Friday, June 10, 2011

Cassis Overview

We had such a great time in Cassis that I didn't update my blog. I looked up a note I wrote about it for a friend and thought I'd post it. This is from 2009:

We had a wonderful trip in Cassis. We made it back to Aix a couple of times, too. In Cassis, I rented a kayak and paddled out to the Calanques, which I enjoyed so much I did it again and again. They have double kayaks and it would have been great persuading my wife to take another kayak and our two girls, but I couldn't convince her to do so, even though it would have been just fine. (If that is of interest to you, the kayak rental place is on the left side of Cassis' main beach as you are facing the water.)

Our favorite Cassis restaurant with no view was "Restaurant Le Chaudron" at 4 Rue Adolphe Thiers. Not too expensive, but not a bargain, either. Still, we liked it better than Fleurs de Thym, which is a lot more expensive. What was a bargain, great food reasonably priced is Restaurant Le Bonaparte at 14 Rue Gen Bonaparte (04 42 01 80 84)‎. I learned to get the fish soup everywhere, which is really wonderful all over Cassis. They serve it with little toasts on which you put the accompanying saffron spread and either put them in your bowl before the soup goes in or dunk them in. The waterfront restaurants are more expensive and crowded. The only one to go to is Chez Gilbert at 19 Quai des Baux (04 42 01 28 14) which is actually quite good.

For a special dinner, Hotel Restaurant Les Roches Blanches is great. Out around the right, past the smaller beach, it is at 9 Avenue Des Calanques (04 42 01 09 30). Amazing view and superb food.

My girls loved the little white train in Cassis, which goes from the square not far from the kayak place. One of the excursion boats is fun to see the calanques (the limestone fjords) if kayaking is too, er, adventurous. I don't think any is much better than the other, but our experience is limited.

I enjoyed driving up to the cliffs on Le Route des Cretes (though La Ciotat is a waste of time) and over. Incredible views.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Back to Cassis

On Friday, we'll be staying in Cassis for a month. Of course, we'll head to Aix and give updates on our favorite restaurants there, as well as new ones in Cassis! See you, faithful readers, soon!

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Lunch In The Land Of The $1.60 Euro

The dollar hit a new low relative to the euro yesterday: it now costs $1.60 to buy one euro, and it is impossible not to be aware of that. It isn't a surprise why we don't see any other Americans here.

I thought it might be interesting to break down how we spent $123.00 on a modest lunch:

We decided to go to a new restaurant with an interior terrace that we had noticed while walking around: "Laurane et Sa Maison" (16 rue Victor Leydey, 04 42 93 02 03). We showed up at 12:50 pm, so were the first ones there. A modest place with a pleasant enclosed courtyard decorated in part with little blackboards each saying "hello" in a different language.

We sat down, were handed menus, and were asked what we wanted to drink. They didn't have Orangina (Nicki's favorite) or syrups (Ari's typical choice -- like an Italian soda) but they had quite a selection of juices. So we ordered one for each girl: 4 euros each, or almost $13. Stri and I ordered a bottle of Pelligrino: 4.6 euro, or $7.30.

The girls weren't hungry -- they'd made and eaten crepes as part of their morning activity at the children's bookstore up the street -- so we asked for a dish of pasta to be split between them. For that, they charged just 5 euro each, or $16.

There were two lunch prices, each with various choices, and a few stand alone salads. Stri and I ordered the more modest lunch, both choosing the chicken, for 18 euro each, or almost $27 per person. We had half a bottle of wine, an inexpensive Rose, for 11.50 euro or $17.50, and ordered one dessert, which they didn't charge us for. Then two very small coffees ('noisettes' -- one shot of espresso and a tiny bit of milk) for two euro or $3.20 each.

We got the bill, 74.10 euro, or $117.80, plus we left three euros on the table. Total: 77.10 euro, or $123. And the girls split a bowl of pasta! I'm not trying to pick on the restaurant: Laurane et Sa Maison was pleasant and priced very similarly to other restaurants. By the time we left, the restaurant was pretty full of mainly locals. This is more an illustration of the impact of an unfavorable exchange rate.

Monday, July 14, 2008

First Week Back Restaurant Review

At just over one week back in town, we've now returned to some of our favorite haunts, and I'm happy to report that there have been few changes. A few places that didn't offer lunch now do, a good thing, though an indication of a slowing economy. Prices in euros haven't changed much, but even a small change plus the deterioration in the dollar has made everything seem expensive.

Dining at Mitch (26 Rue des Tanneurs, telephone 04 42 26 63 08), reminded me why I called it one of the best contemporary restaurants in Aix ( and it remains a prime people watching spot that combines well-presented food, comfortable seating, and friendly service. The 25 Euro meal that combines appetizer, main course, and dessert almost merits bargain status. I had to have the foie gras, which was excellent, and beautifully presented, and the lamb, which was long strips bound in string, perfectly cooked, so I had the more expensive menu (45 Euro) which may not have been a bargain but was worth it.

This is somewhat in contrast to La Bouddoir right across the street from Mitch. Dinner there was a disappointment, with lackluster service and mediocre food. Oh well. I found the attitude of our waitperson to be quite amusing. She just oozed attitude, which perhaps she thought she could get away with because she was quite attractive. When I pointed out that my rather tough steak was still cold in the middle ("bleu" or very rare, rather than "saignant," rare tending toward medium rare), she whisked it away without a word and brought it back five minutes later again without a word. I smiled, said "merci" in my atrocious accent, but if anything, the angle of her nose climbed another five degrees.

If the steak hadn't been tough, if the accompaniments, while abundant, had been tastier, if the whole experience for four people (two of whom were 6 and 8 years old and shared one order of pasta) with just two drinks and a half bottle of inexpensive wine wasn't almost $200, her attitude might have worked.

Edykos (in the Place des Tanneurs), Armenian and Greek food, was just like last year. This is a good thing. The same friendly waitstaff, the same menu, good prices, and enjoyable food. Recommended.

Restaurant 37, another of my "best contemporary restaurants" choices, was also just like we remembered it, though with a different menu. A carpaccio of scallops, salmon, and sea urchin came artfully presented, and the dorade (a white fish) was flakey and tender. I suspect the prices didn't change since last year, so any sticker shock was caused by the dollar's change ...

I'll cover Chez Grand Mere in a separate post, but just note here that it remains the place I'd suggest if you had only one night in Aix and want to eat "en terrasse" (outside) and have great traditional food.

Lunch on Cours Mirabeau: Cafe Terminus

Cours Mirabeau is considered one of the most beautiful streets in France and therefore anywhere. It's true; wide sidewalks, beautiful trees, classic buildings, a series of fountains, little (and often no) traffic, with La Rotunde, a magnificent fountain at one end, make the "no trip to Aix is complete without seeing ..." cliche apply to a stroll down Cours Mirabeau.

However, the cafés on Cours Mirabeau are too touristy to be worth visiting, except for Les Deux Garcons, the storied hangout of Cezanne and others, and then only for coffee. (Les Deux Garcons, 53 Cours Mirabeau, 04 42 26 00 51) That way you can say you've been there, waiting only for your relatives from some flyover state to extol the overpriced food and abyssmal service.

If you're going to eat on Cours Mirabeau, go to the very end opposite La Rotunde and eat at Cafe Terminus (Cafe Terminus, 58 Course Mirabeau, 04 42 27 69 25) which is just far enough from the hubbub to be authentique. You'll find an interesting mix of tourists, shoppers, and locals eating typical brasserie food. The salads are quite good, and the girls were glad that pizza was available. Recommended.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Children's sculpting class at Musée Granet

Last year, we didn't find out until too late that there is a children's sculpting class at Musée Granet ( so this year, we made arrangements while still in the U.S. by calling them at +33 (0)4 42 52 87 97. The people who answer the phone speak English. From 9:30 until noon, with two instructors for about 15 children, for only 5 euro per child per day. Our girls loved it and want to go back all week. This must count as one of the biggest bargains in quality instruction and child care in the area.

Chez Mathé

On our first full day back, we returned to Chez Mathé at 14 Rue Felibre Gault (tel. 04 42 27 35 27) for lunch. The interior no longer smells like fresh paint and a few additional decorations make it even more comfortable. Mathé is just as charming as ever, and remembered our girls, now 6 and 8, but she is running the front of the house by herself, so the service was a bit rushed and uneven as she juggled too many tables. But the food remained high quality and reasonably priced; my lamb was cooked beautifully, my wife's salmon and avocado salad was fresh and generously proportioned, and the children enjoyed their food as well. Recommended.

Back in Aix in 2008

We arrived back in the same apartment on Rue D'Entrecasteux for a stay through the end of July, so I'll update our restaurant reviews and check out some new ones. I just got a bike today, a very nice 'course' or road bike for a what-couldn't-be-called-a-bargain price of 160 Euro for three weeks. More soon!

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Best Restaurant in Aix-en-Provence - Le Formal

During our six weeks in Aix-en-Provence, we've been eating out almost every night, giving us a chance to try a large number of restaurants and go back to those that we liked. What a great experience! Aix has many excellent restaurants, and I've written about many that we've been to in other posts. I've also published a "best of" post that highlights what we like most in categories such as best traditional cuisine or best people-watching.

But in all our dining experiences in Aix, one restaurant stands out, and clearly merits the designation "The Best Restaurant in Aix-en-Provence":

Le Formal (32 rue Espariat - Tel: 33 (0)4 42 27 08 31) is quite a revelation, and given the somewhat obscure location (though close to La Rotonde) and modest signage, I was going to label it a "find," only to learn that it is one of the only restaurants in Aix that is full every single day throughout the year. It is obvious why.

After a long, modern, but narrow hallway at street level, you descend into a beautifully lit set of vaulted dining rooms, combining old stone work with modern art and seating. This is the way 'caves' should be, fresh and airy, yet imbued with a sense of age and history. This is a great and unique environment.

On our first visit, we had the tasting menu featuring truffles (49 euro, the highest on the menu) and were stunned with how good it was. Interesting, innovative, complex, flavorful, and truly rewarding, our biggest question was how Michelin could justify not giving a star to a place that so obviously merits it.

On our second visit, we had the "Revolution" menu, at 39 euro, which only confirmed our initial experience. The first course was a "canneloni," really a light shell filled with a delicious goat cheese mousse, topped with a piece of fish, called rouget. It was beautifully presented on a triangular plate drizzled with two different reductions. The next course was a house-made foie gras pate which may be the best I've ever had, again stylishly presented. Then scallops, succulent, flavorful, and fresh, followed by a lamb that is the way lamb should be. To finish, a dessert in three parts that we greatly enjoyed, and a small plate of cookies arrived with the coffee.

In a word, "impeccable." Undoubtedly inspired by the chef and owner Jean Luc Le Formal's low-key and accessible style (he's greeted us warmly both times at the top of the stairs as we left) the wait staff was competent without the least sense of pretension or over-formality. Food was delivered with excellent pacing, and our glasses were re-filled promptly and unobtrusively.

A good list, with an adequate but not quite broad enough selection of half bottles, Le Formal is clearly able to accomodate a wide range of wine palates and budgets. The selection of wines in the list was done with care and supports the quality of the dining experience, but doesn't break new ground the way the food does. I think a little more of the restaurant's philosphy and personality could be reflected in the wine list and its presentation.

Our experience at Le Formal was more satisfying than the one we had at Clos de la Violette, yet it was less than one third the price. I said in the beginning that I didn't understand why Le Formal has not been given a Michelin star. Perhaps, though, it would stop being a 'find' and a great value and become, instead, a hostage to that rating and acknowledgement. So ignore Michelin stars and have the best dining experience in Aix at Le Formal!

Best Contemporary Restaurants in Aix-en-Provence

There are some wonderful contemporary restaurants in Aix-en-Provence. In this post I'll review Les 2 Freres, Le Restaurant 37, Le Passage, L'Opera, and Mitch. I reviewed Le Formal in a separate post, calling it the best restaurant in Aix.

Last night we ate at Les 2 Freres at 4 Avenue Reine Astrid (telephone 04 42 27 90 32) which is a ten minute walk from La Rotunde in the direction directly away from the old town. In the middle of a residential district is one of the most stunning examples of modern restaurant design I've seen. Stainless steel, wood, glass, bamboo, great lighting, Philippe Starck chairs, stucco, all artfully integrated. I loved it, as would anyone who is, like me, a charter subscriber to Dwell. The food was excellent, though not as innovative as Le Formal. Still, my lamb was some of the best lamb I've ever had, Stri ordered duck, unusual for her, but she said she liked it, and I greatly enjoyed the playful desserts. They made pasta for the girls, and there was a large open area next to the restaurant they could run in when they couldn't sit any longer. This was a great meal in one of my favorite restaurant designs ever. I wish we had gone earlier because we would have been able to experience it more than once. Highly recommended.

Les 2 Freres has a second location in old-town Aix-en-Provence called Le Restaurant 37 at 1 Rue Entrecasteaux ( which features a limited menu that clearly facilitates a focus on quality and innovative presentation. We've gone to Le 37 four times. The soups we had, melon and gazpacho, were wonderfully fresh and beautifully presented. Aubergine wrapped goat cheese was complex and tasty. The main courses - for example, the first time we went we had beef and salmon tartare - were excellent. And the desserts seduced us into finishing them even though we should have stopped because we had eaten everything that came before. Great wine list. Service was good and the decor was comfortable French modern, with draped fabrics, nice lighting, and excellent and rather unique round booths.

Le 37's terrace is large and pleasant, created out of whole cloth from the sidewalk (that is a pun of sorts; they do a great job of walling off the terrace with waist-high fabric), so on those days when you just have to eat outside, and you want high quality, modern food, this is the place to go. Recommended.

Le Passage (10 Rue Villars -- across Cours Mirabeau in the cinema district, tel 04 42 370 900, A modern three story restaurant (and cooking school, etc., see post) that has the best lunch deal so far: 12 Euro 50 for three courses plus drink. This is the place to go when you want somewhere air-conditioned, great value, good quality food, and close by.

The interior is a converted industrial space that clearly has had a tremendous amount of effort put into renovating it, marred only by horrendous spherical lights that I suspect, given the choices displayed in the rest of the decor, are more a consequence of running out of budget than running out of taste. (I'd change out the spindly dried plants, too, but they are not the ambience emergency the lighting is.) Lest you think these comments indicate an unpleasant interior, no, it is more like someone with a great suit that makes the polyester tie they chose really stand out. (In the interests of objectivity, we were just there today for a cooking school, and one of the French woman just volunteered how much she liked the white ball lights. But I stand by my opinion ...)

The first time we went there, our youthful server was unable to operate his PDA terminal quickly enough to capture our order, which he therefore got wrong, and he clearly had a memory like a sieve. But the one error was quickly corrected, and the watchful and very involved presence of the manager kept it all on track. I'm not expecting Michelin star level service for 12 Euros 50. The second time, the service was absolutely fine. Recommended.

L'Opera doesn't have a terrace, so on these hot days, when most everyone wants to eat outside, they are lightly attended. Well, eveyone is missing out. A beautiful modern interior and Provencal food with Moroccan influences, all at a good value, makes this one of the better restaurants in Aix. There is a reason that a couple came in while we were eating and asked the waiter if they could just have dessert and a coffee "to salvage our evening after having a bad experience at one of the restaurants on Cours Mirabeau." (They clearly hadn't read my rules.) The waiter said "you know those restaurants are just for tourists" before graciously seating them. Recommended.

Mitch is at 26 Rue des Tanneurs (telephone 04 42 26 63 08), right off the square that has Le Village and Edyko Armenian/Greek. They completely transform their section of street for their outdoor seating, even putting up bamboo screens against the wall across from the restaurant. Mitch is about modern, elegant, and quality dining. The food is excellent and innovative; no pea soup at Mitch. Instead the pea "cappuccino" is served in a tall glass carafe with creme fraiche on the top and a straw. With the addition of some salt, which I seldom feel the need to do, and a little poking with the straw to mix in the creme fraiche, I found it a tasty, even compelling experience. On a different visit, I had ceviche, which was as good as the best ceviche I've had (at Las Ventanas in Mexico). The main courses also had innovative presentation, the wine list was short but good, and I loved the desserts. But it was sometimes hard to concentrate because it was a Saturday night in July at the intersection of two important streets and the Square de Tanneurs, and the tourists smart enough to navigate away from Cours Mirabeau and the locals were walking by in roughly equal numbers, and the people watching was just fantastic. Recommended.