Bistrot du Paradou is simply not a restaurant for everyone. In fact, let me discourage you entirely from eating here – you will hate it. It is an unpretentious, no-frills eatery with no colored gel dots festooning plates or even bizarre culinary fusions poetically listed on a whimsical menu. Actually, there isn’t even a menu; all you get is whatever the chef decides to cook for that day and that’s it. There are no fancy linens, no Riedel stemware, nor imposing sommeliers; there really isn’t even a wine list, just a single open bottle lay waiting on every table. And you had better make reservations or risk not getting a table.
Stone floors and walls, family tables, pastis, and beautifully executed recipes that grandmother would have cooked. Go for Friday lunch.” —Libby Travers, food writer
Bistrot du Paradou, located in the sleepy hamlet of Paradou, is the sort of place every serious food lover dreams to discover in France. It’s the kind of place that makes you feel like you may have read about in a Marcel Pagnol book or perhaps a vintage Michelin guide mentioning a stately grand-mère cooking unpretentious rustic fare for weary travelers.
Lisa and I discovered it quite by accident. We were renting a home in nearby Fontvieille and drove past Bistrot du Paradou several times during our first week there. I was more worried about not hitting the plane trees that lined the narrow D17 than finding new spots to eat. For Lisa, driving past always seemed to occur in slow motion, almost like recalling a long lost romantic memory. Lisa cooed as I shot past white-knuckled, stomach sucked in tightly through the narrow two-lane corridor of trees no wider than an average single car lane in the US. The sturdy Plane trees bore more notch marks than even the most feared gunslinger’s pistol from the old West.
Completely unfazed by our near-death experience, she continued to wax on about how perfect the restaurant appeared and remarked that we really needed to check it out. I only caught quick glimpses, but would always hear the happy laughter that emanates from convivial dining spots.
The exterior of the building looked very inviting. The unassuming old building was brightly painted white with typical Provencal baby blue shutters. Two ancient trees shaded the crushed limestone terrace while the serenade of cicadas provided the evening’s entertainment. The jam-packed parking lot was a better indicator of the restaurant’s quality than any online review could ever hope to. The air was richly perfumed with the savory herbal scents of golden Bresse chickens slowly spinning on the kitchen rotisserie. Both my stomach and I knew we had found a great spot to eat.
Mon Dieu, No Reservations?
We were greeted by a cheerful waiter who asked about our reservations. His expression quickly soured when we replied we had none. He muttered a very vague peut être before consulting the well-worn reservation book. From the edge of the rustic stone walls and timber beams of the interior, we noticed only two of the massive wood tables actually had guests seated. The dining room was barely full when he said he could squeeze us into a small zinc covered bistro table near the bar.
Within 20 minutes every seat was filled. Locals even packed the bar nibbling on hors d’oeuvres and enjoying their first pastis before eating lunch. The regulars knew the ritual; call at the beginning of the week to see what gastronomic delights were planned for the upcoming week. Then arrive hungry on the day with their stomachs anticipating a perfect cassoulet or rabbit Provencale. We seemed to be the only new people that day.
When the Good Lord begins to doubt the world, he remembers that he created Provence.
The waiter announced the day’s menu to us; a choice of escargots in garlic butter or a foie gras terrine with toast; followed by grilled local Alpilles lamb with artichokes barigoule and potato puree; a plateau of cheeses; and then our choice of homemade desserts. Beaumont, our eight-year-old son, licked his lips in anticipation; escargots in garlic butter were among his favorite things to eat.
We sat in the corner of the dining room, enjoying a glass of wine as the scenes of life played out in front of us. The good-humored shenanigans of the home-grown contingent of good ole boys severely contrasted by the austere nature of an English family of six who dined across the room. Not a smile was shed as they quietly mopped up all the juices of their lamb plates with a piece of baguette. I noticed their bottle of wine was barely touched by the time Lisa and I had killed our first.
Dining in Paradise
Our main waiter, who looked a lot like actor Rob Schneider, took us under his wing and guided us through the entire experience. When we asked for the wine list he kind of laughed and pointed to the already open bottle of red wine sitting on our table. ‘But you already have wine, why do you need a list?’ Moments later, our foie gras and escargots arrived. Beau happily dipped small pieces of bread in the garlicky green butter while Lisa and I tucked into our foie gras terrine. Ecstacy.
The local Alpilles lamb was spectacular; expertly cooked to a rosy hue and delicately flavored with the fragrant garrigue herbs that grow wild in the surrounding rocky hills. The accompanying artichoke barigoule and potato puree were so perfect in their simplicity and in harmony with the whole. The flavors of the barigoule haunted my waking hours for several weeks. I kept trying to figure out the exact subtle flavorings of a dish I cook quite a bit at home. The magic of food is like that sometimes.
Air of Conviviality
Perhaps the most spectacular aspect of the meal was not the food itself, but the air of conviviality that flowed throughout the restaurant. From the good-hearted nature of the entire waitstaff to the open bottles of wine greeted you upon your arrival. Salads and soups are served family-style. Giant wicker platters of local cheeses with accompanying jams and fruits macerated in brandy were dropped off and seemingly forgotten allowing you to indulge to your heart’s content. The conviviality continued into dessert when I ordered the classic French dessert Baba au Rhum and both my dessert and a bottle of rum was left tableside for me to flavor the dessert to my own desires.
A Recipe For Artichoke Barigoule
There are those who may erroneously proclaim this sort of cooking to be dated or that French food, in general, is passe. Or perhaps that even the chef did not cook with the same clean purity found in the hallowed halls of overly fussy food. Let them continue to believe their fallacies and leave the good simple restaurants to those that truly love food.
Bistrot du Paradou was so good that in fact, we returned two more times that week to enjoy good solid Provencal food. On the third visit, the entire staff made us feel part of the local color; almost habitues ready to join the good ole boys for a pastis at the bar.
Bistrot du Paradou
57 Ave. de la Vallée des Baux, Maussane-les-Alpilles
In honor of Bistro du Paradou, I offer my recipe for artichokes barigoule. It is a mainstay dish on my table from the very early artichokes in Spring that my friend Patreece grows at her organic farm near Tillamook. Give it a go and hashtag us at PistouandPastis.
p.s. Bravo! The Bistrot is so good and popular that there is no need for a silly little web site. Get old fashioned, give them a call to book your reservation: +33 4 90 54 32 70
Baby Artichokes simmered in White Wine, Thyme, and Basil
- 1 pound baby artichokes about 10 to 12
- 1 each lemon cut into four slices
- 1 tablespoon sea salt
- 2 quarts water
- 1 cup artichoke cooking liquid
- 1 cup white wine
- 1/4 cup fruity olive oil
- 3 ounces smoked lamb bacon diced
- 2 each young carrots peeled and sliced
- 3 cloves spring garlic mashed
- 2 sprigs thyme
- 1 each bay leaf
- 1 each lemon zest and juice
- 1/4 cup basil sliced
- 2 ounces unsalted butter optional
- sea salt and black pepper
Trim the top and bottom 1/4 inch off the baby artichokes. Use a sharp paring knife and trim the outer leaves off. Peel the stem if there is one attached. Cut the artichoke in half lengthwise and drop into a pot with the lemon, sea salt and water. Bring to a boil, then simmer till tender, about 20 minutes. The tip of a knife should easily pierce the artichoke.
Put one cup artichoke cooking liquid, white wine and olive oil in a pan and bring to a boil.
Add lamb bacon, carrots, garlic, thyme, and bay leaf. Simmer until the carrots are tender, about 15 minutes.
Add artichokes, lemon zest, and some lemon juice. I say some lemon juice because I want you to taste it. Add just enough to taste the lemon juice's acidity slightly. The purpose is to add just enough bright acidity to cut the fattiness of the olive oil and butter. The lemon flavor should not overpower the barigoule. Add basil and whisk in butter. Adjust with salt and pepper then serve.
Like any recipe, this one loves modifications. Use bacon, don't use bacon; use pork bacon, use pancetta, use guanciale. Add more carrots if you like. I sometimes chop fennel bulbs and add them as well. Wild mushrooms like chanterelles are great in here, so are regular white buttons. Go crazy add black truffles if you have some. The point is, the recipe is a starting point. The finish line is where you take it.