BY CHERYL ANDERSON
Once again, the winding Route de Gorbio with its sharp turns took me up the mountain to Gorbio. I am not a huge fan of hairpin curves, but the destination is worth any hesitation I may have had. My most recent return was last September, hoping that the restaurant, Auberge du Village, was open. Sadly, it was not. The rod that once held the pretty sign is there, but a small sign on the door indicates it is now a résidence. I found out, quite by accident, that the husband had died and his wife closed the restaurant. Another bit of information that came my way is that no longer are there any shops in the old village, only a superette on the main square across from Le Beauséjour by the Orme (elm) tree.
So, we scurried to Beauséjour, without a reservation, for lunch. I highly recommend making a reservation during the high tourist season. But this was a brilliant September day and only a couple tables were occupied inside, on the terrasse panoramique, the glazed terrace with a view overlooking the valley, or on the terrace outside. Choosing to sit on the terrace on such a gorgeous day, our most enjoyable dining began. In the background there came the sounds of children at recess in the schoolyard overlooking the main square.
It was fortuitous that we were there in September because they close the end of October, not to reopen again until March, something they do each year. Be sure you have cash on hand because as they do not take cartes bleu (credit cards). Beauséjour offers a children’s menu, accept groups, arrange banquets, and can arrange private dining.
Awarded the l’Assiette Michelin a few years ago, taking its place in the history of the culinary world of France, Le Beauséjour offers classic traditional French cuisine served in a cozy, relaxed atmosphere. It’s the sort of French restaurant where I feel as though I’ve experienced authenticity. A few specialties of Beauséjour listed on the Michelin restaurant site are ravioli frais maison, lapin sauté à la marjolaine, barbajuan, and beignets de fleurs de courgettes. For me, other notable dishes are daube (a classic Provençal stew made of beef braised in wine, vegetables, garlic, and herbes de Provence), and foie gras à la truffe. For dessert, my personal favorite, is the crème brûlée—it’s as delicious as the presentation is pretty.
The source of my new information about the Auberge du Village and other things came from Jilly Bennett. While I was sitting at my table, I overheard her speaking English with her dining companion at a table close-by. Later, I was to find out that was her sister. I volunteered to take their picture, but as Jilly lives in Gorbio, she frequently dines at Beauséjour and is friends with the owners, Naila and Yvan Bracco. There was no need for a picture! My gesture did, however, open up a conversation full of Gorbio’s goings-on, some things you just won’t find out in a guide book.
Immediately, I realized I knew her from somewhere: I used to follow Jilly’s former blogs that are still online, Menton Daily Photo and Riviera Dogs! Her photos are wonderful candid pictures of dogs and people. Always with her camera ready, she photographed a dog with its owners at Beauséjour while we were having lunch.
In her new blog, Jilly Bennett Photography, she captures the spirit of France and Italy in photographs. Often there is a dog present in the frame—dogs and photography are Jilly’s two passions. She shares: “More than anything I love to photograph people. Every face tells a story, a moment captured on a camera tells a story. And that’s always my aim—to tell a story, to share a feeling, an emotion. I love to photograph life as I see it around me here in the south of France, where I’ve lived for over twenty years. And if there’s a dog in the photo, so much the better! I’m currently working on a photography book featuring the dogs of France, Italy, and Monaco. Luckily, I speak fluent ‘dog’—my favorite language.”
After our lunch, that lasted a leisurely three hours, we proceeded to walk around the quiet village. I didn’t rush along the cobblestone pathways. The few gift shops that used to be there are gone and I miss them, but I very much enjoyed a stroll through a Medieval perché that is Gorbio.
I wanted to know the history of Le Beauséjour—I often do want to know more about restaurants I enjoy. What’s the story behind this restaurant that has been around since 1880? This is the fourth generation to operate Beauséjour. At Colombe d’Or the menu is the same as it was in the very beginning, whereas Mauro Colagreco’s brilliant menu at Mirazur is ever changing. What’s the history of the menu at Beauséjour?
As I was back home and not able to do so myself, arrangements were made for Jilly to sit down with Yvan Bracco in Gorbio, where he kindly answered questions I had sent to her. His responses give us a peek into the hidden gem that is Beauséjour on the Côte d’Azur.
What did it mean to you to be awarded L’Assiette Michelin?
After 32 years of practicing my métier it was ‘gratification’ that was the overwhelming emotion when Beauséjour received this honor.
Are new recipes ever added to the menu?
Are some, or all, of your recipes handed down from the family?
Yes. Barbajuan, ravioli, lapin, daube, fleur de courge farci were passed down from my great-grandfather.
Are family members the chefs?
Yes. Naila and I are the chefs.
Do you ever have visiting chefs?
Do you have a favorite dish, one that reminds you of your childhood?
Daube and ravioli.
During the months when the restaurant is closed, do you travel? Where are your favorite places to visit?
For the first 17 years, Naila and I spent 5 of the winter months in Senegal, Africa, where we had an interest in a restaurant there, so we were working. Since then, we like to holiday in Thailand, Asia, and North Africa.
Who was your mentor?
My mentor was Chef Tournay in Monaco.
Where did you train as a chef?
First, at a cooking school in France, later, at the Provence, Monaco (Fairmont) and at the Hôtel de Paris under Chef Bonsignore, who preceded Alain Ducasse.
Do you think the mixing and matching of dinnerware, flatware, linens, glassware, etc. gives Beauséjour a cozy and inviting family-like atmosphere? Has such an atmosphere always been the family’s objective?
The décor is the creation of Naila. Early in her career, she was an interior designer working alongside Christian Dior in Paris. And yes, absolutely, mixing and matching of beautiful old china, linens, glassware, etc. indeed gives the Beauséjour its relaxed family atmosphere, which people love.
Is it true 1880 is when Beauséjour first opened? Were there times when it was forced to close? Has Beauséjour always been its name?
Yes, Beauséjour was ‘built’ in 1880, and my great grandfather bought it in 1924. Prior to that, it was known as Hôtel de New York (a lot of Americans used to visit the Côte d’Azur at that time). Later, it was called Hôtel des Etrangers. It was my grandfather who named it Beauséjour.
During the war, the restaurant closed. Indeed, the whole village was evacuated to the southwest of France in 1942. In 1978 the family stopped running the place as a hotel and made it into a restaurant only. I took it over from my father in 1985.
We had a great time visiting with your basset. What is her name and her history?
Her name is Bouchette and was born in 2009. She was bought as a puppy and has lived in Gorbio ever since.
Finally, what is your preferred way to spell the name of the restaurant: Beau Séjour or one word, Beauséjour? I’ve seen it both ways and want to write it correctly.
It’s one word, as is written on the front of the restaurant.
If you want to experience the joy of strolling around an authentic French perché village, sans beaucoup de touristes, Gorbio will not disappoint. Stopping for a meal at a brilliant restaurant with a remarkable history makes for an even more perfect afternoon or evening. It may become one of your favorite places to dine on the Côte d’Azur! I do hope so.
Le Restaurant Beauséjour
14 Place de la République
06500, Gorbio, France
+33 4 93 41 15