Un coup de coeur is a slightly slangy way to describe a favorite, a top pick, if you’re a French person. But to my ear it’s something a little different, a little more. The word coup has literally hundreds of uses, but to hear it as I do, consider that un coup de foudre is a bolt of lightning, donner un coup de main is to lend a helping hand. So when I think of coup de coeur I think of something special that strikes my heart. And last night that something special was Chef Didier Mariani and his tiny restaurant A 2 Pas du Potager, in the lovely old city of Avignon.
The name means “two steps from the kitchen garden” and indeed the restaurant grows nearly all of the vegetables and fruits it serves. What Chef Mariani puts on your table comes straight from the soil to your plate, after a quick spin through the one-man restaurant kitchen. So yes, it’s as fresh as food can be, and impeccably prepared, and inventive, and above all delicious. And the wine cellar promises countless delights, if the gorgeous bottle of Château Pas du Cerf Cuvée Marlise is any indication. But that’s not what I remember most.
Long after the flavors of the sweet and salty olive macaron, the magical warm foie gras served with an eggplant “sand” that combines with the foie to form a startling cream on the tongue, and the irresistable crusty rolls made in house from an apple-based natural starter, have left my lips, it’s Chef Mariani himself that I’ll remember. Even the fact that he prepared for us, on no notice, a gorgeous dessert tasting menu because we had a pastry chef in our party isn’t the main thing I’ll remember. Rather it’s that he’s everyone’s dream of a true French chef, changing his menu monthly to showcase the bounty of his garden throughout the seasons, making every single thing from scratch, bringing the food to your table himself and explaining each element of the dish, and smiling at the end of the evening with the pleasure of having made his diners happy.
The warmth of the small room, holding no more than 15-20 diners a night, reflects the spirit of Chef Mariani and his wife Andrea, who is the sole and splendid front of the house staff. If your best friend were a French chef, this is how it would feel to go to his house. His love of beautiful food tenderly prepared and artfully presented couldn’t shine any clearer if the chef put each bite to your lips with his own fingertips. I actually think he’d like to do that, but since he works alone in his kitchen he just doesn’t have the time.
If I’ve ever been in a restaurant where I felt so cared for, so convinced that my dining pleasure was all that mattered, it must have been in a dream. You’ve dreamed that dream too, I imagine. A chef in pristine whites smiles, whispers in your ear, slips food in front of you that begs to be remembered, pours wine that makes you forget other wines you’ve drunk before, and at the end of the evening tells you he’ll be glad to do all of this for you again any time, as soon as you wish. Remember that dream?
And if the dream is not enough and you want to see more pictures of the dinner, click here