Staggeringly Simple, Extremely Well-Executed

CHÂTEAU ARNOUX, FRANCE- Many chefs talk about just-picked garden freshness and French regional pride but few attend to the task as eagerly and authentically as Arlette, Pierre, and Jany Gleize the inseparable family trio from the memorable hotel restaurant La Bonne Etape, here in the Alpes de Haute Provence.

I have known the family for at least 15 years and return each time as an old friend, a fellow warrior in the combat against the sameness and inauthenticity of so many regional menus. The first time I dined at this 18th-century relais de poste (stagecoach stop) flavors virtually leapt from the plate: Pierre Gleize's tender zucchini blossoms . picked from his garden outside the restaurant at sunset . stuffed with a vibrant mix of garlic, mint, and zucchini; his fragrant Sisteron lamb; or the pungent Banon goat. s milk cheese aged in dried chestnut leaves, all accompanied by aromatic sips of the red, white or rose Palette from Château Simone.

A recent return visit brought all that happiness back once more, following a sensory -heightened drive up and down Mont Ventoux and through the lavender-strewn fields along some of France's best back roads.

The food at La Bonne Etape is staggeringly simple, extremely well-executed. The son, Jany, is now at the stove, and, gratefully, brings no huge ego to the table: What. s on the plate is about the ingredients, pure and simple. He is one of the most creative chefs I know, yet the creativity is not shoved in your face. There is nothing complicated, nothing you have to strain your brain to understand. But don. t confuse simple with professional: This is food of the highest level, dishes glazed or teamed up with sauces you don't turn out of in a home kitchen in a matter of seconds.

More than a week later (with many restaurant meals and many memorable dishes consumed since that time) I can close my eyes and still see and taste the food.

Who could not love the purity of his soothing ravioli stuffed with a mixture of mushrooms, Swiss chard and spinach, bathed in a shiny red tomato sauce? The brilliant red, white and green transport you right across the border to Italy.

Joël Robuchon came to mind when I sampled Jany. s bed of meltingly soft onions and black truffles topped with a Tiddly Wink arrangement of perfect rounds of delicious potatoes, decorated with a crispy Parmesan tuile cookie.

Fresh tuna is cooked to a confit-like tenderness, topped with a layer of fresh, marinated anchovies, woven into perfect braid atop the fish. And lamb is seized as though the devil did it, sauced with a rich, original basil butter.

Service here is of the highest order, and the Relais & Chateaux group should be proud of the youthful, well-mannered staff. It must be a sign that I am getting old, but the fine female sommeliere did not look as though she was old enough to legally drink the wine she was pouring.

But I must thank her for introducing me to Henning Hoesch. s rich red Syrah, the 1996 Domaine Richeaume Côtes de Provence with appealing overtones of black and red currants.

And while I tend to agree more or less with the august Michelin travel guide on the their ratings, they are simply WRONG WRONG WRONG about their single star rating of La Bonne Etape. Over the years they have given stars and taken them away from the Gleize family for what I see as no justifiable reason.

La Bonne Etape
Chemin du lac
04160 Château-Arnoux-St Aubin.
Tel: 04 92 64 00 09.
Fax: 04 92 64 37 36.
Closed January 3 to February 12 and all day Monday, Tuesday at lunch from November to March. Credit cards: American Express, Diner. s Club, Visa. Menus at 310 and 540 francs. A la carte, 225 to 595 francs, including service but not wine.