CATCH A FALLING STAR

Le Relais de Sainte Victoire, Beaurecueil, (10 k’s east of Aix) 04 42 66 94 98

I was particularly looking forward to revisiting Le Relais de Sainte Victoire after a long absence, for two reasons.

Firstly, because when Gilly Kingsley, the doyenne and bonne viveuse of the Gourmet Club chooses to live next door to a restaurant, it’s bound to offer mega-gastronomic grub. And secondly, because René Bergès, long-time owner-chef, is one of those rare cookery creatures who forswears fame…a couple of years ago he handed back his 12-year-old Michelin star, because he wanted more time with his family and less pressure – and bear in mind that no less than 2 Michelin chefs actually committed suicide that same year, cracking under the stress of the competition. Ironically, the attention this gesture received gained him more notoriety and customers, and he’s hardly had time to doff his toque since.

First impressions were a little disappointing. The dining room is gloomy and dated – better, probably in the evening, than on a bright sunny day, with the sun straining to gain entrance through the drab drapes. (There is a small terrace in summer, and a rather ‘60’s sun lounge).

The menus break into price ranges according to how many courses you take, starting at a rather steep 37€ for just 2. It saves itself, though, by offering a lunchtime value 23€ “Logis de France” no-choice menu of three very acceptable courses.

My lunch companions turned out to be as critical as any Michelin inspector, so each dish came under considerable scrutiny. The best entrée by far was a “tapas” selection of chilli lentil soup, foie gras with ginger confit, and a succulent slice of guineafoul in a confection of sweet spices. The main courses were complex and well-constructed, but each also raised small points of criticism from my hard-to-please panel. The desserts were the best part – imaginative, rich but light – and the one themed around chocolate, especially, was magnificent. The pastry chef is the prize-winning Laurent Pierron.

The meal began with a well spiced salmon amuse-bouche, then, between the entrée and plat, a thyme & rosemary sorbet that was so herby it seemed to reek of cheap roast chicken. (Anyway, I think any chef who serves a mid-meal sorbet in the 21st century is proving that he’s stuck in a time-warp and that he, himself, needs a “refresher course”.)

The Wine List (of particular interest to the collected wine buffs present) was odd, too. Of the local producers - quite rightly concentrating on local Côtes-de-Provence Ste-Victoire wines - they had avoided nearly all our agreed favourites in favour of those we’d certainly rank lower down the quality scale.

So, when the bill came, and we assessed our meal, what was the verdict? We’d certainly enjoyed some excellent cuisine, but there had been faults and definite disappointments. One fellow-diner summed it up: “the point is, I don’t feel that anything I’ve had here will stand out tomorrow as particularly memorable”. Harsh words, but perhaps that is the difference from meals that merit a star and those come close, but don’t quite make it when it comes to the culinary crunch. Maybe, in fact, René Bergès had felt unable to keep up with the rigours of a one-star kitchen, and had jumped before he was pushed.

You will certainly eat well here, but is it star-quality? Your tastebuds may be reaching for the moon, but will they just “catch a falling star”? You’ll just have to judge for yourselves. My advice is not to go when the sun’s inviting you onto some bright, bougainvillea-clad terrace – just “save it for a rainy day”….

Juliet Young
Copyright © 2005 Anglo-American Group of Provence