I’ll acknowledge up front that subjecting non-participants to vacation pictures puts a strain on the strongest and healthiest relationships -- there’s no way the one who wasn’t there can appreciate the full context, although a skillful photographer can at least convey some of the beauty or exotic features of a destination. I’m decidedly NOT a skillful photographer, so I’ll spare you the amateurish snaps.
Still, I encountered a couple of interesting restaurant experiences on a recent trip to Provence and Paris -- one with promising potential, and one remarkable. At the risk of the aforementioned strain to my loyal reader, I will share them here.
First the promising potential: Paris is known as an expensive city, and its real estate and logistics costs help to ensure that restaurants must charge healthy prices in order to survive, let alone thrive. Restaurateurs everywhere (not just Paris) know the risks of menu price increases in driving away customers, and a “science” of pricing has developed -- in the US, and elsewhere -- using the least susceptible menu items to carry the greatest burden in the hopes of maintaining prices at or near the consumer’s point of tolerance. Unfortunately, consumers eventually figure out such things, and begin to notice that such items as beverages and other “peripherals” from the menu seem to rise disproportionately, which may steer them to either ignore sections of the menu or trade down to other providers.
Therefore, imagine my delight in encountering a small collection of Paris restaurants -- under common ownership, but with unique menus, names and decor, which have adopted a one-price-for-everything approach. For a single price (not cheap, but very reasonable given the market) the diner gets appetizer, main course, dessert, coffee or equivalent -- and one bottle of wine per two diners. The restaurants are white-tablecloth, with very professional service staff and accomplished chefs. The menus consist of creative offerings across the array of French cuisine, and the wine list is a nice collection of recognized, reputable vineyards from the various French regions. The restaurants are clearly trying to establish themselves as an attractive, no-stress evening experience, starting with the complimentary champagne cocktail offered each diner ahead of the meal.
If I were a food critic, I’d note that -- based on a total of eight meals shared among four people across two nights -- the appetizers, while creative, didn’t quite live up to their flavor promise. However, the other courses were delicious and well-prepared, a few of the desserts were knockouts, and the wine added appreciably to the value perception. It's an interesting expansion of the "bundling" idea we've seen here in recent years; based on the turnout, it seems to be successful in Paris, and may offer a possibility for US operators.
Now, the remarkable: Daniel Hebet, a Michelin-starred chef at a previous post, is owner/chef of le Jardin du Quai in the small town of L’Isle sur la Sorgue just outside of Avignon. Le Jardin is a garden restaurant in both senses of the word -- tables are arranged throughout a beautiful garden (with some indoor capacity for inclement weather), and Hebet’s offering is planned each day based on produce from the local gardens and markets. There is no set menu other than a wine list; rather, there is one daily menu -- one appetizer, soup/salad, main course, and dessert, with some substitution presumably available for vegetarian or other special requests by advance notice.
In operating under such restrictions, Daniel Hebet has made his and his team’s jobs both simpler and more complicated. The simpler -- there’s little of the usual dependence on regular deliveries from the national distributor, little pre-producing to pars, and presumably little management against ideal food cost. The complicated -- le Jardin is apparently almost completely dependent on a network of local suppliers for everything from fruits and produce to dairy and proteins, purchasing each day in sufficient quantities to feed the night’s guests. Most essentially, Daniel is dependent upon a kitchen staff with sufficient training to execute a completely new menu flawlessly the first day.
It is a mark of the success of this concept, and a credit to the team’s skill, that Daniel Hebet moves between kitchen and table repeatedly during the course of the evening, sufficiently comfortable to take the time to not only chat with his regulars but joke with and put at ease a table of four American tourists while keeping an eye on the operation.
I won’t list the menu here (after all, it’ll change), but I will note that it concluded with the most elegant variation on strawberry shortcake this wrieter’s ever seen (Daniel Hebet was identified as France’s best pastry chef a few years ago), and a unique post-dessert amuse-bouche of freshly made, flavored marshmallows with no resemblance to the bagged product we all grew up with. I can’t wait to return!