Well done in Provence

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It was the discovery of our week in Provence. In fact, it was the discovery of our entire 18 days in London, Paris, Burgundy and Provence.

Maison Gouin, in the tiny town of Coustellet, about 20 miles east of Avignon, is a superb butcher shop that has its own wine cellar, its own homemade pastries, a fine selection of cheeses and pasta and a modest and, for Provence, modestly priced (but quite good) restaurant.

We ate in the restaurant on the first and last nights of our stay in Provence, and we visited the store virtually every day to buy something or other. When we cooked at home — in the house we rented about 10 minutes away, just below the picturesque hillside village of Ménerbes — we shopped at Maison Gouin for everything we needed except fruit and vegetables.

One night, my wife, Lucy, and a friend made pasta with mozzarella and tomatoes, then grilled an onglet (hanger steak) and some lamb chops. Another night they made a salade niçoise with remarkably flavorful canned tuna from Maison Gouin, then sautéed the butcher's lamb loin stuffed with prunes. On both nights, we ended our meal with one of our favorite cheeses — St. Félicien — and with a decadently dense chocolate cake, both from Gouin.

The menu in the restaurant changes daily, but the price stays the same — 32 euros, about $40 — for a four-course meal: appetizer, main course, cheese and dessert. There are no choices except for cheese, which you serve yourself from the restaurant's nightly cheese tray — a fluctuating selection of 20 pulled from the butcher shop's cheese counter. You also pick your own wine and bring it to your table from the wine cellar downstairs — at a reasonable retail price.

Maison Gouin opened as a family-owned butcher shop in 1928. It soon added a small selection of cheeses and, later, wine, olive oils, jams and other foodstuffs. When the original owners retired in 1984, their eldest son stepped in. But he lost interest in the business after 13 years, and the No. 2 son, Oliver Gouin, then 32 and a sous-chef at Réserve de Beaulieu on the Riviera, was summoned to take over.

"But I'm a chef, not a butcher," he says he told his family.

He agreed to move to Coustellet only if he could make space in the butcher shop for a small restaurant.

D'accord.

He put nine yellow wooden tables in back, on the stone floor, surrounded by Provençal yellow walls, beneath a timbered ceiling. Then he built space for nine more tables behind the butcher shop, jutting out toward the parking lot, with a multicolored, wraparound mural at the top of the wall depicting various Provençal fruits and vegetables.

The restaurant, which seats about 50, opens for dinner after the butcher shop closes. It's also open for lunch — with higher prices and more choices on the menu because "the butcher shop is still open then so we can really make whatever you want," said Oliver's wife, Rosa, who supervises both operations.

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Better — and cheaperBut it's dinner that's both the big draw and the big bargain. If you don't think $40 is a bargain for a four-course dinner in Provence, you haven't been here since Peter Mayle's books and the dollar's decline versus the euro made almost everything incredibly expensive. Never mind three-star restaurants — of which there are none in Provence — or even two-star restaurants, of which there are a few: We had two one-star dinners that cost us more than $100 a person — plus wine that was marked up considerably from retail.

Our first dinner at Maison Gouin began with what the menu described as a "Mediterranean tart" with plump sardines atop marinated eggplant, peppers and artichokes on a thin puff-pastry base. Then we had a superb roast saddle of lamb that was far richer in flavor and more properly cooked than the bland, overdone lamb I'd had three nights earlier at the three-star Georges Blanc in Burgundy. Dessert, described as a "white peach gazpacho," was a cool, refreshing soup of red fruits surrounding half a peach.

We drank a very good local rosé with our appetizer and, with the lamb, a local red from Domaine de la Citadelle, which was right down the road from our house. Our son, Lucas, and I had great fun poking around Maison Gouin's small cellar, walking down a narrow, wooden staircase to a floor covered with gravel beneath a low-hanging ceiling, with prosciutto dangling overhead.

As we did everywhere in Provence, we decided to bypass the few Burgundies and Bordeaux and even the reds from the nearby Rhône Valley and concentrate on local wines. (As it turned out, the Domaine de la Citadelle was a bit too rough for my taste, but the lamb was so good that I didn't really care.)

The appetizer at our second dinner featured thin slices of chicken and Parmigiano-Reggiano atop slivers of artichoke. Then came daurade (sea bream) roasted in a sesame crust, served on a bed of fennel, with whole cloves of preserved garlic on all sides. The sauce was made with rosemary butter and coriander oil, and the dish was so good it almost made me forget that I'd been hoping for one of the butcher's better cuts of meat that night.

With this, we drank what had become our favorite local red — Château la Canorgue, a supple, fruity blend of syrah, grenache, cinsault and mourvédre, that comes from a 37-acre estate in Bonnieux, about eight miles away. The bottle cost 15 euros — just under $20.

Dessert was figs stuffed with ricotta cheese — a sort of Provençal summer version of cannoli.

Maison Gouin is very much a summer restaurant. Provence can be nasty in the winter, and the restaurant and butcher shop — which are closed Sundays and Wednesdays — also close for a month from mid-November to mid-December and again from mid-February to mid-March.

But when Gouin is open, it's always busy, always buzzing, the butcher shop so crowded you can barely carry your packages from counter to cashier, and we came to see it as our home away from home in Provence.

Oliver Gouin, a dark, stocky man with a ready laugh, stays in the kitchen during dinner, but he's learned enough about butchering in the seven years since he took over the family business that he spends much of his day behind the counter, cutting and selling meat and joking with customers. Rosa — sharp-featured but always smiling, her blond hair pulled back in a tight bun — patrols both restaurant and butcher shop, running the cash register and making sure everything operates smoothly.

The staff scrawls the nightly menu on a blackboard around midday and posts it out back in the parking lot. Natives and tourists alike know they can drive by, check it out and if it appeals — and if the restaurant isn't already booked — make a reservation on the spot.

"A lot of people make reservations by phone first, in the morning, to be sure they can get in," Rosa told me. "Then they come by and if they don't like the menu, they cancel."

Don't those cancellations make it difficult to know just how many people are coming on a given night and how much food to cook?

"No. There aren't really that many cancellations," she said. "And we always fill up anyway."

I'm not surprised.

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A little gem

La Maison Gouin, 44 Route d'Apt 84660, Maubec, Vaucluse; 011-33-4-90-76-90-18, e-mail : lamaisongouin@wanadoo.fr.

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David Shaw writes the Matters of Taste column for The Times' Food section.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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