French food is slowly taking over the European restaurant scene. During a week in Germany this summer, I had to look hard to find my old favorites — whole-roasted piglet with crisp skin, schnitzel and sausages.
The best meal we had in Germany was in Baden-Baden, in a French restaurant run by a French woman from Alsace. Most of the restaurants were serving French food. In Amsterdam I gave up looking for anything typically Dutch and on my wife’s birthday settled for the same meal we had 50 years earlier for her birthday, also in Amsterdam — ristafel, an Indonesian specialty consisting of a wide variety of dishes. And the best meal in Amsterdam was in a French restaurant run by … a French woman from Alsace. Things were no different in Basel, and I can’t even tell you what constitutes a typical Swiss meal.
In the south of France about 99 percent of the menus have the same items on them: fish soup, steak frites, dorado, loup fish and the likes.
There are a few ethnic restaurants, but they are not very popular. But there is one restaurant in our area that stands out as something different: L’Auberge de la Mole in the little village of La Mole.
One wouldn’t expect it to be famous. The village is out of the way in the hills above Saint Tropez, near the town of Grimaud, the site of the ancient castle of the Grimaldi clan, now the royalty of Monaco. The Auberge is an old, run-down hotel with a roof stuck on the front extending out to the roadway, under which are tables seating about 50 people along with a lot of flies and mosquitoes. Next door is a small church, which doesn’t seem to be in use, set back from the street so that there is parking in the front for the restaurant patrons. Those patrons often include famous movie stars and politicians, as well as members of motorcycle clubs.
You can find pictures of the Auberge on the web, but somehow they make the place look better than it really looks. The fact is, it’s funky. But if you do look on the web, note the almost complete unanimity of top reviews.
Why is it so famous? It’s the food, stupid. A meal at the Auberge starts with the waiter bringing three or four huge terrines and setting them on the table alongside a basket of fresh bread. Patrons can count on terrines of either a duck or goose mousse, a pork rillette, a type of shredded meat cooked in its own fat, and a country pate. Also there might be another special of the day. You eat as much as you like. When the waiter senses that you are no longer digging into the terrines, he moves them to another table.
Next comes whatever main course you’ve ordered. It might be a steak served with potatoes au gratin and beautiful vegetables. It might be a confit duck leg, or perhaps the fish of the day.
When the main course has been cleared, the terrine thing starts up again. This time it’s desserts. It is often a chocolate mousse, a kind of trifle, a creme caramel — you get the idea. Again, you eat as much as you wish, usually more than you intended, until you signal the waiter that you are ready for coffee.
All of this is washed down, usually with the house rosé. As you wring the last few drops from the bottle you realize you’ve been eating solidly for about three hours.
A trip to the wash room surprisingly shows that there is a small dining room inside the Auberge, perhaps used in the winter when it’s raining, beautifully decorated with antique travel posters.
The Auberge is not expensive, which is one reason for its success. Maybe the lure of the Auberge is that it’s something different in a community of restaurants that are surprisingly similar. But whatever the reason for its success, if you want to go you better make reservations.
Merv Hecht, the food and wine critic for the Santa Monica Daily Press, is a wine buyer and consultant to a number of national and international food and wine companies. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org