A Little Touch of Heaven

VALENCE - If God is in the details, then dining at Anne-Sophie's family restaurant, Pic, is a like a little touch of heaven. I spent the morning with her the other day, roaming through the vast and airy new ground floor kitchens, where she and some 15 other chefs work with diligence, attentiveness, and discipline, creating a modern style of cuisine that reminds one instantly of the detailed, complex cuisine of Joel Robuchon and Pierre Gagnaire.

This was my first visit in two years, and as Anne-Sophie herself is aware, she has grown immensely in this time, both in her style of cooking and in the way she runs her kitchen. Now 32 years old, this tiny fireball of a chef says she has also softened. No matter how you call it, it's not easy to be the lady boss in a super-macho world of classic French kitchens. She clearly treats her mostly male staff with gentle, sincere respect, and it sure seems to pay off.

Instantly, what I most loved about her current mode is the way she manages to weave just about every seasonal and local ingredient into her menu, whether it's peaches from the Drome, ratatouille vegetables from the nearby farmer's market, all manner of Provencal herbs, summery purple figs, or raspberries served with an ice cream made from the local wild mint, known as melisse. Her vegetable tempura uses no less than eggplant, red bell peppers, zucchini and summer savory, while plump local pigeon is coated with a luscious mixture of crushed walnuts, sweet butter and toasted bread crumbs, all seasoned with Maldon sea salt, its crystals revered for their special crunch.

A treat of the day was a visit to the modern, underground, air-conditioned wine cellar, where sommelier Denis Bertrand gave me free reign, as I poked and peered through the aisles, selecting for lunch an array of wines I knew of but had never tasted. The cellar is a wine-lover's candy store, with a treasure trove of wines, specializing of course in those of the Rhone. All the great Chateauneuf du Pape are there, from Beaucastel to Rayas to Vieux Telegraph, La Janasse and La Nerthe and on to Paul Avril's Clos des Papes. Names such as Chapoutier, Chave, Guigal, Vernay, Delorme appear as old, close friends. But the most exciting for me was the ability to share in their own regional discoveries, such as the fine elegant, Grenache-based red Vacqueyras Montirius 1997, like a rich confit of fruit redolent of blackberries and blueberries, and two outstanding unknown whites, including a 100% Roussanne from Domaine le Serre in Condorcet near Nyons, and a Vinsobres Chaume-Arnaud (a Marsanne, Roussane, Viognier blend) that taste of pure apricot kernels.

For my palate and my money, some of the best buys on the list come from winemaker Michele Laurent, whose varied clean, Côtes-du-Rhône wines that taste of pure fruit are my favorite flavors of the day. Try, for sure, the 1996 La Sagesse, a blend of 95% Grenache and 5% Syrah: It is for sure one of the purest wines I know, round, mellow, velvety, with a flirty, flattering silkiness. And it is honestly priced at 45 €.

Anne-Sophie's starters alone would serve as lunch for most of us on a given day. Miniature phyllo rolls are filled with a rich guacamole, while classic tiny meatball-like caillettes have that rich saltiness that make us truly salivate. Her rosemary sablets are a simple touch of brilliance, while piquant anchovies find their way into pastry-wrapped mini-mouthfuls.

Outstanding main course of the day include the pigeon, served with a fitting garnish of thinly sliced, butter-cooked potatoes, and purple figs roasted in sweet Banyuls wine; and the giant meaty langoustines (this not from Provence, but of course Brittany) paired with a stunning, intensely flavored fresh peach chutney, heightened with white wine, vinegar and a touch of fresh ginger. Equally inventive and inviting is the baby pig, or porcelet, the ribs simply roasted, with the cheeks turned into a soothing confit laced with a touch of licorice. All this was paired with a garnish of wild girolles mushrooms, a tasty ragout of the plump white fresh beans from Mollans-sur-Ouveze in the Drome Provencal, a crispy potato tuile and paper-thin slices of crusty, bacon-like ventreche.

There were moments in the day that I felt that Anne-Sophie was training for a marathon run, as though piling on practice miles - rather than seeing the finish line --- seemed to be the immediate goal. She is clearly in a frenzy of composition and I fear that sometimes a touch of taste is lost during all the arranging and creating. While her complex quartet of eggplant seemed astonishing in the kitchen, it had less punch at the table, and the dish would have been better with a little editing.

But all of this is done for the good of us, the diner, for she does win out on the end, not in just pure presentation, energy, intellectualism, but in the fact that we all left as very satisfied customers.

285 boulevard Victor Hugo
26000 Valence
tel: 04 75 44 15 32
fax: 04 75 40 96 03.
Internet: www.pic-valence.com
Closed two weeks in January, Sunday evening, Tuesday lunch, and Monday from November to March. Menus at 99 and 120 €. A la carte, 90 to 215 €, including service but not wine.