Cezanne, St. Jacques, and Saint-Pierre

Let’s straighten this out from the very beginning: only one of these is (was) a human being. “Coquilles St. Jacques” is the French for “scallops”, and “Saint-Pierre” is a super-delicious Mediterranean fish known over here as John Dory. The question is: what could possibly bring all of them together? And the answer is, Aix-en-Provence.

 

Aix was the largest (and also most vibrant and youngest) city we visited on our trip to Provence, and I am certain everyone who has been there has a special memory of their own. It is many things to many people, but in my mind it will always be squarely associated with Cezanne, and with most exquisitely prepared fish straight from the market.

one of the many symbols of Provence (and a distant cousin of Two Pigs) in Place Richelme, – location of Aix farmers’ market

Aix is the town where Cezanne was born, where he worked, and died; and therefore, one of the million things for a tourist to do there is to follow in Cezanne’s footsteps. One can visit his last studio (Atelier Cezanne), where everything is painstakingly preserved as at the time of his death, and then walk 1,800 meters up le Chemin des Lauves on the hilltop overlooking Aix. Views from Terrain des Peintres (Painters’ Terrain) are both amazing and familiar, as those are the landscapes that inspired Cezanne around his beloved mountain Sainte-Victoire (the motif of almost 50 of his paintings and watercolors). See if you recognize any of them:


Ok, it is time to get back to Mssrs St. Jacques and Saint-Pierre…

I think we all have had serendipitous perfect dining experiences (or at least, we all have dreamed of having one), where we take a chance on an unresearched restaurant in an unfamiliar town, and this dark horse of a restaurant turns out to be the best meal of our trip… After gazing at Mont St. Victoire for a good while, we started getting peckish, but the descent back into town made us arrive at the planned lunch location at the tail end of the Lunch Period. To make the long story short, they did not have a table for us. By the way, the French offer one quite a short lunch-eating opportunity, – typically between 12-2, or even 12-1:30.


The back-up plan option was unavailable as well, and we went to a place I knew virtually nothing about (not something I like to do on eating trips in Europe!). It turned out, Le Formal (which took pity on us and gave us the last available table) was located in a former cellar space with abstract paintings and vaulted ceiling:

Since it was lunch, and we had been snacking, we went with the 26 euros 3-course option (rather than the 7- or the 9-course option). The restaurant had a well-chosen wine list (always a big plus!), but also delicious by-the-glass selections, such as Chateau de Triennes (a minerally and satisfying Chard), Domaine de la Realtiere Cuvee Cante Gau, or Maison Delas Viognier. After visiting Provence, I am still amazed at how top-notch restaurants have the guts and conviction to serve exclusively (or primarily) wines from the region.

In a true “Farm to Table” manner, it was deja vu all over again at Le Formal!

Among many choices, we noted the spectacular scallops (Coquilles St. Jacques) we had just admired in the marketplace a few hours ago, now served with passion fruit mousse, or with fois gras and wilted arugula. It was also my first time trying John Dory, easily the most tender, sweet and delicate fish I have ever had.

Le Formal was truly sophisticated without being too fussy or pretentious. I think it is fair to say it turned out to be one of the most enjoyable eating experiences in Provence (and overall on the trip). Later I found out that the chef, Jean Luc Formal (who, incidentally, made a point to shake our hands on the way out of the restaurant as if we were regulars), uses some of the techniques and equipment invented by the chef at El Bulli. We certainly found our meal to be flawlessly executed, and a fantastic value to boot. And Aix – to be a new source of inspiration, both gastronomic and aesthetic.

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10 thoughts on “Cezanne, St. Jacques, and Saint-Pierre

    • Many places we visited have a nice ambiance, but this one was also a great fit for us. I am not a big fan of buzzy places, and Le Formal was nicely tucked away and removed from the bustling street. It was full of adults having a leisurely lunch (mostly in groups of 2 or 3), thoughtfully taking the time to appreciate the wonderful food and the company. I must add that I am a sucker for vaulted ceilings and cellars; that is my idea of heaven.

  1. I agree it’s a lovely experience to stumble upon a great restaurant unexpectedly. Le Formal does not look like a random shack or tourist trap though ;-) Sounds like I should definitely go eat there when I’m in Provence (nothing planned yet, unfortunately).

    Do you know how the John Dory was prepared? Sounds like it may have been sous vide?

    • Well, to let you in on a little secret, it was not a totally random discovery (the name was in my research notes, but it came from a source I did not completely trust). I am still dreaming about discovering a place totally on my own…
      Yes, I believe Saint-Pierre was cooked sous-vide, given its texture. Pure and simple.

  2. Sounds amazing. On my last trip there I only visited Arles and Avignon. Kind of kicking myself for not completing the Three A’s as they’re called. And, one of the biggest disappointments of the entire trip was La Camarque! Instead of white horses galloping wild through waves most of them were in too small paddocks – looking rather grey.

    • Bummer!!! I recommend that next time you do visit Aix (and at least a few smaller villages in the Luberon).
      Speaking of Le Camargue, a week before we went on the trip, I suddenly realized that we were going to be in Arles THE day of Feria des Paques (the day before Easter marking the beginning of the bullfighting season and general festivities). During the season there are also competitions and parades of Camargue horses, and we were lucky to see some fine specimen strutting around. And of course, everyone (including me) was eating Camargue bull, another Camargue specialty.

      • Even the Camargue (spelt it wrong last time) bull stew I had tasted as if the beef had been cooked in brine! Was so hungry I forced myself to eat it. The other aspect were all of the motor homes – I’ve never seen so many! And, it was only early May. What’s it’s like in high summer…

        • I can’t possibly imagine…all the towns and villages we visited in early April were already packed with tourists. Then again, it is such a beautiful time of the year to visit.
          I have not had bull stew but the most famous version (the traditional la guardiane de taureau) is, in fact, marinated in vinegar overnight, I believe. Next time, try the steak; I really enjoyed mine.

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