Arles probably is best known for Van Gogh’s residence there. During 14 or 15 months in Arles, Van Gogh completed 187 paintings in a period of artistic breakthrough and mental breakdown. Our guide taught us numerous ways different nations pronounce “Van Gogh”, none of which is “Van Go.” It makes you proud to be an American.
Arles also has a very impressive Roman arena amphitheater, dating from 90 AD. It was built to seat 20,000, and is still in use.
Among other events, the arena hosts bull fights. Before you get upset, these are a touch football version of bull fighting. The matadors, if that’s what you call them under the circumstances, try to pull ribbons from the horns of the bulls. Apparently the bulls have a strong union. The bulls are in no real danger, but I imagine the matadors are. Fair is fair.
The arena is impressive, but my favorite stop by far was the Church of Saint-Trôphime. It is a 12th century Romanesque masterpiece. St. Trophime was an associate of Paul and the first bishop in Arles, way back when. The church is stunning. The carvings, including especially the Last Judgment over the portal, are remarkable, and remarkably well preserved.
Apparently, the deChristianizers, who were so thorough in Lyon, never made it down to Arles during the Revolution.
Once our tour wound up, Nancy and I made our way (with a detour through the local market, which, we were told, extends for two miles) to the Bistro À Côté, a Michelin Bib Gourmand selection. I mentioned it to our guide and she said, “Oh, you need to book ahead there!. It’s famous.” Undeterred, we went without reservations of any kind.
Famous, indeed. The chef at Bistro À Côté, Jean-Luc Rabanel, was the first chef to get a Michelin star with an all-organic menu. He has two restaurants in Arles, Bistro À Côté and L’Atelier, where lunch with wine costs 160€ per person with wine pairings (less on Saturdays, but it wasn’t Saturday, and not that much less). We resisted the temptation, and stuck with Bistro À Côté and the 33€ three-course formule — pricey enough.
Bistro À Coté is nicely situated on a quiet side street with a couple of other restaurants, with seating strung along the street filled with beautiful women.
We sat, received menus, and an amuse bouche of a green olive tapenade and toasts miraculously appeared.
I was much more amused than Nancy, who can do without green olives. I was raised on green olives, and I doted on the flavor and the nostalgia for the lunchtime sliced green olive and mayonnaise sandwiches I ate during my school days, and still eat now.
Nancy ordered the focaccia with heirloom tomatoes, basil, and cheese.
Isn’t that nicely presented? It was delicious, each tomato perfectly ripe and full of flavor, the whole resting on good focaccia smeared with thickened gazpacho. Nancy loved it.
I ordered the gazpacho, which had a very unusual presentation — a bottle of gazpacho in a bowl of ice with a straw and a sprig of basil sticking out.
Here’s the process: Pick up bottle, address straw, and rest nose in basil sprigs. Wriggle with glee that you lived to taste such good tomatoes.
The gazpacho came with the advertised toast and Spanish ham, as well as some lovely tomatoes, and an oil-cured olive had moseyed on in. The toast, again, was smeared with thickened gazpacho.
As her main, Nancy ordered the salt cod with potatoes, which was tossed with onion, bell pepper, fresh thyme, and arugula.
Nancy thought that the the salt cod was too salty, which is a common enough reaction to salt cod, but she loved the rest of the dish. I had a taste of the salt cod and thought it was fine, but I’m more tolerant of salt than Nancy.
I ordered the pork shoulder (actually pork butt, but they don’t say that in France) confit with roasted small potatoes.
After the confit preparation, the pork had been seared (“snakée”). The pork had both the expected richness of slow cooking in pork fat and a nice caramelization, adding a layer of flavor and a change in texture. And to the advertised potatoes Bistro À Côté had added some fresh summer squash, still al dente, a bit of onion, celery, just-picked arugula, and a few oil cured olives. The pork was rich, tender, and flavorful. You just can’t make better pork without cooking it over wood with direct heat.
For dessert, we both ordered the strawberries with a basil and olive oil vinaigrette and vanilla ice cream.
The strawberries were very good, and they came with whipped cream and some almond cookies. I was struck, again, how dishes in France come with “surprise” ingredients, extras that are not mentioned in the description, that any American restaurant would trumpet. (Fresh whipped cream! House-made cookies!)
The vinaigrette, which was mainly olive oil with a touch of basil, came on the side, and actually was very good with the fresh-as-can-be strawberries. Less surprisingly, the whipped cream was good with everything it touched. The cookies were great.
You should make a point of going to Arles while you’re in Provence, and you should make a point of going to Provence, now that I mention it. And, assuming you would rather not drop 160€ on lunch, go to Bistro À Côté, and enjoy the freshest possible ingredients, prepared beautifully,
I’m giving Bistro À Côté a Top Places tag.
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