Midnight dinner at Chez Michel

Chez Michel'sSometimes when we travel we find ourselves in a serendipitous situation that seems almost too much to be true. Tucking into a homemade dinner at midnight with barkeeper Michel, his girlfriend Danielle, British expats Pat and Tom, and Michel’s Moroccan friend (name – ?) was one of these times.

To tell the whole story I have to start with our first night in meeting Tom and Pat. Dining early at the only restaurant in Jonquière, we chatted with this lovely British couple who have lived in Provence for 20 years. At their invitation we joined them for a drink afterwards at Chez Michel. Even that evening seemed like a scene out of A Year in Provence, when Michel pulled up a chair and joined us at our outdoor table where he played his guitar and serenaded us with French ballads while we sipped our pastis.

Michel pours his pastis with a punchWe made Michel’s our daily morning coffee and evening pastis stop and I practiced my atrocious French on Michel and his patrons. He told us that his daughter has a restaurant in a nearby village and Brian and I decided it would be fun to visit. I told Michel this and got directions to the restaurant, which we planned to visit a couple of days later. The next day Michel told us it was possible he could go as well, so with my fumbling French and some written notes, we agreed to meet at 9:00 at his bar and go together.

We stopped by Tom and Pat’s on our way home from Michel’s that night to see if they could join us. We really enjoyed their company, plus Pat’s fluency in French would be most helpful! They wouldn’t let us just drop by – we were ushered in for drinks and snacks and conversation, but unfortunately they had plans for the following evening.

A new friend at Chez Michel'sWe arrived at Michel’s the next night, French phrasebook and Marling Menu Master tucked in my bag, and took our seats at the bar. Michel informed us that the restaurant was closed tonight after all, though I never made out why. He asked if we’d like to go to another restaurant nearby, and of course we agreed. We passed the time while waiting for the bar to close chatting with a regular — I wish I recalled his name — and drinking pastis. We learned this friend of Michel’s was from Morocco, and he showed us photos on his cell phone of when he went to Mecca. He was most friendly and despite the formidable language barrier we got along fine. And there’s a photo of Brian and me now on his cell phone.

The bar business began winding down and Michel said good night as the last few patrons left. Just as he was locking the door a crowd of people appeared. They were from the nearby campground and had come out en masse for a drink. The small bar buzzed and filled with smoke as Michel hustled to take care of them.

Brian and I sat and sipped and talked and then were surprised to see Tom and Pat appear. After their evening engagement they had driven over to meet us at the restaurant – but had gone to the wrong town. Tom bought us all another round and we watched Michel pour and deliver drink after drink. He phoned the restaurant once or twice to tell them we were still coming, but the night grew later and later.

At one point there was discussion of having pizza, but when Pat crossed the street to the town pizzeria she returned empty handed as it was closed. The crowd left as suddenly as it had appeared and Michel apologized for the disruption to our plans. He told us he would make dinner for us. I thought he was kidding, but he sent his Moroccan friend out the door with some cash. I have no idea where he went, as the only market in town closed at 7:30 but he came back with two plastic bags of groceries.

Michel disappeared into the back of the bar somewhere as the rest of us chatted in French and English – me translating to Brian what I could, and Pat translating for Michel’s friend when our conversations veered off into English.

Before long Michel appeared with a big bowl of salad. Brian, Tom, Pat and I gathered around a table with Michel while Michel’s friend perched on a stool nearby. Tom whispered to me that his religion did not permit him to eat at the same table as us.

Maybe it was the pastis or the fact that it had been 10 or 11 hours since my baguette sandwich lunch, but I was ravenous and dove into the salad. It was simple but delicious, containing the freshest of greens, tomatoes, beet root and boiled potatoes. It was dressed with a combination of olive oil and sunflower oil. It was Provence in a bowl.

Next came some hot cheese filled pastries — I’m sure Michel had to have been quite perplexed as to what to serve these non-meat-eating foreigners. The task of shopping for us and whipping up a meal after hours would have stumped even a Top Chef contestant. Baguettes, of course, were also served. By now I was full but I knew there was more to come. Throughout the meal Michel continued pouring drinks for all — wine now.

Tina, the resident dog at Chez MichelSlightly dizzy from the alcohol and the smoke, and tired as well, I could hardly think how to express my appreciation for this hospitality in my own language, much less formulate it in French. I resorted to enormous smiles and compliments on the food. I was a bit flabbergasted — after all, who were we but a couple American tourists staying in town for a few days with a penchant for pastis and a fondess for playing ball with Tina, the bar dog.

Danielle, Michel’s girlfriend, showed up at one point. She had broken her thumb that day and was in a lot of pain, but was a good sport about her boyfriend staying up later entertaining the tourists. A lot of the talk revolved around food and I picked up enough to hear her comment on the prevalence of buffets in the United States and the corresponding higher weight of my fellow countrymen . She must have realized I understood what she said because she quickly assured us that she didn’t mean us.

As I feared, more food arrived, and it put me in a quandary. I detest peppers. I won’t waste anyone’s time pontificating on the extent of my distaste for these colorful vegetables who never hurt anyone. But if it’s a decision between eating anything a pepper has come near or go hungry on a nine-hour flight I’ll choose the latter. Further, cooked eggs gag me. even the smell makes me nauseated.

And what do you know? Our next course was a Spanish omelet bursting with peppers. Bless poor Michel’s heart — he was so proud of his dish, of finding something vegetarian to serve to us. Tom sat on my left, whispering, “You have to eat it, you can’t leave it.” I knew this — I knew what an insult it would be. I summoned a big smile and popped a potato from the omelet into my mouth. It was thoroughly infused with the flavor of peppers. I tried not to let my smile falter and popped another bite without egg or pepper into my mouth.

I tried to distract Michel with a conversation about the various words for full in English, French and Italian. I implored Brian with my eyes when I thought no one was looking. And here’s one of the many things I love about my husband. When I made a big production of saying what a big eater Brian is, and how (I’m embarrassed to admit I used this excuse) I’m just trop petit to eat so much, and scraped 3/4 of the contents of my plate onto Brian’s, he polished off his own hearty serving, and finished mine. I sincerely hope Michel and Danielle thought I was just this petite girl who eats like a bird, with a big hungry husband.

It was nearly 1 by now and I’m pretty sure Michel would have stayed up all night until time to reopen the bar in the morning for coffee, regaling us with stories like the time he went to jail and they took all his clothes away. But he pointed at Brian and said “His little eyes are closing” which pretty well summed up all of us. That didn’t stop him from serving after dinner drinks – honestly, I just don’t know how people can drink like this and still function everyday. I played the sharing trick again and gave most of my fiery drink to Tom — another good sport, our new Irish friend helped me by finishing up my drink.

Dazed, stuffed and still not sure I believed what I had just been treated to, we made our goodbyes and distributed and received kisses all around, and retreated to sleep off the pastis.

Addendum
If you ever find yourself in Jonquière, stop in Chez Michel’s. You must of course have a pastis, but check the liquor display and see if you find a bottle of Kentucky bourbon. Michel didn’t carry anything of the sort and the best we could come up with to thank him was to bring a bottle of bourbon from home (ok, not exactly from home — we got it at the supermarket in nearby Orange).

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