Gladiatorial gastronomy in ancient Arles

L’Atelier de Jean-Luc Rabanel, 7 rue des Carmes, 13200 Arles 04 90 91 07 69

Question: what do lions, tigers and crocodiles have in common with Arles? Answer: not only are they almost the sole ingredients not to appear on the incredibly extensive menu of this month’s resto – but also Arles’ impressive Roman amphitheatre’s arena was the only one in Gaul to hold games with such dangerous animals, and hence, if you look, you’ll notice that the first gallery of seats here is much higher off the ground than that of Nîmes, for instance, to protect spectators from stray claws and hungry jaws…

But a new arena concerning hungry jaws has just arrived in town for those gastronomic gladiators amongst us with a stomach for the longer distance. L’Atelier de Jean-Luc Rabanel has only been open 16 months and, as one of the youngest one-star restaurants in France, it is earning huge acclaim for its eponymous, rather preeningly self-conscious and artistic zen-chef, who’s Gault Millau’s top cuisinier, 2008. His restaurant is tiny – only about 40 covers, and its grey walls are picture-bare, the tables and decoration are minimalist - you are definitely here to concentrate on the food, without distractions.

Virtually the only decision you have to make is: do you want the 10+ course Création menu at 42 euros, or the 16+ course Emotion one at 65? Don’t panic – each course is petite, portioned and perfectly delicate – but, still, I’d advise novices to plump (ironic choice of words!) for the decathlon rather than take on the full marathon.

Now you give yourself up entirely to front-of-house Bertrand’s team of efficient, amenable waiters who arrive with a staggering series of taste experiences, prefacing each with a mandatory declamation of its complex contents. To give you any sort of idea of what this gastronomic challenge is like, there’s no other way than to dash you through it. I’ll be as brief as possible, so, breathe in and count the calories:

  1. a cumin tempura of pumpkin
  2. beetroot baked in a salt-crust with chutney and horseradish velouté
  3. a beansprout salad on cheese sablé biscuit (with a tiny glass of iced celeriac)
  4. a fantastic sushi-style slip of marinated sea bream
  5. the lightest triple froth - layers of coco bean, mushroom and balsamic vinegar & rabbit liver slivers
  6. a pig’s trotter fritter (no, really, it was fabulous), with a tiny cup of parsnip cream
  7. salmon with dried bonito tuna sprinkle
  8. a brilliant savoury-sweet cross-over: sweet potato mousse topped with coconut cream
  9. a complex zabaglione meringue ‘pie’
  10. roasted fig on sweet fennel confit
  11. frozen verbena and lemon-grass ice cream – a wonderfully refreshing palate-cleanser

Phew! But, you have to admit - wow!

You aren’t allowed to lag, or the kitchen loses pace, which does make general relaxed conversation difficult, as you’re constantly being interrupted. Remember, the food is the focus.

It, does, actually, nearly follow the fashion of a Roman bacchanalic banquet, course after course coming at you, for 2½ hours of relentless palate-bashing – mixing fascinating flavours with utterly surprising textures. But you’ll be relieved to hear that it doesn’t take the Roman concept as far as over-indulgent Seneca did – whose famous motto (forgive me) – was “eat to vomit, vomit to eat”!! Was he the ancient world’s first bulimic?

Pliny was, of course, the great food critic of ancient Rome. He, obviously, would have gone for the Emotion full monty, and he’d have required a few naked slavegirls, some couches on which to recline - plus a post-prandial orgy - but, those few details apart, I think he would have given the Rabanel experience, as we did, the definite thumbs up…. Booking essential.

Juliet Young
Copyright © 2008 Anglo-American Group of Provence