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The Final Week: Abac, Le Petit Nice, Regis Marcon, Maison Pic, Table des Amis & Bartolomeus

With Tokyo, Hong Kong, Shanghai, the Amalfi Coast, Rome and Paris now in the rear view mirror, I had finally arrived at the final week of the infamous birthday trip. And after enjoying so many meals in unique locations, it was back to travel as usual for the final week. That meant moving around Europe from city to city on a daily basis. So I bid adieu to my family and I got in a taxi headed for Orly Airport where the plan was to board a plane to Barcelona.

A second visit to a restaurant is atypical for me but there are four general exceptions to that rule: My first meal was so exceptional that I want to enjoy the experience a second time; The chef showed a lot of potential so I want to check up on his or her development; I expect the experience to be sufficiently different because of an expansion or change of locations; Word of mouth about the restaurant has improved significantly. In the case of Abac, the combination of building a hotel/restaurant in the posh Zona Alta, and a huge uptick in the word of mouth, conspired, so I decided to pay the restaurant another visit.

Which brings me back to my first meal. The original Abac was in a category of restaurant I will describe as
molecular light. It took place during the height of the molecular era so you could easily see the impact that molecular techniques had on Jordi Cruz’s cuisine. But instead of being focused on the various parlor tricks that chefs with pedigree’s like Adria and Roca possessed, Cruz’s cuisine was ingredient oriented. The thing is, Cruz didn’t utilize the techniques to get the maximum flavor out of the ingredients. The result was a cuisine that was pleasant but underwhelming. And I was hoping to find a correlation between the uptick in the word of mouth about his cooking, and a shift away this paradigm.

Wrong. Cruz’s might have amped up the intensity of flavors a bit, but his cooking still seems to be trapped in a maze of molecular techniques that he can’t seem to find his way out of. Don’t get me wrong; dishes such as various Bread and tomato ice cream, scarmozza and anchovies, smoked steak tartare with seasoned snow-like beef, cooked egg yolk, veil of mustard, Squid treated as risotto with hydrated tigernuts and caviar, Palamos prawns with Iberian textures and Marinated Iberian pork with foie gras and barbecued aubergines ranged from good to very good. But the the level of excellence that I have been reading about on other blogs just wasn’t there.
Recommended + + which is well below what I expected.

The next morning I had an early flight to Marseille. That meant the my sightseeing in Barcelona was limited to what I could glean from the window of a taxi which made me a bit grumpy. But as soon as I arrived at Le Petit Nice, all was well I found that they had upgraded me to a lovely seaside room that had an extended terrace. And after spending a mere five minutes relaxing on a chaise five in that glorious sunshine, the bounce was back in my step and I was ready for my next conquest. Lunch.

I had spent very little time in Marseille. In fact, over the past 30 years I had visited the south of France on countless occasions. But I had only been to the city twice, and both times it was for lunch and a short walk around city’s main port. I knew even less about the city’s restaurant scene, other than where I was having dinner. And there is a dearth of good printed material that has been published in English about where to go eat. But after doing a bit of searching on the Internet, I came across this very useful article in The Guardian.

Located in the city’s oldest neighborhood and
unremarkable looking, from the outside, Pizzeria Chez Etienne looks no different than hundreds of Italian & Provencal restaurants that are strung along the coast. But step inside and you quickly realize that it is an important gathering place in the city, and the walls are filled with the pictures of the proprietor posing with various politicians, celebrities and athletes. The cuisine is technically Southern Italian, but has been adapted to incorporate the local flavors, resulting in the unique, as well as uniquely delicious, brand of Italian cuisine that you can find along France’s Mediterranean coast.

Famous for the beef they serve - in fact a number of sizzling double cut steaks on the way to other tables whizzed by my head - I was by myself, and I did not want to spoil my dinner. So I settled for some pizza, and then for some fried cuttlefish (no photos.) Ah yes, I remember those flavors well.
That unique combination of olive oil, garlic & herbs that permeates the coast of France between Marseille and the Italian border. It’s a taste I will never forget, and one that I am always happy to reacquaint myself with after a long absence. Hats off to places like Chez Etienne for keeping that tradition alive. And I will surely be back for one of those steaks. Recommended

After lunch I needed to find a new charger for my phone, and the hotel gave me the address of a shop in the center of the city that was likely to have it. I had the location blocked off on a map, but I did not really know where the restaurant was in relation to the shop. The waiter was kind enough to point me in the right direction, and my walk started out on a wonderful covered staircase called the Passage de Lorette, which was like something out of an Atget photo.

So let me say the following about Marseille. Cool place, and it wouldn’t surprise me if the hipsters in the Paris food scene created an enclave in the city. I had always thought that Nice had the potential to be hipster gentrified. But there is too much money in the area. On the other hand Marseille has much cheaper real estate, a multi-cultural population, it’s a bit gritty and edgy but still magnificent in the way that only a city in the South of France can be, and has not yet been spoiled by oligarchs or captains of industry. And it is only 3 hours and 13 minutes by TGV from Paris. So when a few months later, my friend Stephanie Bitteau raved to me Alexandre Mazzia’s new restaurant in the city, I wasn’t all that surprised. In fact it wouldn’t surprise me if Marseille became an extension of what is going on in Paris’s 9th & 11th arrondisement’s.

I was a bit apprehensive about my dinner at Le Petit Nice. I had been off of classic French cuisine for some time. But over the past year or so, the reviews I began collecting about various restaurants serving traditional French cuisine had definitely seen an uptick. So I decided to schedule visits to three restaurants I had never been to: Le Petit Nice, Regis Marcon & Maison Pic, and which all placed in the 2014 version of the OAD Top 100 European Restaurants .

Hard to imagine a more lovely setting for a restaurant. In a chic area of Marseille’s 7th arr. known as Endoume, the restaurant sits on the most prominent piece of seaside real estate in area. The cuisine was significantly lighter and more forward tasting than I thought it would be. Preparations are simple and included an exceptional bonito sashimi dish, a magnificent snowy white langoustine, and the house classic of sea bass with black truffle. Tasty stuff and reviewing the photos for this post is bringing back good memories.
Recommended ++ 1/2

The best way to describe Regis Marcon’s restaurant is Bras light. I say that because for those of you who have visited Michel Bras’s restaurant in Lagioule and have enjoyed the ultra-modern installation on the top of a hill with views facing into a valley, Regis Marcon has copied that idea and built a similar edifice at the edge of the Ardeche. Except the stark modernity found at Bras has been replaced by a decor with a slightly more traditional feel, Especially in the dining room. An additional treat was that I was being joined by my old friend, Stephane Ogier, and his wife Stina, who drove down from Ampuis for dinner. Back in the old days when I was an active wine collector, I use to see Stephane on the rate of once or twice a year. But after I stopped buying wine we lost touch. But Facebook has a wonderful way of reacquainting people so we organized this dinner. Marcon is famous for his use of mushrooms. And since it was springtime, we had a pretty good sampling. I don’t think that Regis ever met a mushroom he didn’t like, and we enjoyed them paired with whitefish, lobster tail, St. Pierre, in a tea paired with ravioli and with lamb.
Recommended +++

Off to Valence and Maison Pic. The drive from St. Bonnet-les-Froids to Pic is about an hour and fifteen minutes. I had a mid-afternoon train to Brussels to catch, so I was a bit short on time. But when I arrived I found that the restaurant serves a five course menu which was perfect for me. Lovely ingredients and nice cooking in a sort of modernized version of classic French cooking. Among the highlights were a turbot with peas and a plump pigeon served in a smoked pigeon broth.
Recommended ++ 1/2

After all of that rushing it turned out my train was 2 hours late. That’s right, two hours. So rather than arriving in Brussels in time to check into my hotel and make a 9:30 dinner, I went straight from the station to La Paix to meet my friend Scott, who had been stuffing his face with starters while he was waiting for me. I know I have written about La Paix before, but for those of you who missed those posts, it is worth saying it again. With it’s cheffy starters followed by copious portions of grilled and braised meats. David Martin’s brasserie in Brussels’s Anderlecht district is an unusual combination of L’Ami Louis, an asador in Spain and Arpege. Only open for lunch on weekdays with the exception of dinner on Friday, it is my go to place whenever I’m in Brussels.

Table des Amis is in the very Flemish town of Kortrijk. My friend Jean-Paul Perez has been touting it for a number of years, and with the OAD Top 100 event scheduled to be in Brussels that Monday evening, I decided to spend the weekend check out restaurants within earshot of the city. Run by the always smiling Mathieu Beaudart and his sommelier wife, Sophie Debelke, it is set in an old house in a quiet part of the town. I have to say I was expecting a bit more after all of JP’’s raving. The food was nice but I thought Mathieu played it a bit safe, and the style sort of hovered in the middle of what I will describe as Belgium’s Big 3: The hyper-naturalism of In de Wulf, the elaborated minimalism of Hertog Jan, and the surgical precise flavor combination found at L’Air du Temps. Fortunately (or unfortunately depending on your point of view), one of my dinner companions returned a few weeks later to enjoy what he described as “a great meal." Hopefully it will impress more next time.
Recommended + 1/2

Sunday morning we boarded the train to Knokke, which is the Belgian equivalent of Deauville or the Hamptons. Bartolomeus sits right across the street from the beach, but views of the water are mostly blocked by rows of cabanas which stretch as far as the eye can see. The small, contemporary dining room was filled with a smart looking crowd, and the menu - filled with luxury ingredients like Wagyu beef tartar, Gillardeau oysters, caviar, turbot etc, -- was equally as smart. Given the setting we thought the cooking was going to be on the classic side, but we were pleasantly surprised when the food tuned out to be much more modern than we thought it was going to be.
Recommended ++

The next night was the Top 100 European restaurant announcement , followed by an evening casual in Londo where I enjoyed a tasty Belted Galloway steak at Goodmans (no photo.) It was now June 8 and I had been on the road since May 9. To say it was the trip of a lifetime is an understatement. But it was so much fun, and I totally got into the rhythm of an extended itinerary. Most people ask me how I could eat so many meals, day after day. But the truth be told it was easy.