A trio of restaurants in France – in Paris, Châteauneuf-du-Pape and Marseille. Above, chef Christophe Hardiquest of La Mère Germaine.
Four successive nights in three very different French locations meant at least ten meals which brought great pleasure, as well as the realisation that the appeal of French cuisine is far wider than is sometimes thought. The standard of the cooking in all the kitchens was high. I learned a great deal about the attributes of the ideal waiter. And some of the views from where we ate were breathtaking.
Having missed the Paul Smith take on the Musée Picasso thanks to a very delayed Eurostar train, we headed straight for a return lunch at Vantre, an extremely wine-friendly and justifiably popular restaurant in the 11th arrondissement. The last time we ate there was back in 2019 and the food and the wines were just as good and as fascinating as they had been on this first visit.
But the second time around, I learned several illuminating things.
Firstly, that most restaurants in France now welcome vegetarians, offering much more than just the cheese omelette that was the standard vegetarian option in the past. What has finally brought about this change is difficult to pinpoint: popular pressure; the rise in price of alternative ingredients; or the example set by certain top chefs such as Alain Passard. But this is definitely the case. Here, from the set lunch menu, we both began with an excellent pea soup that was rich and distinctive.
Secondly, and this was a common factor throughout our stay, the quality of the bread was extremely high: here in Paris, then in Châteauneuf-du-Pape, and finally in Marseille.
Thirdly, perhaps the most disappointing fact about Vantre for us visitors from London is that, like so many other restaurants in Paris, it is closed on Saturdays and Sundays. But, as I learned from Marco Pellatier, Vantre’s relaxed owner who was very present on the floor and behind the bar (as above), this policy has advantages for his team. ‘The weekend brings in some of the sort of occasional customers whom we avoid. But Mondays bring in any number of sommeliers, chefs and restaurateurs, whose own restaurants are closed on Mondays and the atmosphere in this restaurant on a Monday can be really exciting with lots of tables swapping bottles of wine.’ (The same is true in London. Like the three Noble Rots, St John in Smithfield is very busy on Mondays and, as a result, Henry Harris’s Bouchon Racine nearby will open on Monday evenings from September).
Finally, watching Pellatier in action brought home to me that to be as welcoming and charming as he is requires a combination of attributes: knowledge; a ready smile; warmth; as well as a love of food, wine and of his fellow human beings. But on this occasion, I was struck by Pellatier’s physical agility, including his flexibility behind the bar and his ability to kneel beside our table for a conversation. And he is not so tall that his customers have to strain to look up at him. These qualities, which the manager at Le Comptoir de la Mère Germaine in Châteauneuf-du-Pape exhibited as well, are as invaluable to the success of any aspiring restaurant as the excellence of the kitchen or the depth of its wine list.
La Mère Germaine, Châteauneuf-du-Pape
Early in the 20th century there was a French tradition of naming restaurants after their strong and accomplished female chefs and assigning them the title Mère. The restaurant founded by La Mère Brazier continues to thrive in Lyon just as La Mère Poulard in Mont St-Michel in Brittany continues to charm customers with its rich omelettes. After a long hiatus since its original opening in the 1920s by Germaine Vion, La Mère Germaine is once again serving excellent food in the centre of Châteauneuf in the southern Rhône, thanks to Arnaud and Isabelle Strasser, a couple from outside the region, as described here by Jancis.
That the Strassers have achieved so much in such a short time (see The transformation of Châteauneuf) is down to a combination of factors: their self-acknowledged naivety at the outset; their own high standards coupled with unbounded energy; and their good fortune in finding a chef as talented as Christophe Hardiquest to be their consultant.
I first ate, and wrote about, Hardiquest’s terrific food at Bon Bon, his aptly named restaurant in Brussels, in April 2019. COVID-19 forced Bon Bon’s closure and Hardiquest is now cooking at Menssa, a smaller, set-menu restaurant in Brussels, when he’s not in Châteauneuf or en route there by train.
In establishing the brigade at La Mère Germaine, setting particularly high standards for the menu and the tone of the restaurant, as well as winning a Michelin star, Hardiquest seems to have imbued his chefs with a level of confidence that their relative inexperience would not suggest. This was reflected in our four-course lunch: a thoroughly green dish of asparagus, spinach and a fresh garlic mousse (above); a refreshing fish dish made vivid by a dill vinaigrette and radish granité topped with a light cream of smoked fromage blanc; delicious barbecued Sisteron lamb with a rectangle of succulent, shiny aubergine braised in red wine; and more variations on green in the dessert of garrigue sorbet in a sweet soup of cucumber and fennel (below). All this may look too complex but the balance of flavours and textures on the plate was impressive.
The partnership between the Strassers and Hardiquest has so far been successful. If there is a lesson to be learned from it, it must be that if your ambition is a one-star Michelin restaurant, then hire someone who has already garnered two!
Les Bords de Mer, Marseille
The English translation of the name of this hotel is ‘the seaside’. Nothing could be closer to reality. Below is the view from our room to our left, including the rooftop bar.
This bright white sliver of a hotel, which opened in 2019, occupies a narrow strip of land next to the city’s famous Plage des Catalans. Every bedroom therefore has a balcony right on the sparkling Mediterranean. Myriad sailboats scooted across the water in the distance, dodging the ferries that plough their way to Corsica and beyond.
The site, formerly a cafe and two-star hotel, was bought and is now managed by the Domaines de Fontenille group of hotels, which clearly understands the importance of hospitality and of good food and wine to their customers’ enjoyment and to their own bottom line.
We ate twice in the hotel, the first time in the rooftop bar and the second time in their ground-floor restaurant. From each location the views are simply stunning. As our waiter explained as we both looked out to sea, ‘Coming here to work in the morning immediately puts me in a very good mood.’ He then laughed out loud.
The menu on the rooftop bar is made up of snacks rather than dishes but they were delicious. We began with panisses, the chickpea-based sticks that are a Marseille speciality, served alongside a well-made anchovy mayonnaise; then moved on to spring rolls and finished with the arrangement below described as ‘pizza pastèque, feta, olives’. Five sectors of watermelon were cut horizontally and topped with salty cheese and fruity black olives.
The lot, with a couple of glasses of unoaked Dom de Fontenille rosé and a bottle of mineral water, came to €60, spectacular people-watching included.
We left our bedroom for a sunset cocktail at 7.30 pm and ten minutes later I was back, firmly closing the windows which we had naively left open. In the interim a storm had suddenly blown in, preceded by thunder and lightning. The rain, bouncing off the terrace and soaking the floor, had cleared the beach, but the views were just as fascinating, if slightly different from before.
From a kitchen a floor below the restaurant, linked by dumb-waiters to a small service area, the chefs – led by chef Camille Gandolfo – provide an interesting menu. A first course of clams served in a reduction of a sauce with plenty of diced celery and cumin seeds was excellent; their take on the local bouillabaisse was good but not as good without the requisite pieces of fish, which had been puréed into the soup; while the rum baba dessert was massively over-generous. With a bottle of white, my bill for two came to just over €200. Spectacular views of the storm as it swept in were not charged for.
Vantre 19 rue de la Fontaine au Roi, 75011 Paris, France; tel: +33 (0)1 48 06 16 96
La Mère Germaine 3 rue Commandant Le Maître, 84230 Châteauneuf-du-Pape, France; tel: +33 (0)4 90 22 78 34
Les Bords de Mer 52 Corniche Kennedy, 13007 Marseille, France; tel: +33 (0)4 13 94 34 00