J is always on the lookout for new places to eat and she found a great one last week. She discovered it on the internet and I can only assume she’d heard it mentioned by someone and had looked it up. Once she’d established that there was a date free in my ever busy diary, she made a reservation, and on Thursday lunchtime we set off for Grasse, the perfume capital of France which is about 40 minutes from Tourrettes.
Now we’ve eaten in Grasse many times but usually in the Inidan (The New Punjab – yes I know sacrilege) or the restaurants located in the little squares dotted about the town centre. This time would be different – we were heading to a Lyceé or college – the Lyceé de Croisset to be exact – a Lyceé Professionelles which majors on students studying commerce, secretarial skills, the environment and hotel and restaurant management.
I wasn’t sure what to expect. Maybe having a lunch in a separate room in the college with the food prepared by the students and the money helping the college funds?
When we arrived we were directed to the ‘restaurant’ which turned out to be a rather non-descript room in the furthest recesses of the building. The room was set out to take a maximum of 30 diners in tables of two and four and whilst a bit lacking in atmosphere had a terrific view over the hills of Grasse.
We stood in the entrance of the room for about 2 minutes before someone came over to seat us which wasn’t a good start and then once we’d been offered an aperitif, we discovered that we were actually sitting in an ‘examination room’. The students serving us would be evaluated by two ‘professeurs’ who watched everything they did and noted it down on their exam sheets.
It was fascinating. There were four students waiting on 24 covers. The students, all sitting their first year exams, were numbered 1 – 4. Number 1 was a guy who had a quiet, confident air about him. Number 2 was another male student who looked a bit like Manuel from Fawlty Towers, but without the moustache. Number 4 was a tall, striking female who exuded a quiet calm and authority, whilst number 3, our waitress, acted like a frightened rabbit. Just our luck.
We ordered aperitifs and were advised what the menu was (it’s set out on the internet and there’s no choice) – roulade of chicken breast with a small salad and curry dressing followed by the classic veal Milannaise and spaghetti. There was no mention of what dessert would be.
The starter arrived and we ordered a half bottle of Rosé. I noticed that all the other diners had been served warm bread rolls – but not us which was something of a crime as the French normally serve bread almost as soon as you sit down. J did not want to ‘rock the boat’ and scupper the student’s chances of a good exam mark but I reckon the examiner had probably noticed that I’d stopped eating my chicken and salad, which was quite delicious, but nothing happened – still no bread. Eventually, J gave in and asked our ‘frightened rabbit’ for some which arrived within seconds.
Then it was the main course which was ok. There’s not much you can do with Milannaise but I did notice our girl did not know what one of the three accompaniments was – onion and tomato sauce as it turned out.
Up till then, everything had gone ok apart from a few minor hic-cups but it was when dessert arrived that the fun started. Number 4, the tall model-like one, who had ‘swanned’ through the service produced a flambé burner, a large frying pan and a bowl of cut strawberries. Almost simultaneously, our waitress delivered the same to our table, whereupon J exclaimed that she had also produced a couple of digestifs for us.
I had previously ordered a glass of white wine to go with my dessert but it had not been delivered (another mark lost) so I was just about to sink one of the digestifs when J and the waitress both let out a shriek – the drinks were for the flambé! What a lucky escape.
Chaos was now happening all around the room. Number 4, in her attempt to light the liqueurs which were now in the flambé pan, tipped some of her strawberries out onto the burner and quickly tried to hide them from the examiner. Number 1’s gas flambé burner went out as there was no more gas in his cylinder – his table got cold strawberries. Number 2 was also having trouble as he’d spotted number 1 spilling her strawberries and was a bit nervous about doing the same. Number 3 on the other hand, our frightened little rabbit, did it perfectly and got a round of applause from all the diners. Voila!
Dessert actually turned out to be fresh strawberries, flambéd in strawberry liqueur and kirsch and placed in a brandy basket and served with pistachio ice cream. It was delicious and the whole meal excluding drinks cost only €13.
Maybe it was because we’d had quite poor service and had been quite civilized about it or maybe it was because we just looked like a nice couple, but we were approached by another student who amazed us by asking us to return the following day – there was another examination.
I was about to ask it if would be free but J nearly bit his hand off and told me not to bother thinking about it – she was bringing a friend!
Final word – I gave frightened rabbit a €5 tip which she slipped into her inside pocket. I reckon that 99% of the diners who go there are French and they NEVER leave a tip. She was quite chuffed, but probably only until she saw her exam marks.
PS - J returned on Friday - and it wasn't free!!