First, a few qualifiers are in order. I love to eat, but I’m no foodie. Nor do I have anything approaching the budget of a legitimate gourmet, who can easily drop a few hundred dollars a person on a Michelin-starred, five-course dinner at the finest of restaurants in the Provence countryside.
Still, with my cousins in town this past week, we did eat at two wonderful restaurants — one in Ansouis, the other in Aix-en-Provence. The first stretched our budget a bit without breaking the bank; the second was a thank you from our guests. Both left spirits and stomachs fully satisfied. Even if your travel budget is tight, these are worth the price.
This restaurant is our favorite in Provence. It specializes in the cuisine of the region, and, in fact, has earned a star in the Michelin Guide. We first came here in 2007 at the recommendation of author Peter Mayle, who qualifies as both foodie and affluent. But, back then at least, he prided himself on finding out-of-the-way local restaurants before guidebooks made them popular.
I had finished interviewing Mayle for an article in the Christian Science Monitor when he asked us if we’d like him to recommend a restaurant.
Bien sur, we replied.
It turned out La Closerie was closed that day. But we returned twice afterwards to the picture-postcard-perfect village of Ansouis to enjoy fabulous lunches. Then, if I recall correctly, La Closerie served a fixed-price, three-course lunch for about $25 (the exchange rate was better). Now its three-course lunch is about $40 a person, without wine.
The food, however, remains fabulous, though it’s wise to inquire about the plat du jour in advance because tripe, or animal innards, is among the Provencal specialties served here.
As it turned out, we arrived on the Monday after Easter, a mistake on my part. It’s a holiday in France and so we had to order either ala carte or off the $59 gourmand menu. Kathy and two of my cousins chose a smaller lunch, the rack of lamb for a still steep $47. I went for all three courses — and got a fourth as well, an amuse bouche, a sort of pre-meal, tongue-tantalizer. We also nursed a modest, but good bottle of Provencal rosé (about $35) to complement the meal.
And the food?
Course 1 (amuse bouche): Divine
This was a mousse of foie gras, light and perhaps whipped, but still distinctly flavorful. It was served in a soupy green sauce with asparagus, lima beans and peas. Hmmmmm.
Course 3 (plat): Very good
Course 4 (dessert): Divine
This tasted every bit as good as it looks (see picture at the top). Dark, rich chocolate encased a chocolate mousse center. A scoop of chocolate ice cream and a raspberry came with it.
All-in-all, this was a most wonderful meal, with enough food so that I couldn’t even think about a light dinner until 8 p.m. If there was a disappointment, it was the bread, a portion of the French diet in something of a crisis these days. It was white and not worthy of such a sumptuous lunch.
“Everything else is delicious, but [the bread] is disappointing,” Kathy said.
The restaurant, however, most definitely is not.
If you like grilled meat, you’ll love this restaurant. It’s an unassuming place, run by a hard-working skeletal crew. If you sit in the first dining room, you can watch the chef and owner cooking on the wood-fired grill. What’s great for us is its location, at 22 Rue Lieutaud in Aix-en-Provence, just a 10-minute walk from our apartment. The manager, by the way, speaks excellent English, an added plus for the linguistically challenged.
Le Zinc d’Hugo has carved an interesting niche for itself, given that beef generally is the weakest link of French food. We usually stay away from brasserie plats of beef because they’re tough and not terribly interestingly prepared.
That’s not true at le Zinc d’Hugo (though, in truth, we had a three-course menu of an excellent cut of pork and Kathy chose a truly spectacular magret de canard. Next time I’ll go for the beef.)
The three-course evening dinner costs about $40. The red wine we drank bore the restaurant’s label and cost a reasonable $22. Since tips are included in French restaurants, the bill here should come to just about $100 for two.
We loved the day’s fixed menu. The first course was a plump, sliced tomato, sprinkled and set in a light bed of mazzorella cheese. It was moist, tasty and not too filling. The main course was substantial and satisfying, a filet mignon of pork, with spinach tucked into pockets in the meat. The potato gratin was the best I’ve had in France — and we’ve had some good potatoes. Green beans soaked in butter were the final touch.
The dessert was simple, but elegant: vanilla ice cream with a frozen orange covering scattered with orange peels and a thin crust beneath baked with Grand Marnier.
Were these meals worth the extra cost? I’d have to say absolutely. Though we’ve loved our Aix lunches at Fanny’s Bistro Gourmand and Bistroquet in particular, both for a considerably more modest price, the quality of the preparation and presentation at these two restaurants was a cut higher.