I originally intended to try the "main" Rabanel restaurant, but the tables outside were packed full and the interior looked gloomy. After five days at a conference with countless coffe-breaks and social dinners, I felt I wasn't perhaps hungry enough, so I opted for the Bistrot, which is really "next door" as the name suggests - I ended up at a little table with my back to the counter and a view through an, uhm, French window and across the road onto the kitchen (tidy and clean; halfway through my meal one of the chefs even carefully mopped the floor at the end of his shift). The interior has colourful contemporary décor with sober tables and fanciful photos artwork on the walls on the theme of, let's say, more or less "corrida and erotica," that cheerfully accompany your meal (there's none of the gruesome detail - and some of the bulls are faux); I only realized that there was music in the background (flamenco-inspired) when all of the other customers had gone. Rather more intrusive is a TV screen (without sound) that shows Rabanel in his kitchen, at the market, and around major landmarks in Arles. More on that later.
Given the late hour - 1.45 PM - I opted for the set menu. A smiling young waitress came round with a little dish of appetizers - two tiny bowls containing mixed olives and tapenade respectively, and thinly sliced, crispy toast to go with them. She asked me (in French) if I would like a little "apéritif" and brought me the wine list. It turned out that they only had one type of white wine by the glass (and similarly with rosé or red) - since I was alone, I was an unlikely candidate for buying a whole bottle; yet the waitress only showed up some 8 minutes later to pick up my drinks order - including much-needed water (dry bread and tapenade can make you thirsty, you know!!), and by the time she got back the little plate had cooled completely - so had the bread. Uhm.
Now for me as a Genoese, neither tapenade nor marinated olives taste particularly exotic, though they were both good quality and so was the bread. However I have to say that they left you with an impression of having eaten something a little too oily and heavy.
The wine was a VDP des Alpilles 2011, Domaine de Lansac, with a lovely herbaceous bouquet and a neat acidic finish. I found it very good.
The entrée was a "potato salad with vinegar, Provençal-style", which turned out to be more or less a reinterpretation of what the world knows as Salade Niçoise, and we Genoese, a cundiggiun. So I was faced again with a major classic of my home cuisine. Never mind, it was very well executed - and I sent back a clean plate. It was a "white", i.e., tomato-less version (thumbs up for that, esp. in mid-October - and probably more traditional too), elegantly presented in a single strip on a rectangular plate. Under a layer of rocket there appeared thin slices of hard-boiled egg and under them, boiled potato slices of similar size, unpeeled and tart; oven-roasted black olives, capers, and anchovy fillets. The red onion was a little too pungent for my taste, but the vinaigrette was smooth and with a good balance of vinegary and mustardy tang. It came with a few slices of fresh homemade (or artisan) bread - which I especially appreciated for its slightly brown hue: not quite wholemeal, but unusual for this part of France and therefore worth noting.
For a main I chose the seafood poellée and, ah, absolutely my fault for not realizing from the quick glance at the blackboard outside (there seems to be no way for you to review the set lunch menu: they only have the à la carte list inside) that the "salamanque" was not a type of fish but, of course, a sausage. I happen to be severely allergic to pork, so I should have been more careful. At all events, soon as the dish came in (after quite a long wait) it became clear that it contained long strips of what to me unequivocally looked like meat. So I asked the waitress (in French) whether this was by chance pork; She was absolutely positive it was "du pourpre". So I asked again, explaining I was allergic to pork, and making sure I spelled that out clearly. And she said no, no, it was all just fish. I even went as far as cracking a joke about us being really close to Spain and so... but she reassured me further as she dished out some of the seafood into my plate straight from the pan. I still wondered what the meat-looking stuff was but (from the kind of shape it was) I conjectured that it was perhaps something like Genoese musciamme (dried fish meat - in the old times, er, dolphin), which has a very similar appearance). Okay, so I tried one of the mussels and it was immediately clear from its smoky flavour and texture that there was pork in the dish. So I stood up and went round to the counter where they confirmed it was a type of chorizo.
The replacement dish (with red pepper as a substitute for sausage) arrived fairly quickly, with a new and more sizeable bowl of bread. It didn't escape me that a different waiter served me; the young waitress only reappeared later, with a humbler attitude, offering a second helping, which I took, and a third, which I declined. At one point she muttered something that might have been "je suis anglaise" and some other incomprehensible whispers that I did not take too seriously. The dish clearly needed the sausage for balance - the finish was too light in this version (lacked a bit of body, you know); they could have partly compensated with some smoked salt, but I don't expect a problem kid like me to show up every other day... So anyhow. Needless to say, the fish was fresh, well balanced in composition between mussels, shrimp and - I loved that - a fair amount of finely sliced fennel and onion. The "ail confit" was my primary reason for choosing this dish - but perhaps because they had to quickly redo the dish, it seemed to me just plain unpeeled cooked garlic - if properly roasted it can take on a host of flavours, but this had none of it. The whole-leaf parsley, though, deserves a standing ovation: Rabanel is justly famous for his use of herbs and - given that I also grow my own - you really have to take my word when I say that this one was a grateful experience for my tastebuds. Wow. (ironically, the dish somewhat receded in the background - perhaps because by this time, it was almost 3PM, and I sent back a good third of it).
Finally, the dessert. "Ananas confit" seemed a fair choice to me, given that my crave for confit hadn't quite been satisfied by the garlic. It was a good choice, though my order only came in past 3PM (nice, in a way, because asthma had by then begun to subside and I was ready to enjoy things again). That also gave me an opportunity to see the actual Mr Rabanel swing by the kitchen across the road. Only by then I couldn't take any more of his face on the TV screen without audio - 90 minutes of that really made him look like he was overdoing it.
This course too was a mixed experience: the tiny baked pineapple slice was nice and topped by a most wonderful slice of bread soaked in milk (or perhaps fresh cream) and fried. The strawberry coulis and fresh strawberries were okay, and the little boule of vanilla ice-cream on meringue crumbs had all but melted by the time it reached my table (hey, this was not mid-August, was it?). Despite the melted-out ice-cream and the late hour, I took my time savouring this last course and its variety of textures. By the time I was finished, the waitress appeared again with a glass of sparkling wine: "Désolée, Madame, pour l'attente". So was the flavourless sparkling wine supposed to come with the dessert? Aha. Well, I had no use for it now - and it was not worthy of mention, or a second sip. L'addition, s'il Vous plait.
It later turned out that the waitress was indeed English - what irony, English being my third language (French my fourth). However she did insist that the meat was fish, and that is inexcusable. When the replacement dish arrived, I was coping with a mild rash and struggling with a mild feat of asthma. Luckily the last course came in so late that I had time to recover. It could have been far, far worse. There's no excuse: if in doubt, dear waiters, ask a colleague, ask the chef. Customer first - you don't want trouble, or a bad review.
I've read other disappointed comments about Rabanel's staff and I'm afraid I have to agree.
The fried bread was lovely though.
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