This is a version of an article published by the Financial Times.
There were several years when my wife did not enjoy going out to eat in restaurants with me, with considerable justification.
This was during the 1980s and coincided with my life as a restaurateur. If, when we were in another restaurant, I saw some aspect of the food or service being executed better than we were then doing, I could not stop talking about it and how quickly I could borrow the idea or the dish. If, on the other hand, the place was poorly run, then I could not relax as I itched to put matters right.
These two sentiments came over me again by the time we had spent far too long, over three and half hours, enduring what should have been a four-course dinner at the two-star Michelin Restaurant Christian Bacquié, named after the chef at the luxurious Hôtel du Castellet in south-western Provence.
This large hotel, complete with a nine-hole golf course, helipad and private airport nearby, is owned by Bernie Ecclestone and is part of his master plan to restore the French Grand Prix to the Circuit Paul Ricard close by. This track is now a magnet for those who enjoy test driving fast cars and the hotel within easy reach of both Marseille and Toulon.
Our meal began in style and with several touches any restaurateur would envy. The terrace directly outside the restaurant affords views across pine trees, the valley below and, that night, of chefs unloading food and wine from golf buggies as they set up a private dinner in a pavilion by the pool several hundred metres away.
The wine list, carried proudly by sommelier Romain Ambrosi, who has worked in New York, arrives in a large, grey leather box (see belwo) which opens to reveal six books each devoted to the wines of a specific region – an expensive, but considered, presentation. Almost as soon as we sat down an oblong plate of four ambitious amuse-bouches appeared – mackerel with fennel, a prawn, a slice of sardine with mango, and a small glass of fish soup – all of them first class. A friend’s virgin mojito arrived with equal speed while Ambrosi discussed various champagnes knowledgeably. (Our Agrapart arrived after the amuse-bouches, as you can see here.)
While these served only to titillate my professional antennae, I quickly began to notice less professional aspects of the service. The menus took too long to be delivered. Eventually we saw that there are three different set menus, the latter two with several permutations. These appeared unnecessarily complicated so that a quick editorial decision was taken that the five of us would eat from the first, and seemingly most straightforward, set menu at 148 euros per person. I was finally able to catch the eye of a young man in a grey suit who appeared to be in charge. He took our order and eventually led us into the achingly modern dining room.
The sight of our bare white table adorned with nothing more than an undulating blue glass ‘piece’ in front of every seat (see below), raised my professional hackles. This nonsense meant that the young waiting staff had to spend several minutes removing these heavy but fragile objects and laying up the table with glassware and cutlery, including a sharp knife carefully inserted into a stone at an angle, if you please, that prompted our waiter to announce ‘This knife will accompany you to the dessert.’ I winced.
The meal then got under way with two incongruous small dishes, a very filling steamed bun with confited tomato and black olive and a small dish of sautéed squid. The first course was almost successful: thin straps of raw John Dory wrapped around dressed crab topped with caviar on a pale yellow kaffir lime sauce. Its appeal was diminished by the fact that Bacquié cannot leave well alone and in this instance the waiter returned to our table to pour some crab bisque into small cups, not that long after we had all been served a glass of a not-too- dissimilar fish soup.
It is not surprising that in this rural area there is not the pool of restaurant staff that would be available in a major city, but it is surprising that a chef of Bacquié’s experience and standing (he was awarded the coveted Meilleur Ouvrier de France in 2014) does not recognise this and design his menu accordingly. But every dish consists of too many bowls and side dishes that require the waiting staff to return to every customer too often.
By the time they had taken the lid off a bowl containing a piece of hake with potato emulsion, then returned to pour poultry juice around it, and then served an unnecessary and unannounced extra dish which one of our table could not eat, the staff were beginning to look ragged. And, not unexpectedly, they began to make themselves scarce, as it is less awkward for them to polish silver in the kitchen than to face unhappy customers. Our waiter re-appeared to serve the first half of our main course, an over-salty breast of pigeon with a myrtle sauce. Since it was by now just before 11 pm, we asked to be spared the advertised second serving and decided to move straight to dessert. A good 15 minutes later the pre-dessert arrived. Dessert finally arrived, as Bacquié made what seemed like a reluctant, and undeserved, tour of the restaurant.
We paid a three-star bill and left, with not even our friend from Marseille keen to return.
Restaurant Christophe Bacquié Hôtel du Castellet, 3001 route des Hauts du Camp, 83330 Le Castellet, France; tel +44 (0)4 94 98 37 77