I assumed that everyone, from San Remo to San Diego knew that Mont Ste Victoire was Cézanne's own, special mountain. Even when Picasso tried to muscle in on it, he only succeeded in being fairly rapidly buried beneath it, and even now he's hardly resting in peace through all the family feuds and lawsuits that still follow his death...
But that clearly didn't include the editors of the Charming Restaurant Guide of France, who re-wrote my entry (a couple of years ago) for a favourite restaurant of mine, Chez Thomé (in the tiny hamlet of Le Tholonet, about 5 k's east of Aix off the RN7). I'd written "Nestling under the famous flank of Mont Sainte Victoire, this is a delightful spot, etc etc..." Thinking they should illuminate their more art-illiterate gourmet readers further, Duncan Petersen Publishers, in their wisdom, decided to enlarge upon this. So, when the book was published, to my horror I read "Beneath the Mont Sainte Victoire, made famous by Monet, this delightful spot, etc. etc..." It remains an embarrassment to this day.
But I must learn to move on. And it is a delightful spot, in winter in its atmospheric bar and cosy restaurant rooms, as well as under the spreading shady trees outside in summer. It offers a very good-value Provençal menu with a warm, welcoming service - and food that is spiked through with enough garlic to frighten away the most pushy vampire bat. It's such a draw for locals that you should book - especially for their really popular Sunday lunches - whole extended families turn out with dogs, babies, great-grandparents, and oncle Tom Cobbley et tous...
About another 15 k's down the RN7 you turn north to the small, medieval village of Puyloubier, also sheltering under Cézanne's sleepy slopes. Don't attempt to take your car through its narrow steep roads: park in the generous Post Office carpark and, dodging dog-shit, walk upwards following signs for Restaurant Les Sarments. This is one of the smallest restaurants in our area - with only about 30 covers. No outside terrace, so this is your perfect wintering habitat. Intimate and snug - but with a menu that should make many larger local restaurateurs sit up and take notice. Jean-Sebastien is a young chef who's learned his trade throughout France and is adapting other regional ideas to blend interestingly with Provençal ingredients. His vivacious wife, Amy, (excellent front of house) is American and clearly loving her new métier. Despite only 2 months in business here they are already building a loyal clientèle, and most of our Car Rally competitors thoroughly enjoyed their hospitality last month. They are still experimenting - originally they were only touting one €28 menu, but now they are looking at cheaper ideas, plus a more varied carte.
Both places are good value, and full of atmosphere. As Cézanne might well have said, licking his bearded lips in anticipation of lunch, whilst packing up his brushes after a hard morning painting that mountain once again: "You pays your Monet and you takes your choice..."
REVISITED both restaurants in 06, and had reports from 07
Les Sarments has recently been redecorated, and I am told that prices are still rather steep. The food is generally delicious, and quite ‘cheffy’ (compared to the more familial cuisine of Chez Thomé, for example). In summer you can sit out – there are about 6 tables in the shade. Amy is rarely in the restaurant after having her baby, and I have had more than a couple of complaints about the service since (a bit surly) though Jean-Sebastien, when he circulates, is warm, friendly and enthusiastic.
NEW NEWS ON CHEZ THOME now called “La Plantation” Chez Thomé – revisited 04.08
A bit disappointing, frankly. New owners moved in about a month ago and have redecorated inside (posh distressed pine wall cladding, white, wedding-dress curtains…) The same staff, mostly, but some real chef problems – I actually sent back my “crispy supions” dish because it was soggy and, frankly horrible. At least they didn’t charge me for it. But not even a free coffee. The waiter was embarrassed, but admitted culpability.
They now run a 2-choice menu at €20 for 2 courses, or 3 courses for €25. But not great attractive choices. If you go off menu it’s fairly expensive, in my book – starters between €15-20, mains €15-24, and puds averaging €7. I was shocked that they were charging €10.50 for a simple salad of jeunes pousses sprinkled with olive oil. It’s still fairly simple food, but with an Italian tendency. The Wine List is better, broader. The seafood was definitely frozen, though my lamb was delicious.
Watch this space. Give it a few months to sort itself out. If you don’t like what you’re given, make sure you tell them, or they’ll never improve.