Last year Anne and I went to Arles, in Provence, to experience Jean-Luc Rabanel’s restaurant. He calls it his atelier. I liked that. And I like it had two Michelin stars (out of a possible three).
We were offered two options, six courses or thirteen courses. It was noon, so we opted for six.
By the second course, augmented by two amuse bouches, we wanted the thirteen. Too late. Once they start, it is all in progress and you can’t change. So we decided to come back again and do thirteen. Which we did this year, in June.
I thought it would make a great blog post on beauty. I would take photos of each course and make detailed notes of what was in each course. A catalogue of the experience. But it didn’t turn out that way.
First the photos didn’t in general look much better than those photos you see outside bad Thai restaurants. I took down the contents of each course, mostly in French, clarified in English when necessary. But that only gave the vaguest sense of what was on the plate. And they paired each course with a specifically chosen wine, so as the meal unfolded perhaps my focus lapsed.
What was clear is I can not say beetroot tart with mushroom and goat cheese and do justice to what I had in front of me. I have had a dish of the same description at a neighborhood deli. It was fine. Tasty even. But Rabanel transformed it into something sublime. Like a painter using a few pigments and some canvas. The raw materials cannot explain the transformation. The dramatic transformation. The transcendent transformation (the transcendent part may be the wine talking- it was really good wine).
It is clear why Rabanal refers to his restaurant as an atelier.
This photo shows course seven — cod fillet, with verbena foam and shellfish stock. That gives you no idea how good it tasted. How nuanced the tastes were, some first strike, others coming into focus next, some lingering.
But on top of the dish, when served, and not even mentioned, was that flat bread with the caramelized shallot.
I ate that shallot in one glorious mouthful. It wasn’t very big. And of every bite I had in that gorgeous meal it was the most memorable. Not because it was the best taste. But because it was just a cooked shallot. I have no idea how he made it taste like that. Just a shallot. What did he cook it with? Perhaps it was the way it was grown or how fresh it was.
But nothing prepared me for the beauty of that simple transformation. It was that mouthful that reminded me that art was about transformation. From the simple to the divine.