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Great Bistros of Provence

Guy Bouchet A frame of blossoming jaspine adds to the appeal of the bistro's organic menu

Photo: Guy Bouchet

One drizzly, bone-chilling week last winter I was in the Luberon, and the visit was not going well. Bad weather (yes, even in Provence) had caused work plans to go awry, leaving me with lost days and a grumpy disposition. For solace, I took myself to lunch at the cheerful Bistro de France in Apt. Within 20 minutes, planted on the banquette facing a truffle omelette and a generous glass of house rouge, I had an epiphany. I realized that at that moment, surrounded by animated diners and plumes of cigarette smoke, I felt utterly and completely happy. I hesitate to credit the bistro with transcendental powers, but that meal certainly brightened up my crummy day.

In the course of writing a book on Provençal style recently, I traveled from Arles in the Rhône delta, through the mountainous Vaucluse, and eventually over to the Var, often in the company of my photographer, a gourmand who preferred to starve rather than face a jambon sandwich on the run. The noon-to–three o'clock slice of the day, when the light was often too harsh for photographs, provided the perfect opportunity for leisurely lunches in favorite old haunts as well as in some of the area's newest dining spots. Throughout our journey, I looked for the best local bistros, scoping out places that offered a Provençal cuisine du marché—olive oil–based cooking using fresh-from-the-market ingredients. The best places not only provided excellent food but also possessed the four basic characteristics of any good bistro: a distinct personality, intimacy, a convivial atmosphere, and a generous spirit. Here, plucked from our extended journey through the herb-scented landscape of the Midi, are a few favorites.

La Charcuterie

Arles

On a narrow street opening onto the Place du Forum in the heart of old Arles, we found this former charcuterie, dating from 1942. The tiny space is now a winsome bistro with a modest décor of red velvet banquettes and pig figurines. The enterprise is fueled by the passion of François Colcombet, originally from Lyon, and his Arlesian wife, Regouya. Inspired by the tradition of the bouchons lyonnais—tiny bistros with hearty, sausage-based cuisine—François wanted to create a bistro des copains (bistro for friends), as he puts it. Regouya does all the cooking behind the original marble counter, in a space the size of a large sofa. The menu is a carnivore's dream, with main courses that feature Charolais beef, rack of lamb, and grilled duck breast. (For vegetarians stranded here, Regouya is happy to whip up a platter of grilled Mediterranean vegetables, along with a crisp and garlicky mixed green salad.) I made a meal one night of the charcuterie platter, called the assiette anglaise, a lavish spread of cold cuts and a warm saucisson de Lyon aux pistaches, a mild sausage with chopped pistachio nuts in the filling. A dish this rich needs a dynamic red wine, and I splurged on two glasses of a 2000 Côte Rôtie. The pleasures of the inconspicuous Charcuterie have drawn many fans, among them the great foodie Jim Harrison, who chronicled his experience here in his memoir Off to the Side. Harrison might be amused to know that the Colcombets' chocolate Labrador retriever, Lanvin, has gnawed their copy of his book to shreds. 51 Rue des Arènes; 33-4/90-96-56-96; dinner for two $60; closed Sunday and Monday.

Le Bistrot du Paradou

Le Paradou

I had many happy lunches at Chez Quénin, once a humble neighborhood canteen, while working on a book in the early eighties. New owners Jean-Louis and Mireille Pons, from nearby Arles, took over the restaurant shortly thereafter, changing the name to the trendier-sounding Bistrot du Paradou and improving the cuisine, while maintaining the character—vintage-tiled floors, stone walls, timbered ceilings—of the old place. Mireille, the daughter of an Arlesian baker, commands the open kitchen, while the personable Jean-Louis, with his wonderful Provençal accent (vin blanc becomes "veng blahng"), works the room. Just as in the days of Quénin, there is only a single four-course prix fixe at each meal. Tuesday, for example, might feature roasted farm-raised guinea hen, and Friday is the day for aioli, the traditional Provençal feast of steamed vegetables, salt cod, and local snails accompanied by the pungent garlic mayonnaise for which it is named. The price includes a bottle of wine—red, white, or rosé. My most recent dinner started with grilled orange roughy fillets drizzled with olive oil and garnished with basil, followed by a main course of sliced leg of lamb served with a potato gratin. Dessert was Mireille's plump and flaky strawberry tart. "Our most faithful clients call us at the beginning of the week to find out the menus for the next five days," Jean-Louis says, "then plan their week accordingly." 57 Ave. de la Vallée des Baux; 33-4/90-54-32-70; dinner for two $105; closed Sunday and Monday.

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