A tale of two restaurants

Two restaurants in Provence, two days apart.

The first was the Auberge des Balastres, on the Tarascon road out of Fontvieille, a small town to the east of Arles. Nothing special as such – in fact just the restaurant of the small hotel where I’d gone to hide from the unjoys of the Rugby World Cup that seemed to dominate every darn city at the time. Pleasant, chirpy manager/waitress – her aunt had done the beautiful tapestry-samplers on the wall, she said. But the food… well, let’s take it carefully… First course: a kind of variation on a theme of mushroom stroganoff, with long Pilotes mushrooms, backed by a simple salad of mixed greens with an amazing mustard vinaigrette. Second course: ‘strips of bull’, was how she put it, but with another amazing mild anchovy sauce, backed by a roast tomato stuffed with an anchovy paste and sliced potatoes with, again, another perfectly-balanced cheese sauce. (Both courses beautifully presented on the plate, with the plate-lettering precisely aligned on the table.) And dessert: a kind of creme-brulee with raspberries, in a large bowl, perhaps six or seven inches across. Overall, I’d describe it as one of the best meals of my life. Ever. All for 21E, though in fact more like 15E as a bundle with the room. That’s a bit less than 12 pounds, or US$20. You’ll have to book – sorry, I’ve lost the number, but you can get it from the Fontvieille tourist office – but in a word: do. 🙂

Now – oh dear – to another restaurant. My last night in Provence, so with joyous memories of that previous meal, thought I’d treat myself. In Avignon, so the obvious place is the cluster of open-air restaurants in the Place de l’Horloge. Fancied onion soup, for some reason, and the mention of a veal escalope set my mouth watering. Wandered around the Place, found a restaurant which mentioned both, and was even met by a friendly greeting: a relative rarity in the culture of service-with-a-sneer that sadly seems to pervade the place. Great! Um… not so great… First course: a none-too-generous portion of thin, greasy, possibly-onion possibly-soup, with one bit of cheese-smeared bread floating in it. Second course: vaguely-chewable bootstrap-leather with tinned mushrooms in a vaguely-edible sauce, with chips, vaguely dumped onto a chipped plate. Dessert: choice of a tiny portion of canned sort-of-fruit-salad, tasting strongly of tin; or (as on someone else’s table) a single narrow wedge of pre-pack soft-cheese, with one biscuit. I’ll be blunt: I’ve had better school-dinners. Price: 15E50. Location of this debacle: Restaurant de L’Hotel de Ville (though to be fair, I doubt if any of the other Place de l’Horloge places are much if any better, and usually with much worse service). In a word: don’t. 🙁

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