Marseille brought us La Garbure, “les richesses gastronomiques du Sud-Ouest”…aka duck heaven. But the hills above Nice gave my eyes, nose and stomach the Auberge de Caussols. Adorable? Check! Mouthwatering menu? Check! Bucket of butter? Check! But I’m getting ahead of myself.
After four hours on the autoroute from Crest we arrive at Mas St. Anne, jump out of our Yaris and into the backseat of an equally tiny car to be driven up (by a former rally car driver) impossibly steep, windy, narrow (“this is for two-way traffic? really are you sure?”) country roads above Grasse, above St. Paul de Vence, and well above the perched village (“I spit on your meager elevation!”) of Gourdon, above the clouds and fog, into the snow and blazing blue skies, past the sledders, the skating rink, the farmhouses, to the wide spot in the road known as Caussols. An inauspicious building was nested into the snowbank, through whose icicle-hung doors lay a fairyland of food…a warren of warmth…a tempting temple of tastes.
Apparently on Sundays the lines are out the door with families out for a drive, cold and hungry from sledding, skiing, hiking, snowshoeing, or like us, uh, from sitting on their butts in a car. But our party of seven was happy to be ushered directly into a cozy room with a blazing fire, an old wooden bar and a few other occupied tables. (CSK: it reminded me slightly of Il Maladroit in the hills above Ravenna.)
There’s a set menu with three courses of choices for 30 euro, add a fourth course for 45, and possibly even a fifth for another 10…but I can’t remember for sure as the range of choices was too distracting. You know those menus where you can find two apps that sound great but then you struggle with a main dish that calls to you? Or the desserts sound wan and uninspiring? Not so much the case here.
Would it be brandade in a cold mint and olive sauce? pigs feet gribiche (a sauce of chopped capers, cornichons, garlic, olive oil…yum, yum, omg, yum!), a charcuterie platter (jambon cru, mortadella, multiple types of salami…)? Confit du canard, beef cheeks, lamb shank, whole local trout, salmon with sorrel…I’m kicking myself for not retaining the other choices (many) but the seduction started immediately as plates of wood-fire-toasted bread with tapenade, vats of home-made pate, and buckets of fresh, sweet butter started covering the table. What? Who ordered these? No one? They’re just part of the fairyland magic? Alrighty then, bring it on!
If more than one person orders a dish it’s served family style, but what you can’t know ahead of time is that whether two, three or four order a dish, such as the roasted, milk-fed lamb, charcuterie, and pork gribiche in our case, they give you enough of each for a party of 12. So in addition to a Christmas-dinner-sized platter of roasted lamb, we had enough cassoulet so laden with duck confit you could barely find the beans, lamb shank in a wine reduced to black syrup, and beef cheek stew (Guy’s cheeks in my shank sauce would have been the penultimate braised dish against which I’d measure all others for eternity, so it’s probably best they were separated) to pass around (much to the bewilderment of our French friends who were by turns amused, disturbed and overwhelmed by the flying plates, forks and camera). And did I mention that, like the pate, they dropped platters of home-made ravioli, roasted potatoes, and transcendent ratatouille on the table for our “side dishes”? Would I be kicked out of the pork club if I admitted that while I succeeded in limiting myself to just one hunk of pate, a half slice of cured meats, and one ravioli, I had seconds (okay perhaps thirds) on ratatouille? (Note to self, get into the kitchen and work on your rendition. Make sure there’s plenty of olive oil on hand.)
And while the generous servings were cause for hilarity, there was nothing funny about the food. Intense flavors, complex sauces, glowing country-casual presentation…no square, spare, white plates here…and succulent meats (though to b2’s disappointment, the lamb was in the fall-apart-tender roast style, rather than the bright pink of a Sunday gigot d’agneau).
Enough, you say? Cry uncle for god’s sake? To my delight, we didn’t have to make the painful choice between dessert OR cheese. Though I love cheese beyond all reason, at the end of a meal such as this I usually opt out in an effort to stem the flow of salt. But at the Auberge, bless its heart, one doesn’t have to even think about doing the “right thing”, for what’s a French meal without the cheese course? Out comes the cheese, a sensible and wondrous mix of blue, brebis, soft and smelly / hard and tangy, not too much but just what was needed to accompany the remains of our 14 euro bottles of local (really, really local, called “Auberge de Caussols”) red wine.
And then dessert. It was part of the three set courses (remember? this was a three course lunch? Someone in the kitchen has to work on their counting skills). Now let’s be honest. We all know that even in France, dessert on a prix fixe menu can sometimes be uninspiring: a runny creme caramel, a gluey eclair, a soggy tart du pomme (strike that, I only had awesome apple tarts on this trip). Plus, I’ll pick salt over sugar any day of the week, and though this may surprise you? I was pretty much full. But in honor of my beloved K, at home struggling with single parenthood with le beast-o-wicz, I ordered a simple creme brulee. Like won-ton soup at a chinese restaurant, creme brulee is often my litmus test of a decent french restaurant at home. To me, it’s a pretty clear line between, “this is good” and “yuck”.
But now a new line has been added beyond “good”. WHAT makes it transcendent? Once you’ve hit creamy and delicious with a burnt sugar crust, where else can you go? But on this day, at this place, this little flat bowl (practically crema catalan depth) had the perfect proportions of vanilla that your brain knew was there but your tastebuds couldn’t single out, egg that coated your tongue / mouth / throat / brain but managed not to taste eggy, cream that kept the consistency soft and supple (I know some prefer a firmer custard, but this is MY perfect creme brulee and it was supple, I tell you!). Oh, and b1’s lemon tart, which she ordered after much negotiation with Roxanne and me so we could get a perfect dessert triumvirate was freaking awesome as well. Tart! Bursts of fresh lemon! Another vat of butter…one for the shortbread crust and another for the lemon curd! And Roxanne’s chocolate fondant was perfect as well, though it didn’t set a new bar for any other perfect flourless chocolate cake encased in a thin sheet of bittersweet ganache. (Well, perhaps the fact that it was insanely rich without being very sweet did set a new bar…let me think about that.)
What more is there to say? We stumbled out into the blinding blue light…wtf? it’s still light out?…stuffed ourselves back into the tiny car which now felt microscopic, wound back down the mountain, and fell about the house in various inelegant angles of repose. Curiously, no one spoke of dinner that night.