Musings on le menu
In this crazy age of takeout, eat-at-your-desk and “cuisine rapide”, it is a true pleasure to have a long, leisurely lunch in a good restaurant. The French, especially those in the provinces, still know how to do this well. Many restaurants, including the Michelin starred establishments, offer “le menu,” an excellent way to experience fine cuisine at a (relatively) gentle price.
Unlike its foreign counterparts, the “prix fixe” or “business lunch” offered in restaurants around the world, “le menu” really does represent the chef’s best efforts, using what is freshest at market today.
Ordering the prix fixe lunch in a New York City restaurant is often met with a sniff of approbation. Your waiter assumes you are pinching pennies and that you are probably not a food connoisseur. The 3-course prix fixe lunch items rarely change and are often selected from the lowest priced, least interesting options on the regular menu. A prix fixe lunch is rarely, if ever, offered on the weekend. And although the prix fixe lunch may seem like a good deal, the price of a glass of wine and/or a cup of coffee may leave you stunned. A case in point, a recent lunch at a New York City French bistro was advertised at $32 for 2 courses and $38 for three courses. My companion and I opted for the 2 course lunch. We each ordered a glass of wine and a coffee to end the meal. With tip and tax, the tab came to $144.00!
What a delight in France then, to see that “le menu” is proudly presented, highlighted and/or the only option offered at lunch, and in most cases, any day of the week. Order “le menu” and you’ll be viewed as a local, a savvy diner or someone “in the know.”
Often, “le menu” will start with an amuse bouche - a small, tasty morsel from the chef and end with a “gourmandise,” another small, sweet treat from the chef. “Le menu” may offer only one “entree” (appetizer or starter in French) but there will usually be a choice of two or three “plats” (main courses) often including fish, fresh from the fish monger or market, for those with a lighter appetite. For dessert, you’ll be offered a cheese plate or the sweet of the day. Sometimes, “le menu” even includes a glass or carafe of wine!
Over the past several months I have tried the lunch “menu” at a dozen restaurants in Provence. The “menu” prices ranged from 18 euros to 32 euros. Some of these offered the option of 2 courses - entree, plat ( appetizer, main course) or plat, dessert (main course, dessert) others offered only the 3 course option. Meals at all of these establishments were very good and some were excellent. Here are some highlights from those menus:
The stunning, delicately smoked fish starter at Le Carillon in Goult.
The magret de canard (duck breast) and strawberry mousse at Les Lavandes in Monieux.
The médaillon de saumon fumé roulé (medallions of rolled smoked salmon) entree and fish of the day at Sous les Micocouliers in Eygalieres.
The amazing dessert offerings at L’aile ou la Cuisse in Saint Remy de Provence.
When traveling in France- especially in Provence - do as the locals do and have your main meal at lunch. You will be spending wisely and enjoy a meal that is often much more costly in the evening. There is nothing better than savoring a leisurely, well-prepared meal for a couple of hours while shops and attractions are closed. And if you can have that lunch on a sun-dappled terrace, all the better!