Close your eyes, and think of eating

L’Etape des Frères Lani, Route de Marseille – CD6 – Bouc-Bel-Air 04 42 22 61 90

Contrary to public opinion, a restaurant reviewer’s life is not all it’s cracked up to be. Like fairy-tale princesses, you have to kiss a lot of frogs (or eat a hell of a lot of frogs’ legs) before you find your prince.

My ‘grown up’ gastronomic job (for ‘grown up’, read ‘poorly paid’) involves writing for the Charming Restaurant & Hotel Guides, for which I’m the contributing editor for the South of France. So AAGP reviews are far more fun for me, and doing them keeps me up to date for when my London bosses suddenly decide to update their French edition, as they are about to, and require me to come up with 250 places within the sort of deadline that would kill Rabelais – or that Rabelais would kill for, more likely.

The Etape des Frères Lani definitely won’t, I’m afraid, make it into the next Charming Guide. To qualify, a restaurant obviously needs to be charming, and though it helps if the food is great, it doesn’t need to be brilliant if the setting is spectacular enough. But we aren’t allowed to include a place if the surroundings are naff even though the meal is wonderful. The Lani is just such a place. But, remember, I wouldn’t recommend it to you if I thought you wouldn’t eat well.

Most of you have probably driven past it a number of times, without ever being attracted to stop. It’s on the horrible, always-snarled-up-by-roadworks-D6, between ghastly Gardanne and slightly more sympa Simiane – but to get there you MUST be on the east-west side of the dual carriageway. You are directed off the road by some peeling, faded notices, to park and enter a 70’s-looking Logis de France, the sort of place much sought-after by travelling salesmen from Slough.

But this place is about food, rather than atmosphere. The two talented Lani brother chefs carry impeccable credentials – from the 2 star Petit Nice in Marseille, 2 star Clos de la Violette in Aix, and 3 star Troisgros, Roanne – and together they practise the culinary light fantastic.

The main dining room is nicely enough turned out – oak beams with ochre-walls, their loyal business clientèle sitting at linen covered tables with properly ranged, gleaming glassware. There is a no-choice 3 course meal for just €24: my “cappeletti dans un bouillon de champignans crémeux et truffés, façon cappuccino” was superb – no stinting on the truffles, and the frothy soup was fabulous, followed by an outstanding main course of lamb with flageolots. Ian chose from the “Menu de Marché”, changed fortnightly. His partridge on a mushroom base was great, too, if pretty garlicky. But perhaps best of all was his dessert - a wonderful caramelised apple sablé cut through by a sharp green-apple sorbet. This was followed by more sweetmeats and a pile of wonderfully sticky méringues du maison. There is a special book-ahead vegetarian menu at €38.

There are two other selling points. The service is smooth, and full of good humour, led by Bernadette Lani, and backed up by a head waiter who bore an uncanny resemblence to Bob Alderson, the husband of our esteemed editor. Perhaps it was him – he kept winking at me, so it could have been… And secondly, and more importantly, next door to the reception there’s a second dining room – the Salon Lucie, a pine-clad refectory where they serve a €15 no-choice, no-frills 3 course lunch. It was absolutely heaving with the happiest lunchers, relaxed and replete on tasty provençal tarts, perfectly rosé cooked tender côtes d’agneau, and a creamy dessert. Carafes of wine were emptying fast amongst these in-the-know regulars. You’d absolutely have to book for this popular find.

So this is an interesting discovery at many levels – it fits the bill for a special meal or anniversary; and for a brilliant value meal you could hardly do better elsewhere. It’s more winter than summer, as it doesn’t boast a terrace - you’d be drowned by road noise – but it’s fully air-conditioned, which the nearby office workers prefer.

You just have to remember to close your eyes to the surroundings, and to the fact that Lynne’s husband is moonlighting as a waiter… I do hope he’s told her…

Juliet Young

Revisited July 07
Really impressed, once again, especially with the standard of the basic menu (now 25 euros) which consisted of stuffed courgettes flowers with great flavour, then carpaccio d’agneau — made by confiting the lamb for hours then slicing really thinly, then crème brulée of lavender, with lavender flowers in spun sugar. Ian’s fish was pronounced “a triumph”. Menus change every 15 days, because they have a very loyal and regular clientèle.

Would definitely recommend this food — compared, for example, to a meal at the Relais de Beaurecueuil, it’s far superior and half the price.

Copyright © 2007 Anglo-American Group of Provence