My first visit to France was after my first year of university. My parents had moved overseas when I graduated from high school. I went off to university, and they emigrated to Monaco. I used to joke that I was just glad they had told me where they were going!
During that summer after my freshman year of college, I had the opportunity to visit them at their new home, and spent two weeks in Monaco and France with my best friend, Tanya. I have many fond memories of that first visit to France, one of which remains a favorite food memory of mine to this day.
It happened one night near the end of our visit. My father and mother took Tanya and I (along with Boysie, the family dog) to a restaurant they liked in Roquebrune-sur-mer. I imagine we must have eaten in other restaurants while in France on that trip, but from the whole visit, I remember only La Dame Jeanne. Roquebrune-sur-mer is a small village nestled in the hills of France above Monaco. Much like most little old French villages, it is a quiet town. The village dates back to the 13th century, as is reflected in the old buildings and tiny streets. It is accessible only by foot, so we parked in the village lot and climbed the stairs to the town.
La Dame Jeanne was located down a few tiny alleyways and backed onto a beautiful view of Monaco – all lights at nighttime. It was owned by a husband and wife team. He spent his time in the kitchen, while she managed the front-of-the-house. They complimented each other nicely and created a warm, welcoming ambiance in the restaurant. He was half Italian and full of energy. She was French, calm and strikingly beautiful. As I had quickly learned was the norm in France, we all started our meal with a kir (white wine and cassis liquor). Then the owner-hostess-waitress came to the table to let us know about the night’s menu. The menu was one of the most memorable parts of dinner – not what was on the menu, but how the menu was presented. It was not written down. Instead, our beautiful hostess recited the menu to us based on what her husband had bought at the market that morning. She listed four or five appetizers and looked up at us waiting for our order. We were to decide right away, which was sort of a shock to me. However, having always had trouble deciding what to have in restaurants, I appreciated this need for an immediate response. It spared me from the inevitable deliberation that always burdens me at a restaurant. Then six to eight entrées were rattled off. I chose the rabbit.
Our dining experience was fantastic. We drank and ate. Tanya and I shared stories with my parents about our first year at university. My father gave us information about the area, the history, the “important” stuff. My mother listened and chimed in where she wanted to. The chef husband came over to chat. He was very animated and stayed a long while. Finally his beautiful wife dragged him from our table so we could “have some peace”.
Dinner was spectacular but eventually came to an end, only to be followed by dessert and digestifs – another norm for France and novelty for Tanya and me. We left the restaurant full and happy, and walked back to the village square. Tanya and I looked at the unbelievable view. My father pointed out landmarks. My mother danced around with Boysie in her arms.
This dinner happened before I had decided to turn my passion for food into my career. Consequently, I did not take the time to absorb every detail of dinner as I would now. What I remember most vividly is not how the rabbit was prepared, or what I had as an appetizer, but the experience as a whole – the quiet French village, the view of Monaco all lit up, the friendly and personal touch of the huband and wife team, the company of my parents – relaxed and comfortable, Tanya – as excited to be there as I was, the fact that Boysie had been allowed to accompany us, keeping his place under the table, and all of this surrounding an excellent meal. I’ve carried this memory with me for years. I did return to La Dame Janne for more meals when I visited my parents on subsequent trips to France, but no visit was as memorable as the first. Now I choose not to return for fear that my memory will be tainted or diluted.
This week, my best friend, Tanya is coming to visit me with her husband, her son and her daughter (Little Meredith ). I wonder if she remembers La Dame Jeanne the way I do. I wonder if we’ll create another lasting dinner memory while she’s here.