Into the heart of Provence without the hype

Avignon --- There are times that the grand and fine gastronomy of France seems mired in quicksand. Too much show and not enough to show for it. A lot of flowery promises on the menu that are simply not delivered to the palate.

Well, a recent dinner at one of Provence’s shining stars of gastronomy proved that those comments don’t hold water here. La Mirande – an inviting yet august structure originally built as a cardinals palace in the 13th century and transformed into a private home in the 17th century and now a luxury hotel and restaurant – appears to be in quite fine form, despite losing its star chef. Daniel Hebet, who brought fame and a Michelin star to the restaurant has departed, leaving all in the hands of his assistant, Jerome Verriere.

The menu is modern and varied, without being self-consciously Provencal. That does not mean the dishes don’t sing of the region’s fruits, vegetables, herbs, poultry, meat and traditions. It just doesn’t insist on tugging at one’s heart strings.

A fine seasonal starter of chilled crab lasagne DID make one feel like dancing a Provencal folk dance, as it was embellished with a thick tomato sauce, a paper thin layer of pasta, and a thick and delicious layer of fresh crabmeat holding it all in place. As delicious as the tomato sauce was, though, there was a bit much of it and if you didn’t take care to go after the crab meat on its own, the sauce would have overwhelmed it all.

Chef Verriere surely wooed me with his pigeon preparation – the plumpest and most moist breasts of squab, seared and roasted with attention and respect, are placed atop an ingenious puree of Jerusalem artichokes studded with all manner of crunchy goodies: pistachios, raisins and nuts. A brilliant ruby sauce of griottes, or preserved morello cherries , served to sweeten, brighten, and round out the dish.

Equally pleasing and original was the moist and perfectly roasted lamb chops, paired with Asian-inspired “cannelloni” filled with a moist and well seasoned ratatouille. The Moroccan pastry “feuille de brique” encased the ratatouille, and sautéed to a crisp, they reminded one of the best ever spring rolls. A sauce heightened with the slightly piquant red pepper from the Basque village of Espelette helped pull the dish together.

The dining room itself is elegant without overwhelming one, and tables are spaced far enough apart to make for private, intimate dining. Even what seem like mile-high ceilings don’t intimidate or make you feel as though you are in a church, not a restaurant. The staff is youthful, they move with elegance and grace, and most are quite well informed as to what is on the menu, the plate, the wine list and the cheese tray.

The wine list is filled with temptations. Our table opted for what turned out to be two treasures: Northern Rhone superstar Yves Cuilleron wowed us with his 2001 white Saint Joseph (100% Marsanne), a wine with nose of lemon and citrus, and memories of honey. Equally fine was the 2001 Mas Amiel Cotes du Roussillon Village Carerade, a blend of 70% Grenache, with the rest divided between Syrah and Carignan. Full of the promise of cherries and plums, the wine had a fine, long finish, good structure, and a depth that felt right at home with the pigeon and lamb.

The breads here are excellent, with a mini baguette filled with seeds and grains, of which one could make a meal. The cheese tray is abundant, with a truly outstanding, well-aged Fougerus – a cow’s milk cheese from the Champagne region – plump, moist, fragrant, and served at the right chilled temperature.

Our dessert choice --- a tiny caramel and peanut tarte with a praline ice cream – was a perfect share for two contented diners.

La Mirande
4, Place de la Mirande
84000 Avignon
Tel: 04 90 85 93 93
Fax: 04 90 86 26 85

All major credit cards. Closed in January. Tasting menu at 75 €; Menu La Mirande at 47 €; Three-course Vegetarian menu at 47 €; Daily lunch menus at 28 € and 38 €.