Sunday, May 31, 2009

Baumaniere: Perfection!

Oustau de BaumanierePhotobucketPhotobucketMuscat and Olives
Outside Seating at Baumaniere
2001 Chateau Clos des PapesFoie Gras MousseFoie Gras with Pomegranate JellyPhotobucketLobster BisqueWild PigeonCheese PlateSorbet Number TwoSorbetAshton 20 YearFruit Glaze
Firstly, let me apologize in advance for the length of this, my initial post. I got a little carried away, but I hope there are those that will hang in there for the whole thing. Enjoy!

There are many thoughts which go into blogging. Being a total layman has handicapped me with my first post. Where do I begin? Should I start from this point in my life and move forward? Or should I start from some memorable moment in the past and blog without fear of being behind, in a medium which is always up to date? If there is a blogging etiquette I don't know it, so forgive me during these first posts as I am learning the ropes. After long deliberation, I have finally decided where to begin. It became shockingly clear to me while browsing through photographs from my honeymoon in Provence last year. There is a restaurant in the South of France known for its incredible food, and also for it's incredibly expensive prices. The restaurant is Oustau de Baumaniere, in Les Baux de Provence.

References to this magnificent restaurant were made in all three of Peter Mayle's trilogy of books on Provence. In all three entries there were mentions of the high price of a meal at this hallowed establishment. There was even one case of a resident of Provence having to save up all year for a meal there. But he did each and every year. A true foodie. When I discovered Oustau de Baumaniere, while doing research for my honeymoon, it was a no brainer. I booked three months in advance to ensure a table and I began dieting immediately to compensate for any indulgences I was likely to encounter in Provence.

Our honeymoon took place in late August 2008 and we went to most of the major towns in Provence, but our home base was in Avignon at the Hotel d'Europe. Which deserves an entry of its own and will get one in good time. It is, in my opinion, one of the last of a dying breed of hotels. A hotel, that is both reasonable in price and grandiose at the same time. It was the only hotel in Avignon to be listed in the first edition of The Michelin Guide to France and has been listed each year ever since. The drive to Les Baux de Provence from Avignon is truly one of the most romantic, beautifully scenic drives in the world. It takes about 45 minutes and stretches along very well contoured and weathered hills, perfect for European sports cars, of which we saw two, both Ferrari's. I could tell as I got closer to Les Baux that they take things seriously in this part of Provence. Not in a bad, Americanized sort of way, but they have a zest for life, which is a rare and lovely thing. The turnoff for the restaurant is extremely sharp and I almost lost my wife out the window before we had a chance to eat, what would be our most memorable meal to date. We arrived unscathed and ready to indulge. A quick change into proper attire, slacks and dress shoes and we were off.

We arrived a little early, not untypical of me, especially when there is food involved. The Maitre d', who I would learn later was named Sergio and had a spectacular cigar collection, told us that the restaurant was not quite open yet, but if we wanted to we could sit on the veranda and have drinks before lunch. A new libation had entered our vocabulary since coming to Provence, one which, and I'm afraid to say this, we hadn't heard of before. It was Muscat. We first had this glorious dessert wine at Restaurant Christian Etienne in Avignon. A restaurant which I'm horribly ashamed to say I have almost no photos of and almost no recollection of the food, except that my wife and I enjoyed it a great deal. Needless to say, there will not be an entry on Restaurant Christian Etienne. Although I do highly recommend it. Our Muscat was served with two different kinds of olives and a Tapenade, which quickly got polished off with quiet ease and tranquility. When the restaurant opened we were escorted through a myriad of outside tables, which reside under a set of sprawling trees that keep the sun at bay. Each table is adorned with a small statue of an olive tree. My wife quickly fell in love and I said we would see how much it was later. We found out after the mean that they sold them in the gift shop for $300 and that was end of that conversation.

The scenery at Oustau de Baumaniere is incredibly hard for me to describe. In fact, I think it would be hard for all but the most literate and poetic writers to capture on paper all of it's beauty and intricacies. But I will try. Baumaniere sits below craggy hills, which house the town of Les Baux de Provence. The town itself is not visible from where we were sitting but the hills on the other side of the town were in plain site. There is a swimming pool about 100 feet from where our table was and we could see the residents of the hotel cooling off from the 90+ degree weather. Their plush Baumaniere bath robes draped around their bodies when they walked past us presumably to go back to their rooms and escape the heat. Our waiter delivered our menus to us and placed my wife's handbag on a hook attached to the edge of the table. A few minutes of heated discussion took place when we realized the prices were so far out of our league that it actually created a physical reaction in me. My wife, being more of a risk taker in the gastronomic quandaries of life, told me she'd like the chef's tasting menu, which was at that time a very impressive 180 Euros. The Dollar, not quite being what it was in previous generations was not my friend at the moment and that 180 Euros was equivalent to about $280. I quickly calculated what we had left in the bank for our honeymoon and decided against the tasting menu. My wife decided to diffuse the situation and went to the ladies room. I don't know how it happened, but somehow between the time she left and the time she returned I had changed my mind on the tasting menu and she nearly fell over in her chair when I told her we could do it. I think the turning point was when I saw the a la carte menu and though my math was not very good, with four courses it would have been about double the price. This was clearly not going to be a cheap meal and I needed to just forget about that for now and square it away with American Express when I got home.

After the decision had been made to have the chef's tasting menu it was now my pleasure and my honor to choose the wine. I picked up the rather large wine menu and quickly turned to the Bordeaux section. Scanning briefly, I could tell that I either had to quickly start up an internet business and have it go public in the next 3 minutes, or I was going to have to choose another region. The Bordeaux menu didn't include any entries under 3 digits in price. And in most cases the price was much more. They had all the major players, Chateau Lafite, Cos d'Estournel, Leoville Las Cases, Latour and many more. No, Bordeaux was out of my league today, so I decided to see what they had in the way of half bottles and let cost dictate our wine choice instead of taste buds. To my great satisfaction they had a bottle of 2001 Clos des Papes listed for 80 Euros. Completely in our budget.

The waiter came back when he could see we had reached a decision and we told him we'd like the tasting menu and a half bottle of Clos des Papes. He praised our selections and asked if we'd like an aperitif, perhaps Pastis would be in order. Another discovery of ours since coming to Provence. We had fallen in love with it in the same restaurant that we fell in love with Muscat, Restaurant Christian Etienne. The waiter brought our Pastis out and it seemed like only a few minutes later we were being served our first selection from the tasting menu while the sommelier gracefully decanted the Clos des Papes.

The first course was a small glass of foie gras mousse topped with what we thought to be quails egg and served with a tiny piece of savory brioche. It was, to say the least, delicious. The consistency of the foie gras was unlike anything I had tried before and when I was done I only wanted more. The second course was more foie gras and my wife and I looked at each other with extremely confused expressions on our face. "Two courses of foie gras, is that legal?" My wife said to me. Neither one of us had eaten more than one course of foie gras in our entire lives and this was something brave and new for us both. It was topped with a pomegranate puree which complimented the savory foie gras perfectly. Delicate and smooth as is glided onto my palate and was quickly devoured, hungry for more. Next the waiter brought out a lobster bisque, but unlike anything I have had in the U.S. There was an extremely foamy consistency to it, which I found to be delightful. The next course was more of the same, a seafood bisque with a mushroom reduction sauce, which was our favorite part of the meal. It tasted like Marmite and mushrooms and although that doesn't sound appetizing, it was one of the greatest things I have ever put into my mouth. After the 4th course I was starting to get a little full and I didn't quite know how I was going to handle the wild pigeon. However, when it was served and I saw a small foot staring me in the face I knew I had my answer. I have always been into trying new things and this was certainly new to me. Please keep in mind, these are not the pigeons you find in Central Park, these are wild pigeons, which have never seen a cab, or a street sign. And it was brilliant.

The cheese trolley was next and I could smell it coming from 200 feet away. When it arrived I could see all kinds of greens and yellows, melting in the heat of Provence. I asked the waiter to please choose a selection of the strongest cheeses for me and he did not let me down. My wife had the same and we both commented on how these cheeses have never been matched by any other we've eaten. The next two courses were both sorbet of different kinds and then a small plate of Petit Fours. Sergio, the Maitre d' came out around this time and asked how everything was and inquired about the nature of our visit. He saw my cigar laying in waiting, an Ashton ESG 20 Year Salute and he asked me if he could do the honors and cut it for me. I agreed and he made a perfect cut, then asked if he could light it. Again, I agreed and thought to myself, "this is unreal. How does it get better than this?" He came back to the table with a perfect light, something I have yet to achieve and I thanked him. He also came back with a humidor filled with Cuban cigars and told me to choose one. I looked at him with such humility that to this day I do not know how I pulled it off. But the thought was too profound to not feel completely taken aback by his gesture. He pulled out a fabulous Churchill for me and wrapped it up in cling film so it didn't get exposed to the dry heat. My wife and I sat there, looking out onto the hills and saying nothing to each other. We just took it in. There was still one more course. A selection of glace' fruit, which the waiter chose for us and we hardly ate any of. Not because they weren't good, but because we were so full from our previous courses that the thought of more food didn't sit well with either of us.

I finished my cigar and just at that point the bill came. I hesitated in opening it and before I did my wife and I took exaggerated guesses at the final cost. We both said, jokingly, "600 Euros" with a grimace and when I opened it, a staggering 480 Euros was printed below the Oustau de Baumaniere logo. With tip the total was just over 580 Euros, which was very close to our estimate. That was our most expensive meal to date, at around $800 for the two of us, it has never been beaten. Which is one of the reasons I chose this as my first official entry. Everything at Oustau de Baumaniere is grand and extreme. The flavors, the scenery, the drinks, everything. It is a restaurant that is worth saving up for, no matter how long it takes. Do it once in your life and I promise you will not regret it.

My professional photography website: Taylor Young Photography

No comments:

Post a Comment