Here is the second most often ignored advice that I give to visitors coming to Provence (the first being "don't plan too much" which is usually met with polite blinking stares): take it easy on the French food. Now, I get it, you have come all this way, of course your instinct is to start with a croissant and café creme and keep on frenchifying your way through the day until that last delectable bite of croquant au chocolat...but instincts, while precious, can be deceiving.
Because sometimes - and certainly in very touristy towns - French is not necessarily the best option. Those restaurants with incredibly long menus often touted by a charming young lady out front of the establishment (which is illegal by the way)? Well, as the kitchen is most likely the size of a postage stamp, how on earth could all of those ingredients be fresh? And besides, in giving your palate a break, you will appreciate your next foie gras à la poêle avec réduction des cerises even more. Your belly will thank you as well for a bit of something lighter instead of having two big meals out per day... so what about some, say, Japanese food?
I had been wanting to go to Naka for quite some time but it was finally the ever-elegant Madame L who dragged me out of this tiny village so that we could take the bus to Avignon (while elegant, she is also practical) in order to give it a try.
As we would be arriving at 2pm, which is quite late for lunch, she had called ahead in order to confirm that it would still be open. Knowing how things work in the region, I feared that we would be seated but slighted then rushed. Happily, I couldn't have been further from the truth as the service was delightful - professional but light-handed and friendly (as long-time readers might remember, since I have worked as a waitress myself back in my NYC days I am more than a little exigeante when it comes to this métier).
While we loved being on the cobble-stone terrace overlooking one of Avignon's most attractive squares (and I can only imagine how fabulous it would be in the evening), the interior is simply gorgeous - a perfect contrast between the patina of the original stone walls and sleek modern elements such as floating paper lanterns by artist Céline Wright. There is also a comfortable bar area filled with worn leather Chesterfield sofas with a prime view on the sushi bar where some down-low lounge was being played quietly in the background.
Of course all of this is merely la cerise sur le gâteau compared to...the food. Chef Katsuhiro Naka arrived in France from Tokyo in 1977 when he was only 18 years old with hopes of learning la gastronomie française. Having been denied a work visa, he wrote directly to then Président Giscard d'Estaing who not only accorded him his carte de séjour but gave him an appointment at Maxim's in Paris. Chef Katsuhiro worked his way through many grand establishments such as Taillevent and Ledoyen before opening his own restaurant, which two of his children helped him run. As a member of the family was running a yoga studio in Avignon (which is now above the restaurant), eventually the entire family made the move to Provence and Naka was opened in 2013. Isn't this an amazing story?
But let's return to our plates. The sushi and sashimi that I had were probably the best that I have eaten during the 14 years that I have lived in France for their freshness and correctness of presentation. There was nothing fancy about them - how can you get more basic than a California roll? - and yet it was truly delicious. On the lunch menu, the sushi, sashimi and maki were accompanied by two excellent sides (the house favorite of soy-marinated eggplant and crunchy black seaweed), miso soup and sticky rice - for only 14 Euros. As Madame L remarked, "That is the price for a mediocre salad in a café!" For her part, she enjoyed an equally copious mixed tempura with gambas and a variety of veggies for 14.50 Euros. We both had a nice glass of white - Naka's dedication to their wine list is rather unheard of for Asian restaurants in the South - and chatted in between sips, both lifting our heads to catch the occasional breeze.
Naka in itself is certainly a breath of fresh air. While literally a stone's throw away from the hordes on the Place de l'Horloge, we felt like we were in our special corner of Avignon, one that I can't wait to return to again.
4 Place de la Principale
84000 - Avignon
Tel.: +33 (0)4 90 82 15 70
*As always, this is not a sponsored post, just me sharing a good address!*
Bon Weekend tout la monde...