Illustrious Pic

VALENCE -- The first time we dined at the illustrious, longtime Michelin three-star restaurant Pic was in the 1970’s, all part of a gastronomic blitz about France. Pic was on the schedule for dinner, but that Sunday morning as we tried to start the engine on our leased Renault parked near a church in Lyon, flames began to fly from the engine.

“Incendie!” was the first word that came from our lips. As a Frenchmen walked out the church and came to our aid, the first thing he did was correct our French. This was not an “incendie” but a ‘petit feu.”

At any rate, we had a car to tow to the repair shop so did not make our lunch date at the then-renowned Pyramide in Vienne. Instead, we hopped a train to Valence to make sure we would be fed at dinner time.

I remember the meal at Pic as glorious but more important I remember the breakfast that morning in the dining room, the freshly cut rose in the silver vase, and our good bye. As we departed, intending to walk to the train station, chef Jacques Pic suggested the staff bring our car around. When he realized we had no car and were walking to the station, he grabbed a chef from the kitchen to drive us. As we drove off, Monsieur Pic raced after us on foot, with a bottle of champagne and a Relais & Château key chain as a souvenir. That memory of gentle kindness has stayed with me for decades as a reminder of just how generous the French can be. And we still use the key chain for the keys to our wine cellar.

Much has changed at Pic since then. Jacques Pic passed away, his son, Alain briefly took over the stoves, and now, after a family feud, 30-year-old daughter Anne-Sophie Pic her husband, David Sinapian, along with mother Suzanne are running the illustrious hotel-restaurant, which now has two Michelin stars. (Alain Pic can now be found in Grenoble, at the restaurant Les Mesanges-Alain Pic.)

I will admit to a bit of apprehension at returning to this, one of the most traditional of grand French restaurants. Sometimes the weight of tradition weighs just too much, and I did wonder what could this 30-year-old gal tell us about the all that has passed through these august kitchens.

I was delightfully surprised, for what I found was truly luscious fare, a menu that on paper appears overly ambitious but on the plate comes off as modern, light, ethereal, full of clean, clear flavors. In fact the hardest part of the meal is wading through the menu choices and names. But once you’ve made up your mind and placed your order, you are home free!

The tiny Anne-Sophie seems to work like a fireball, instilling new, revitalized ideas in a very classical house. While on paper many of the dishes seem to have a very Asian touch (as do the many clean-lined dishes on which she serves her very personal fare) the end result has its roots in classical French cuisine.

And so she will tease us with appetizers of moist chicken skewered on twigs of fragrant rosemary, or offer us tiny madeleines seasoned with bits of ham and Parmesan cheese, and rolls of smoked salmon served in tiny paper cups.

Vegetables get star billing here in almost every dish, as she pairs salads of lobster, crab, and langoustines with baby leaves of red-ribbed Swiss chard and arugula, with drizzles of a mayonnaise smooth and sheer as organdy.

Fresh langoustines appear on top of deliciously seasoned crab meat studded with lime zest, surrounded by all my favorite veggies: teepees of asparagus, fresh fava beans, and baby spinach leaves anointed, again with that sheer and airy mayonnaise.

A symphony of flavors abound in a simple serving of ceteaux – precious baby soles – delicately pan fried and paired with the tiniest of baby squid stuffed with pasta and a pistou-like sauce.

A main course of guinea hen – pintade – stuffed with olive leaves, rosemary, fennel, dried tomatoes and black olives – was a pure delight in flavor and presentation. The poultry was prepared in the most traditional of ways – en vessie – or wrapped in a pig’s bladder and poached in chicken stock, making for a moist, fragrant bird. The marriage of the tender guinea hen meat, the stuffing, all served with great buttery girolles (chanterelles) and tiny ratte potatoes was made in heaven.

The only disappointment of the meal was the bottle of Chapoutier’s famed white Hermitage, a 1997 Chante Alouette, a wine that seemed flat and uneventful, as it should not be when priced at 490 francs a bottle. We recovered, however, with a bottle of simple but sublime red Côtes du Rhône, a Château d’Hugues 1995 well-priced at 140 francs.

285 boulevard Victor Hugo
26000 Valence
Tel: 04 75 44 15 32
Fax: 04 75 40 96 03.
Closed two weeks in January, Sunday evening, Tuesday lunch, and Monday from November to March. Menus at 430 and 660 francs. A la carte, 490 to 660 francs, including service but not wine.