Vaison la Romaine – We have lived in this tiny Provencal village for nearly 20 years, and never has the choice of pleasant, small family restaurants been better. This is a land of plenty, with the spicy Rhone wines leading the pack, and black truffles, fresh cherries, plump apricots and figs, and all manner of vegetables following close behind. So putting a simple but great meal on the table is child’s play.
But up until recently, dining out was pretty much limited to pizzerias, a few good Asian restaurants, and very little in the way of chefs who knew what to do with the bounty before them.
LE GRAND PRE
The newest game in the area is Le Grand Pre, opened last year by Belgian chef Raoul Reichrath and his Mexican wife, Flora. The two make a perfect pair of restaurateurs, with Raoul alone in his spotless kitchen and Flora in the dining room, sharing her vast wine knowledge and putting everyone is a good mood with her perky personality.
The two have worked all over the world, from the best restaurants in Belgium to the King David hotel in Jerusalem and the Marquis Reforma in Mexico. Now, in the hamlet of Roaix they have transformed an old farmhouse into a charming little restaurant with a wine list that will make most Rhone wine-lovers weep for joy. All the good names are there – Goubert, St Esteve, Rabasse Charavin, Beaucastel, Bouissiere, Domaine de la Mordoree, Santa Duc, and Château Hugues – whether it be white, red, or rose.
Raoul’s food is sophisticated, but not so much so that it feels out of place in a small country restaurant. What I love is that his food does not follow any single school other than his own imagination, which is vast. On a recent evening, he wowed us with a trio of starters – caramelized tomatillo with foie gras; a spoonful of fennel puree; and a crunchy cheese cookie topped with a pumpkin seed – and put us in the mood for sipping a favorite white wine, Domaine de la Mordoree’s Lirac Reine des Bois, a complex, thinking person’s wine made with no less than six grape varieties.
The meal began officially with a platter of plump warm oysters, topped with a green parsley puree and a rich sea urchin sauce. The main course pigeon – roasted fabulously rare -- was caramelized with a touch of soy sauce, giving it a walnut-toned glaze. Cheese comes from my village cheese shop, Lou Canesteou, run by Josiane and Christian Deal. Dessert might be as simple as bowlful of the tangy seasonal strawberry Mara des Bois, showered with crushed black peppercorns and paired with a soothing grapefruit ice.
Few wines have the intensity, authority and diversity as the Rhone valley Gigondas, strong and full bodied wines that reflect the heady summer sun of Provence. Lucky for us, this charming village with its cozy shaded square boasts of the finest spots in the area, L’Oustalet, where owners Marlies and Johannes Sailer help us feast on the freshest seasonal ingredients, ranging from simple, whole tender roasted pigeon to green and white asparagus, baby artichokes with a zesty fresh tomato sauce, fresh Mediterranean fish and shellfish, rich local duck and soothing soups. The desserts are stunning, and might include a perfect millefeuille filled with the renowned strawberries from Carpentras or individual cherry clafoutis paired with a bright cherry sorbet. The Sailers have transformed a village house into a small and welcoming restaurant where, in the summer months, tables spill out onto the shaded terrace where we can watch the sun set at the end of a long day.
DOMAINE DE LA PONCHE
My most recent neighborhood discovery is the peaceful, 17th-century turreted château set in the middle of the vineyards of Vacqueyras, a Côtes-du-Rhône village and appellation known for its peppery, Grenache-based wines. Domaine de la Ponche serves as a simple and homey hotel and a fine table d’hotes where there is a just a single simple but sublime menu each evening. By reservation, La Ponche also accepts diners who are not staying in the chateau. Owners Jean-Pierre Onimus, Ruth Spah and Madeleine Frauenknecht have a flair for simplicity, both in the kitchen, the garden, and the wine cellar. Food with clean, clear flavors is served in the bright dining room and the nicely shaded terrace. A starter might be as simple as the most perfect, thinly sliced cucumbers, tossed in a lemony vinaigrette and heartily seasoned with freshly cracked black pepper. On one visit, the evening’s special was lamb chops, delicious, moist and meaty with a pure lamb flavor, served with a picture perfect, sheer potato gratin. A huge mound of green beans cooked with Ruth and Madeleine’s professional flair made an ideal accompaniment. And you will be a very lucky diner indeed should they decide to wear their Italian hats that evening, for everything they do with pasta and rice is purely awesome. Dessert may be as simple as warm apples, ice cream and almonds. Jean-Pierre is sure to suggest a local wine that will turn you into a believer: A favorite of the moment is the La Fourmone Vacqueyras La Fleurantine, a complex, floral white from the vineyard just across the road.
DOMAINE SAINT LUC
In 1971 Ludovic and Eliane Cornillon bought a ruin of an 18th-century farm, rented vineyards, and as soon as the house was restored, set up a ferme-auberge. They have just a handful of guest rooms and overnight guests also get to enjoy the table d’hotes dinner prepared lovingly by Eliane, one of the best Provencal cooks I know. Their wine has grown immensely in quality and quantity, with a wide range of reds and whites made for drinking today as well as cellaring for tomorrow. A typical meal here might begin with giant platters of tender green beans tossed with an avalanche of basil; a shoulder or lamb paired with onions cooked to a melting tenderness, and a gratin Provencal made up of potatoes, onions, tomatoes and a touch of garlic. There is always a generous platter of cheeses, followed by fruit desserts paired with simple homemade cookies. And of course Landover’s assortment of wines, served personally by the winemaker, who speaks lovingly and he artfully of his craft. You will always learn something from Ludovic. Guests dine in the spacious stone dining room of this lovingly restored farm. (And I have to add that as of the 2001 vintage, Ludovic is making our own wine from the three hectares of Grenache, Syrah and Mourvèdre that make up our very own peppery red Côtes-du-Rhône Clos Chanteduc.)
Le Grand Pre
route de Vaison (D 975)
Tel: 04 90 46 18 12.
fax: 04 90 46 17 84.
Closed June 25 to July 3, January 28 to February 26, Tuesday, Wednesday lunch, and Saturday lunch. Credit cards: American Express, Visa. A la carte, 29 to 54 euros, including service but not wine.
L’Oustalet, (in the center of Gigondas )
tel: 04 90 65 83 30
fax: 04 90 65 85 30.
Closed November 15 to December 28, Sunday (except lunch on holidays) and Monday. All major credit cards. 13.50 euro children’s weekday lunch menu, 17 euro weekday lunch menu, menus at 26, 32, 39, 50, and 60 euros. A la carte, 39 to 60 euros, including service but not wine.
Domaine de la Ponche
Tel: 33(0)4 90 65 85 21
Fax : 33(0)4 90 65 85 23.
email : email@example.com
Open for dinner only, by reservation only. Closed Sunday and Tuesday. Rooms priced from 92 to 191 euros, depending upon the season. Meals at 33 euros per person, including service but not wine.
Maison d’Hotes Domain Saint Luc
26790 La Baume de Transit
Tel: 33(0)4 75 98 11 51
Fax: 04 75 98 19
Six rooms and two studios with kitchenette, from 64 to 99 euros, including breakfast. Meals 25 euros per person, plus 10 euros for wine. There is also a swimming pool on the premises.