest post.  And since it had been a few years since I wrote about Jean-Luc Rabanel (one of my favorite chefs) and his outstanding restaurant, L'atelier, in Arles, I was delighted when Keith Van Sickle suggested a guest post about a recent meal there. Keith's bio appears at the end of this text; read on for his Rabanel review!

There are a lot of great restaurants in Provence, with Michelin stars galore like Le Petit Nice in Marseille and Baumanière in Les Baux. But for my money, the best fine dining in Provence is at L’atelier de Jean-Luc Rabanel in Arles.

In 1999, Rabanel became the first chef in France to earn a Michelin star for an organic restaurant, Coté Garonne in the small town of Tonneins in southwest France. He later closed that restaurant and moved to Provence, renowned for its fresh produce, and opened L’atelier in 2007.  

On a quiet street just off the Place de la Republique, Rabanel works his magic. He calls his approach “Greenstronomie” – light on the meat and heavy on the abundance of Provence. As he puts it, “At the center of my cuisine is emotion and taste, a philosophy based on the vegetable. Vegetables, roots, plants, leaves, flowers and wild herbs thus become the main actors of my creations.”

L’atelier offers you just two choices: the six-course menu (95€) or the nine-course menu (123€). That’s it. On certain days, there's also a three-course option for lunch (55€). You can order wine by the glass, by the bottle, or pick one of the wine pairings chosen by the sommelier (three glasses, 45€; five glasses, 65€). 

The server will ask if you have any food allergies, which is a nice touch. I can’t eat gluten and I normally have to bring up the subject myself, which can make for an awkward moment. I appreciate that L’atelier made this discussion a comfortable one.

My wife and I went to L’atelier recently for her birthday, as it's our special occasion restaurant of choice. We usually order the six-course menu. The courses are small but you always get more than advertised (this year we counted eight courses) so there's no risk of going hungry. 

Plus there's the bread - you're served a selection of five different freshly baked varieties. And lucky me, I enjoyed the best gluten-free bread I’ve ever had.

After a glass of Champagne, the plates started arriving. My wife says that each plate is like a work of art you get to enjoy twice. First you appreciate its beauty, and then you savor the tastes. 

Our meal began with a piece of raw tuna marinated in sesame oil and laid atop sliced celery root and basil. This was sprinkled with a peanut crumble. Oh yes, there were also little pieces of smoky lardon hiding in there. And the flower on top was spicy. All those flavors were nice way to wake up the taste buds!

Next came the sweetest peas I’ve ever eaten, mixed into a fava bean puree and topped by Parmesan foam and a shrimp that had been dipped in ginger and grilled.

After that came mackerel over fava beans and then asparagus with morel mushrooms and white garlic ice cream.

While the menu changes regularly, we were thrilled to be able to enjoy one of Rabanel’s signature dishes. This is an impossibly tender filet mignon of taureau de Camargue (bull) topped with an egg yolk that's been marinated in soy sauce and rice vinegar. The combination is to die for!  It was accompanied by too many kinds of vegetable to count.

Then came the desserts, three different ones. The first was a jelly of verbena, topped by pureed Jerusalem artichoke hearts and macha ice cream. The second was a combination of fresh and sautéed fruits with tarragon sorbet. Then came the black-olive cookies and citrus macarons.

L’atelier has two Michelin stars and is unlikely to get a third, even though the food is as good as it gets. Why? Because to get a rare and coveted third star usually means you have to invest millions of dollars in the décor. Rabanel has chosen to keep the décor simple, the staff relatively young, and the focus on the food.

This is the reason that the Gault Millau guide, which rates purely on food quality, has given L’Atelier 5 toques and a score of 19 out of 20. These stratospheric ratings make it one of the top restaurants in France.

Since he first opened in Arles, Jean-Luc has grown the business organically. Once L'atelier was up and running he opened a bistro next door, called À Côté, which remains extremely popular. Then he opened a seafood spot called Iode, which has since closed. 

He also expanded L'atelier, doubling the dining space and adding accommodations. Today you can rent rooms in two flavors: “Les Confidentielles” which is a guestroom plus meals if you want them (breakfast + either lunch or dinner) and “Les Appartés,” which is four rooms with a common living-room area...which you can rent by the room or as a whole.  If you're staying in Les Appartés you can request cooking classes for your group there; classes are also available in the restaurant in the morning for would-be sous chefs who want to cook along with the restaurant's brigade. All the details are on the restaurant's website here.

So if you have a special occasion coming up, or want to taste the best that Provence has to offer, consider a meal at L’atelier in Arles. You won’t be sorry.

L'Atelier de Jean-Luc Rabanel
7, rue des Carmes
13200 Arles, France
Phone: +33 4 90 91 07 69
rabanel.com

Photos: (1-3) A few dishes from Keith and Val's recent meal: raw, marinated tuna on celery root with smoky lardon, a sprinkle of peanut crumble and an edible, spicy flower; 
sweet-pea and a fava-bean puree topped with Parmesan foam and a grilled shrimp; and a Rabanel signature: filet mignon of taureau de Camargue (bull) topped with an egg yolk that's been marinated in soy sauce and rice vinegar, accompanied by "too many kinds of vegetable to count."  (4) Jean-Luc with a few of his favorite things. The ingredients are all organic and many are grown specifically for him by friends. Photo courtesy of Le Figaro. (5) The dining room is striking but simple, meant to keep the focus on the food. (6) You'll find hearty, Spanish-influenced bistro fare at Rabanel's restaurant À Côtéwhich is right next door. (7) The rental accommodation called Les Appartés. (8) One of Jean-Luc's many cookbooks. (10) Val and Keith in front of the Château de Vauvenargues (wondering, no doubt, where they should have lunch).

Keith Van Sickle is the author of "One Sip at a Time: Learning to Live in Provence," which was published in January, 2017 and is available on Amazon here. He grew up in Alameda, California, and got his first taste of overseas life during a college term in England and later, a six-month backpacking sojourn. Grateful for the scholarships that helped him pay for college, in 1987 he started a foundation that helps students from Alameda pursue their own educations. His career has been in tech, primarily on the finance side. During a five-year work assignment in Switzerland, where they lived in a village with more cows than people, Keith and his wife Val fell in love with the European expat lifestyle.  After returning to the US, Keith helped start a company whose product was so geeky he says he still doesn’t quite understand it. When the couple decided they wanted to live abroad again but were unable to find another expat gig, they decided to invent their own. Now they and their trusty dog split their time between Silicon Valley and Provence, where Keith does financial consulting for startups and Val consults in a variety of fields. Keith publishes a blog called Life in Provence and you can follow him on Twitter,  Facebook and Medium.

4 comments:

  1. Another fine reason to get back to Arles as quickly as possible! Thanks for this excellent report.

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    1. Patricia, let's go see Jean-Luc this summer! I haven't been to eat there in a while and would love to revisit! With you! And maybe Keith and Val will join us too...

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  2. Such an interesting article, thank you! I am now going to make egg yolk marinated in soy and mirin, it sounds delicious.

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  3. Hi Marie...you're so welcome! I agree that that whole dish sounds amazing. Let us know how the egg preparation turns out? Thanks

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