Monday, September 18, 2017

One Restaurant I Love: Le Relais du Castelet

In a renovated hunting lodge on a gorgeous property originally owned by his grandfather’s grandfather, chef Jean-Baptiste Bert has opened LeRelais du Castelet, welcoming the public for lunch and dinner...and private groups for special occasions. He’s cooking from old family recipes, using serving pieces that have been in the family for years and working with a small group of friends and family which creates a festive, party-like mood. Rather than a restaurant, he calls it a "Table Privée."

Located just 7 km from Arles--between the village of Fontvieille and the Abbaye de Montmajour--the 50-hectare property is known as Le Castelet...and it has a remarkably rich history dating to prehistoric times.

Locals all know it as the site of the Hypogee (or Hypogeum) du Castelet, an overgrown stone trench dating to the Megalithic period. In the 1st century, limestone quarried here was used to build the famous amphitheatre in Arles. The property was mentioned in the stories of both Frederic Mistral and Alphonse Daudet, two of the area’s most-beloved authors. (Daudet’s famous windmill, from Letters from My Windmill, is just down the road in Fontvieille.)

In July of 1888, while living in Arles, Vincent Van Gogh found his way to Le Castelet and painted Coucher de Soleil à Montmajour here. A letter on the restaurant wall, from the curator of the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, authenticates this fact while a print of the painting sits on the hearth, alongside other historic photos.

The fifth generation to grow up here (his son Marcel, aged 2, is the sixth), Jean-Baptiste left home at 16 and went off to Portugal to learn horse training. He came home and then left again, this time for food-and-wine jobs in London.  He returned to Provence in 2007 and settled in at the Bistro du Paradou, a well-known and wildly popular local restaurant, working in both the dining room and the kitchen.

Finally, Jean-Baptiste decided he wanted his own place and that his family land—with its rustic relais or hunting lodge at its center--would be the perfect setting. From what Jean-Baptiste says it was more like a shack than a lodge...a simple place where family, friends and neighbors hung out to eat and drink before and after hunting. "And it was really more dirty than rustic," he says with a laugh.

So he and his family completely re-did it in May 2016, using traditional Provencal materials and pretty furniture bought at local antique markets. They started hosting private functions last summer and then expanded to more traditional dining: lunch Tuesday through Saturday; dinner on Friday and Saturday nights. A large open kitchen lets guests see all the action and perfumes the dining room with fantastic smells. Tables are indoors and out...the terrace is strung with pretty lights...friends pop in and out of the run around...and the vibe is totally relaxed.

Dinner meals are prix-fixe: 47€ for a starter, main, cheese and dessert. Weekday lunch is either a 37€ prix-fixe (starter, main, dessert) or ordered a la carte. Lunch on Saturday is 47 and lunch on Sunday, 60. [Note, these prices are current as of July 2020.]

There aren't a lot of choices but the blackboard menu changes just about every day so you'll be eating what’s in season, what was best in the market that day and what Jean-Baptiste was most in the mood to cook!

Popular starters include crab soup, mussel soup with saffron, stuffed vegetables and traditional Provencal pistou, which you serve yourself from a lovely terrine on your table.

Main courses might be a rich daube (the beloved local bull stew) served with wild red rice, suckling pig, roast leg of lamb or a fish such as red mullet or salt-crusted sea bream. On special request Jean-Baptiste will make a bourride or a bouillabaisse, using his grandmere’s recipe.

Popular desserts include poached peaches with verbena syrup and almond biscuits, saffon pears with roasted hazelnuts and green tomato jam, chocolate mousse with walnuts, a simple apple crumble with vanilla ice cream and tarte tatin.

Wine and other drinks are extra; there’s an impressive cellar, a full bar and knowledgeable help to guide you.

Before or after your meal, you're welcome to wander the beautiful property, where you'll see 2000 or so olive trees, a large vegetable garden, horses...and all sorts of wildlife ranging from rabbits to game birds to wild boar.  

Want to hang out here a while?  You're in luck: there's a large vacation villa on the property that's available for weekly rental year round. Crafted from an 11th or 12th-century sheepfold, it was fully rebuilt and renovated in 1984. Today "La Bergerie" has three bedrooms, a huge dining room, an original fireplace, stone archways, a summer kitchen, a large pool, an outdoor living room and drop-dead views. For the rental info, click here. [Note, the villa is currently unavailable for rental.]

Le Relais still has the delicious feel of an insiders' secret...that place that's sort of private but not really because they'll let you in if you know how to ask. The sign on the road (the D17) is easy to miss, you can't see the restaurant from the road and it's highly unlikely anyone would just wander by and stop in. But the Berts know everyone and the word has spread and the dining room is full and event bookings are strong. So far they've hosted weddings, birthdays, business meetings, winemaker dinners, a truffle dinner and "lots of people who just wanted an excuse to share a moment with family and friends," Jean-Baptiste says.

Last fall, a Chicago chef friend of mine, Carrie Nahabedian, came to Provence with a group...and their tour guide, Sébastien Lopez, arranged a lunch party at Le Relais.  "Our afternoon was beyond stunning!" Carrie remembers "just so flawless and so Provence! Such idyllic amazing lunch in an incredibly memorable setting. We were overwhelmed with the French hospitality and the lusciousness of the food! I can still taste that crab bisque with croutons...I wish I were there right now..."

Mas Castelet
13990 Fontvieille, France
+33 (0)9 80 40 74 81 
To see Le Relais on Instagram, click here and on Facebook, here.
For a map, click here.
GPS: 43.71346, 4.68101
Lunch served Tuesday through Sunday; Dinner served Tuesday through Saturday. 
Closed Sunday dinner and all day Monday.

Photos: (1) Welcome! Jean-Baptiste with his girlfriend Fanny Martin. Fanny's grandfather founded the well-known Provencal food company Jean Martin in Fanny runs the family's large boutique in Maussane. The couple have an adorable son name Marcel, aged two. (2) This is the sign you need to look for when coming from either direction on the D17. (3) Whether you eat inside by the crackling fire in winter...or outside on the terrace with the chirping cigales in summer...the atmosphere is laid-back, super friendly and totally Provencal. (4) The daily blackboard dinner menu.  (5, 6) The sunset I saw when I last went for dinner...and the sunset Van Gogh painted here in 1888. In his painting, "Coucher de Soleil à Montmajour" you can see the famous Abbaye de Montmajour at the back left. (7) The Relais just after renovation was finished last year. (8) The kitchen door is always open. (9) Slicing roast lamb. (10) Mussel soup with saffron. (11) Cote de Boeuf ready for the grill. (12) Party's over for these two little piggies...but it's just about to begin in the dining room. (13) Friends clowning around at dinner. (14) Sea bream in a salt crust. (15) Sardines on Camargue rice with chorizo and pata negra.(16) Jean-Baptiste loves to serve artichokes as either a starter or a side. (17) Guests serve themselves from a generous cheese platter plunked onto the table, with all the acoutrements. (18) All desserts are homemade, such as this apricot and almond tart. (19) As the song says, these are a few of his favorite things! Jean-Baptiste serves a small selection of top-quality local labels, many of them made by friends. (20) Can't decide what to drink? Smiling help is at hand, from Jean-Baptiste's cousin Julien.  (21) The terrace set for a party; Le Relais can handle 45 seated inside and 200 outside. (22, 23) Two shots from the Bergerie, the rental villa on the property.  (24) The area is heavily agricultural, very beautiful and very rich in history. The Abbaye is a major draw, as is the nearby Aqueduct de Barbegal, where flour was milled in the 1st century. Arles, with its world-class collection of Roman monuments, is just 7 km away; stone for the Roman amphitheater there was quarried here on the Bert family land.