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.
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.
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.