OUSTAU DE BAUMANIÈRE
Les Baux de Provence, France
If you’ve been thinking about going back to a certain part of the world for nearly 20 years, you don’t want to be disappointed. The last time we were here in 1986 we had walked up to the top of the ruins of Les Baux and looked out over the stunning rock formations and countryside. Something struck me back then, maybe it was the view, maybe it was the way the sun was setting with a mix of vibrant colors and shadows all around us. Maybe it was the fact that it was late September and there were only a few people there?
Fast forward 20 years later. As we made our way up to the town of Les Baux , we were surrounded by tourists and souvenir shops. I sighed. Had I romanticized Les Baux too much? Would the hotel and dinner that evening dissipate any less than perfect thoughts I was having about why I wanted to go back to this part of France so badly?
Checking into the hotel, it didn’t look anything like the pictures in the Relais & Châteaux guidebook. (It looked better.) The hotel is nestled in the valley outside the town of Les Baux with impressive views of the rocks. At night, they project the Oustau “soleil” image on one of the cliff formations and it’s truly spectacular. (It has the potential to be commercially tacky, but actually I thought it worked quite well.)
After a quick dip in the pool, we showered and got dressed for dinner. Although we had an 8 p.m. dinner reservation, we were the only people in the dining room for nearly an hour. I like to think by eating “early,” we get more goodies (as in free nibbles) than people who dine later. Consequently, that night we were served two amuse bouche: a cold carrot curry soup followed by toast points with caviar and cucumber.
With our first course of foie gras paté with cherries and apricots, we had a couple glasses of real rosé champagne from the area. The house specialty at Oustau de Baumanière is lamb en croute. Of course we ordered it! It also takes quite a while to cook so we enjoyed a bottle of Côtes Harvette in the meantime. When they bring out the lamb, they cut it tableside, then plate the rosy slices of meat and slices of puff pastry accompanied by the most delicious mashed potatoes (all butter and cream), I had ever eaten.
A decent cheese plate anywhere in France is pretty much the norm. The cheese offerings at Oustau are beyond anything I had ever seen. First of all they wheel out what looks like a huge silver rocket with different glass counters that rotate showing off all the goods – hard and soft cheeses arranged according to stinkiness plus an incredible selection of blue cheeses and chèvres.
To get through the cheese course, however, we had to order some more wine. We asked them to just bring us a couple of glasses of whatever they had open. Meanwhile, the chef, Jean-André Charial, started roaming around the dining room and talking to people. Since we don’t speak French (really!), we just smiled and nodded and said “merci.” After the amazing cheese course, we debated whether to have dessert. Another specialty of the house was a crêpe soufflé dessert. I love crêpes, I love soufflé. Obviously, I had to try it. This turned out to be an entire soufflé stuffed into crêpes with a chaser of pistachio ice cream. It sounded better than it tasted. (Sorry, chef!)
We thought we were done. But then one of the waiters wheeled over the “candy cart.” The “candy cart” was just a tad smaller than the “cheese rocket.” There’s no way to describe it except to imagine “Willy Wonka’s” factory in miniature. Every imaginable sweet – chocolate lollipops, chocolate truffles and chocolates with cream or liquor were offered. Then we saw the large jars of homemade marshmallows in at least three different pastel shades plus jellies, hard candies, and caramels. After our three hour eating extravaganza we politely declined the “candy course.”
I had dreamt about going back to Les Baux and eating at Oustau for many years. It was very expensive…and worth every cent.