The South of France is known for many things -- beautiful beaches, sunny weather, spectacular eye candy -- but visitors invariably forget to praise its distinctive cuisine and wine. Fresh fish is in abundance here as is the ever-popular Provencal rosé. Both get top billing at Spoon Byblos, Alain Ducasse's gastronomic retreat at the 40-year-old Hotel Byblos in St. Tropez.
Like the Michelin-starred chef's other Spoon restaurants in Paris, London, Tokyo and Mauritius, Spoon Byblos is decidedly unpretentious. Freedom is the key, and that's reflected in the décor. Comfortable khaki and red cotton loveseats surround low-lying wooden tables on the expansive terrace. Lanterns hang from trees and a curtain of foliage encloses the outdoor seating area, making it virtually impenetrable to passersby. Red leather banquettes and round-backed chairs surround square tables underneath small, egg-shaped crystal chandeliers in the indoor dining room. Comfortable metal stools encase the circular bar, and blue and red wine glasses hang from a stainless steel frame imbedded into the ceiling above it.
The Mediterranean-inspired menu is extensive and may seem indecipherable at first glance. Ideally, it should be read horizontally as the chef has made suggestions on what sides and sauces/condiments go best with each main course: dishes are listed under the numeral one and sauces and sides are listed under the numerals two and three, respectively. But as Spoon is about freedom, it's often more enjoyable to zigzag through the main courses and come up with your own interpretation. But first, I look at the appetizers.
To start, I choose the ceviche, as I am a big fan of the South American raw fish dish. The fish is prepared in a mixture of citrus and salt and is seasoned with coriander and citronella (yes, that citronella!) and served with vegetable flan embellished with fennels, green mangos and melon. It's one of the best ceviches I have ever had (sorry Douglas Rodriguez). My friend orders the soupe de pasteque, a cold watermelon soup with king crabs, which is a perfect treat on a hot summer day. Other choice starters include the bourride de legumes, or vegetable soup with summer truffles and herbs and the oeuf mollet, a soft-boiled egg with fava beans.
I zigzag through the main courses. This section of the menu includes a number of fish and seafood choices included sea bream, tuna and king prawns. The French-grown poultry and meat section includes chicken wings, veal and spare ribs. I choose the Saint-Pierre, a.k.a. John Dory, because it won't expand my waistline. Native to Europe and New Zealand, the sweet-flavored fish is coated with a traditional North-African marinade of garlic, cumin, oil and salt and then spit-roasted. It's filling without being heavy. Instead of pairing it with the recommended sauce croquante, I choose wok sautéed vegetables. It all works in harmony.
My friend selects the tournedos de boeuf. The lean, tenderloin cuts are sliced into two pieces and stuffed with onions, anchovies, green olives, capers and tomatoes. She pairs the tender and juicy beef with a spicy tandoori sauce and the recommended panisses or fried chickpea dough. It's utter perfection.
Our bartender suggests we imbibe on one of Spoon's signature cocktails such as the Mojito Champagne or the Spoon cooler, but as this is the South of France we partake in a bottle of rosé instead. The wine list showcases more than 300 different varietals but the rosé list features 11 different selections. We settle on the 2005 Chateau Barbeyrolles from Gassin. It's light and fruity.
After dinner, I am surprised to find that one can enjoy cigars indoors. France, like other countries around the world, has imposed a nationwide smoking ban in public places. But someone forgot to tell the people in the South of France. Smokers are still allowed to enjoy their cigars indoors until the end of the year (when they will be relegated to outdoor dining areas) and the Hotel Byblos and Spoon encourages it. We inspect the extensive cigar menu Antoine Chevanne, owner/general Director of the Groupe Floirat, has painstakingly put together. The list includes a brief history of the cigar industry, Cuba's role in it, as well as a definition of the various shapes and sizes and the famous Cuban marques. Spoon offers a number of great Cuban cigars including Cuabas, Saint Luis Reys, Trinidads, Vegas Robainas and my favorite, Bolivars. We order a glass of 12-year-old Glenfiddich from the extensive spirits list and retire to the cigar lounge at the hotel to enjoy our reasonably priced Bolivar Belicoso Finos. Vive le Spoon! Vive la France!
Avenue Paul Signac
Tel: 33 (0) 4 94 56 68 00
Monday to Thursday, 4 p.m. to midnight
Friday and Saturday, 4 p.m. to 1 a.m.
Sunday, 3 p.m. to 10 p.m.