Thursday, September 17, 2009

Day eight Provence: Showers and skids

The rain heaved down all night - we awoke to huge puddles and spouts of water from everywhere. Caromb for the last week has seemed so dry it's as if it's never rained, the huge ancient olive trees seeming to draw water from deep within the earth to survive. When it rains, however, you become aware that the town has been built to cope with vast amounts of rain all at once. There are hidden spouts and culverts that are suddenly gushing water. The few houses that have guttering don't often have down pipes but a spout to direct water from the roof away from the house simply pouring into the street far below.

The roads however are not always built to deal with water. The combination of heavy farm machinery, heat and lots of traffic cause cracks and dents in the road surface so they seem to hold water a bit like a stream. We splashed off to Marseilles for our booking at the three Michelin star Le Petite Nice Passedat. It was to be our first Michelin experience so we were looking forward to it.

We drove under instructions of the GPS to the 'payage' toll road that aims directly to the southern coast and the French Riviera. Marseilles is a city of around 1.7 million people making the city an impressive sight as you crest the hill and begin the decent towards the sea.

The Riviera!

On initial inspection through the outskirts it seemed like a huge version of Burnie on Tasmania's north west, but industry gives way to class and history the closer you get to the water. It was on this coastal road that our little red hire car met it's demise... a large black Nissan Navara ploughed into the back of the car smashing the rear axle and spinning our car 360 degrees before coming to a stop on the median strip down the centre of the road.

Very shocked and shaken with some minor cuts and bruises we stepped out of the car fearing the wrath of a Frenchman who had crashed his car. To our delight he was very polite and spoke very good English. He helped us through the filling out of the incident report forms that French cars seem to all carry. We called Hertz and they organised a tow truck to come and collect our poor little car. The Navara was barely damaged just a dent in the bumper that would make any Navara owners very happy to see. Running over the crash in our heads we couldn't remember hearing the squeal of tires on the road of the ute trying to stop nor were there any black lines on the road explaining our injuries. A few bruises are now starting to appear.

The incident occurred only 100 metres or so from Le Petit Nice Passedat we decided to go ahead with our booking even though we were still a little shocked and very shaky. The rental company had organised a replacement car for us to pick up at the airport.

We arrived at the restaurant and were shown by a very gracious maitre'd to our table in the window right over the water. The dining room was relatively small with the each of the clothed tables dressed with hand-made glass show plates and modern vases with modern-looking flowers.

The menus and wine list arrived we chose the signature degustation menu and a bottle of white Burgundy from Montrachet. The wine was awesome and the first dish arrived to have with our aperitifs. Iain Tanq. and tonic, Elysia pastis.

A plate divided into nine segments arrived. Three porcelain spoons with a squid and fruit salsa; three portions of cured raw white fish in a herb vinaigrette; and two servings of tiny fingers of sardine fried in tempura with a prawn foam in the ninth indentation.

The first course sardines, cured fish and squid.

Next up was an oval-shaped bowl containing a green tomato consomme, tiny slices of seared sword fish and a thick creamy tomato foam. On a separate plate was a perfect square of red and one of yellow tomato with three slices of buttery soft octopus tentacles. The consomme tasted of ripe tomatoes and the swordfish was perfect!

Swordfish and octopus.

Next was over three plates based around sea anemone: anemone with milk foam and caviar and a little egg custard set into the bottom of the bowl; an anemone beignet, a large puffed shell containing a small amount of anemone just warmed; and mussels and clams in a frothed and brilliant green watercress veloute. The beignet was presented between two sheets of calligraphers parchment connected with a tiny wooden clothes peg.

Sea anemone and mussels.

The signature dish of the restaurant is named after chef Gerald Passedat's mother. A perfect rectangle of sea bass with paper-thin strips of cucumber and green courgette alternating across the top of the perfectly cooked fish surrounded with a light and fresh citrusy vinaigrette. Fresh lemon juice and chopped herbs bound with good olive oil and tiny dice of fresh black truffle. The fish and sauce perfectly and expertly combined.

Sea Bass with courgette cucumber and truffle.

Bream was next, in another perfect rectangle. This time the fish char grilled and placed next to a drizzle of perfect lightly-creamed bisque sauce and a pave of eggplant cooked with tonka bean and smeared with a green fennel puree and a rice croquant. A small jug of the sauce appeared on the side. The fish delicately smokey from the grill and cooked beautifully, the garnish interesting and also beautiful.

Bream with bisque and eggplant.

Next was a little stack of raw pelamide (a little brother to tuna from the Mediterranean) dressed with a yuzu vinaigrette and next to a tangle of pickled vegetable julienne. There was a smoky component to the vegetables that we could not put our finger on. Yuzu and tuna are always a great match and this was no exception. Light and fresh, Elysia's favourite by far.

Palamide and yuzu with pickled vegetables.

Suckling piglet cooked on the the spit and rolled arrived with three accompanying plates. The pork was tender and juicy with crunchy skin. A deep cylindrical bowl contained a pumpkin puree with a sphere of saute spinach, a quarter artichoke, a tiny turnip, some courgette and some tiny giroles suspended in a golden courgette veloute. The third dish contained a roll of red and a roll of golden beetroot; and in the last, a tempura courgette flour and a "spaghetti" of courgette dressed with a vinaigrette. It took quite a bit of thought to eat as it was easy to overlook things on the various plates

Spit roast suckling piglet.

The pork and accompaniments.

Next the cheese trolley was wheeled to our table covered with perhaps 20 different cheeses. Overwhelmed, we asked for help and were guided towards artisan samples from the local area. We were offered extra bread (which was great) and got stuck in, by this stage feeling very full!

Part of the cheese trolley!

The first of the sweets arrived - a frozen fruit vacharin that, instead of melting, just softened into a jelly. The white meringue was wrapped around cylinders of various tropical fruits. A fine twig of dried meringue spanned the three slices of vacherin with a vanilla and mango puree smeared onto the plate.

The frozen vacherin dessert.

Strawberry mousse in large silky blobs with little cylinders of various strawberry things appeared. A frozen skin of strawberry containing a fresh whipped cows' cheese, a glassy croquant with strawberry compote and incredibly delicate sugar tuiles that disappeared in the mouth.

Strawberry dessert.

Finally, as we were ready to burst, petite fours were served. The same nine-compartment plate arrived with eight different little tastes and one silver teaspoon: jackfruit granita with milk foam; a pistachio cylinder with grape jelly; dark chocolate and pear (the chocolate 100% cocoa solid so it was very bitter); watermelon jelly with pink grapefruit; melon terrine; fig "spaghetti" in a tiny wooden fork; a stack of lemon jelly interleaved with meringue and a spoonful of raspberry creations such as dust and foam.

The petite fours and spoon.

Pistachio and grape.

Passedat's signature menu, complete with the day's date!

Le Petit Nice Passedat was absolutely amazing. Most of the hot dishes were placed on the table under various different cloches, which were removed simultaneously by the many service staff. The cutlery was heavy and silver, the glassware was beautiful, the outlook was beautiful. All of the food was thoughtful and expertly executed... the three Michelin stars well deserved! The bill came to 430 Euros for the two of us but it was well worth it! It was a shame however that the automotive events of earlier that day put a bit of a dampener on the lunch, we seemed unable to push it from our minds. The photos included really don't do Grand Chef Gerald Passedat's food justice. We simply couldn't capture the grandness of it all on film. The food really was spectacular.

We gingerly lowered ourselves into a cab (a brand new Mercedes C class) and took off to the airport to collect our new car. The good news was that it had a turbo; the bad news was it was a Vauxhall Corsa (Holden Barina to Australians, beep beep yeah!) We headed home to bed hoping that our bodies would recover quickly.

Dinner was thrown together from the remains from Velleron market. Beans, black and white eggplant, rabbit loins, boiled eggs, basil, tomatoes and tiny potatoes all mixed together into a salad.

And so to bed!

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