In medieval times Beaucaire was the fairground of the Rhône delta, drawing 300,000 people every summer to buy textiles and spices, drink and party their evenings away, entertained by acrobats, giants and performing elephants. Today's tourists head for the canal-side bars – but those in the know tell you to try L'Ail Heure, the coolest eaterie in town.
It's so cool, in fact, it's hardly there at all. It's a tiny, tucked-away place, a former barn with an original 16th-century wall. The decor is scrappy in a Provençal, je-m'en-fou-iste way, the walls ragged with nicotine-hued paint and hung with elderly posters advertising apéritifs and frantic-eyed alcoholics. It made me feel instantly at home. Equally unstructured is the proprietor, chef and waiter, Luc Andreu, a vision of shaggy-haired, unshaven, sleepy-eyed, French attitude, as he plonks the blackboard-menu on a chair, talks you through the evening's dishes, and explains that the name of his establishment is a complex pun on ailleurs (meaning "elsewhere") which you English cannot hope to grasp. I thought of saying, amusingly, "L'ail heure, l'ail heure, pain s'en fi-hier" but thought better of it.
The wine list comes in a battered old photo-album, with the wines listed on loose sheets in barely legible Biro. As each course arrived, Luc recommended we stop drinking one and move to another. We assured him we were happy as clams with our selection, but he prevailed. Luc is not the kind of hombre you argue with. His approach is Ramsay-lite, arrogance tempered with bonhomie. It says: you'll eat what I want you to eat and drink what I wish you to drink, without argument or complaint, comprenez?
We kicked off with a "cappuccino de caviare de champignons", served in slim coffee cups. It tasted like warm mushroom soup with caviare-ish flecks of mushroom, and a curious sweetness that came (according to my friend Helen, who has a hair-trigger palate) from organic courgettes. It went down so well with the company, I didn't complain that there was no trace of cappuccino-style froth about it.
My entrée was bizarre: "1000 feuilles de coppa seche, brandade et St Jacques" seemed to promise salt cod cooked three ways. It turned out to be three, no four, sorry, five, no six warring ingredients: flat crisps of Corsican ham, making a sandwich of cod brandade (the fish very tasty and chunky within the mash) alongside a single juicy scallop on a buttery fish sauce dusted with Guadaloupe cocoa; the whole scene was garnished with two menacing crevettes in their shells. Dali himself couldn't have dreamed up a weirder plateful. Some of it worked – the salty ham and cod went well, the scallop was gorgeous and left you craving more. But the fish'*'cocoa connection was idiotic, the crevettes, on inspection, weren't fresh, and it all seemed a little ... effortful.
Others tried the "pressé de foie gras, barigoule d'artichauds, caramel de muscat" and rhapsodised over the slithery terrine, which blended well with the barely cooked artichokes. But they puzzled over the dribble of raisiny caramel, which combined with the vegetable the way marmalade combines with Pringles.
Main courses brought further oddities. "Croques miettes de mustelle et gaspacho de pimont doux" offered small tranches of the big white mustel fish we'd seen earlier, uninspiringly cooked with a sauce of mouli-mixed red pepper. "If you're going to show off the fish to your customers before dinner," said my pal Jon, "you should be doing something clever with it." My magret de canard with truffle sauce was more substantial, the purple slices of duck breast amazingly gamey and obscurely sexy (you could tell this duck was a brooding, Gauloise-puffing, Parisien existentialist) as they basked in the nasty-looking chocolately sauce, beside a spoonful of Burgundy mash.
The rest of dinner was a dream of whiffy cheeses, from a modest brie to a salty époisses, and a pudding plate that featured hot chocolate with peach slices, macaroon, and a peach granita containing a leaf of lemon verbena. Like everything about L'Ail Heure, it suggested a chef of wild but undisciplined ambitions, yoking a dozen flavours together and trying to make them work, heedless of the result.
Some of my companions liked the constant "dialogue" with the kitchen, as we faced a succession of gustatory challenges. Some thought the place pretentious and the cooking insufficiently careful. Some quite fancied the egomaniacal Luc. Myself, I thought my brush with cutting-edge Provençal cuisine an experience slightly more maddening than satisfying, and the obsession with chocolate a bit vieux chapeau, given that Sketch was doing it in London five years ago. L'Ail Heure is worth a visit by vacationing foodies, but they may find they have a battle on their hands.
L'Ail Heure, Place Raimond VII, Beaucaire 30300, France (00 33 4 66 59 67 75)
Around £70 for two with wineReuse content