We recently indulged in a three day food tour in southern France.
For planning, I wanted to avoid all of the Michelin craziness. Blindly trusting in the guide impressed me as a superficial way to avoid doing one’s own research for good cooking, but how else to proceed? We had no network and we do not even speak French.
The best starting point turned out to be published traveler’s journals, especially involving food. However, these books, being books, were dated. So much of travel writing is now being blogged on line. But a travel book is more reliable because it had to be accepted by a publisher and their editors, so there was an evaluation of an author’s credibility prior to publishing. There is no such referee process for anyone wanting to blog on line; credibility and expertise are often lacking, of late. The ‘happy medium’ consisted of listing the farms, cafes, other establishments, and the chefs that all contributed to the storied meals of the recent past and then using the internet to find out if each contributor was still contributing. In most cases establishments had ceased operation or the chefs moved on or, sadly, had died.
In many cases it was easy to find the menus of current establishments online, which filled in one important datum of what I wanted to know. To evaluate service, reliability and attitude required the use of Yelp, Tripadvisor and online reservation web sites, such as thefork.com.
Tripadvisor is a good example of a huge universe of uninformed opinion studded with pearls of expertise. (I am neither uninformed nor expert, and so it is important for me to have access to sincere, credible and knowledgeable critics.) To use Tripadvisor, I found it necessary to review the reviewers. All of us have read a one-star review (“I couldn’t give no stars, but if I could…”) by someone who amplifies an insignificant slight or someone who suffers a true inconvenience that is guaranteed not to be a problem for most of us (“We showed up [at a formal dining room] with our six-month-old twins and they wouldn’t let us in…”). As one might expect, reviews of French eating establishments were most credible from French reviewers. I am thankful for online translators, though sometimes they can be next-to-useless. Reviews from Londoners and most of the United States tended to be Pollyanna-ish and hardly credible. Forgive my profiling, but they were usually not consistent with reviews from native critics. Then there is the meta-analysis: in any given city, there are restaurants with over a thousand reviews on TA and those with less than fifty, and both of these establishments can lie within the ‘top ten’. Since TA is predicated on travelers and not necessarily on chowhounds, a robust familiarity of TA reviewers with an establishment may means that it has been loved to death. I avoided any place with too many reviews. We all think that our fellow travelers are very nice taken individually but insufferable in the aggregate. Otherwise, why would we avoid tourist venues? Please do not get me wrong, there are quite a few popular roadside-dive establishments that are on my must-detour-to list, but this was not our agenda for the south of France. The ‘numbers profile’ also says something about a restaurant’s reliability. For the same overall score of, say, four and one-half stars, we would all be more comfortable with an establishment that racked up an equal number of credible five- and four-star reviews, than we would be with one that was top-loaded with five star reviews but also had a significant number of three, two and one star comments. Careful reading can usually elaborate the defects in service, attitude and reliability.
Having used travel journals reevaluated with recent on line reviews, we came up with four restaurants that we felt were not unduly basking in the glow from Michelin stars and that were as close to rock-solid reliable as we could determine from four thousand miles and one language away. Not to keep you in suspense, these were the following:
La Bastide St. Antoine, Grasse
Les Jardin des Sens, Montpellier
S Comm, Palaja, Carcassonne
Lest you think that ‘everyone should try these’ or ‘why did they settle on these four that are hundreds of kilometers apart?’ it must be said that our decisions were affected by our personal preferences and what was available for the winter menus during the first week in March.
One evaluation that we unfortunately did not make until all of our travel arrangements were set was to find out the hours and availability of the establishments. This should be done at the same time as deciding upon the menu and the reliability. We did not do this and so we had some marathon driving to do in order to enjoy the meals that we had set for ourselves. We enjoyed ourselves in spite of a tight schedule.
Our favorite experience on the list was at S Comm, the most casual and off-the radar of all of our choices. We wanted to eat provincially in the Provinces, which is why we avoided Paris, and why I ordered cassoulet at S Comm in Carcassonne; it was an epiphany.
Our overall favorite meal was not even on our list. Having arrived in conservative Spain/southern France on a Sunday, we knew that very few places would be open for lunch, let alone the kind of small chef- or family-owned and run places that attract our attention. When lunchtime hunger finally pulled us off the road, it was in Narbonne. We had no idea where we would go or what we would find for lunch; we even had trouble finding the city center. We finally drove by a promising looking place that seemed to be open, judging by the cars parked nearby. This godsend happened to be La Table Saint Crescent. We had the most wonderful three course Sunday lunch. Serendipity trumps preparation. The telling of it would require its own post. I think you would enjoy googling these places on line more than wading through my amateurish description of our meals.