Avignon --- Tomatoes are a problem. For ten months of the year we pine away for the juicy, acidic pleasures of garden- fresh fruit, bursting with sunshine, energy, and vitality and filling us with memories of tomatoes past. Then suddenly the moment comes, and our gardens and markets are laden with all manner of heirloom varieties, with names like Tigerella and Striped Germaine, Banana Legs, and Dix Doigts de Naples. We concoct salads and gratins, sorbets and thick-crusted pizzas, devour them right off the vine, and put up batches of ruby sauce for winter’s pleasures. They come green and yellow, red and orange, miniature and gigantic. And we never get enough.
If you love tomatoes as I do, do yourself a favor and reserve a table on the sun-kissed terrace of restaurant Christian Etienne, where his famed all-tomato menu is in the fittest of forms. Sitting there, with the Palais des Papes staring you in the face, the lively sounds of street musicians below, and sipping a fine white Châteauneuf-du-Pape wine, the tomato serves to tip the scales in the best of ways.
Christian Etienne is a native son with Provence in his veins, a man whose enthusiasm, energy, and love for native products are instantly transported from the kitchen to your plate. It’s true that so many chefs who profess to specialize in an ingredient – be it truffles, fish, vegetables or roasts – never manage to convince us or to convey their mastery of the subject. But the dark-haired, square-jawed Etienne does.
In no less than seven courses, in addition to a series of side tastes, he manages to give the tomato its due. Starting with a shot glass full of an icy gazpacho (served flirtatiously with a striped straw) and ending with a superb tomato sorbet, he put our favorite fruit through its paces, offering us immense pleasure along the way.
The finest dish of the day was his tender, amazing braised lamb, paired with the creamiest of eggplant and the tastiest of beefsteak tomatoes (Coeur de Boeuf), all stuffed inside the skin of the eggplant, with its haunting, almost smoky flavor and firm, chewy texture. The traditional Greek Moussaka comes to mind, but Etienne’s version is a culinary masterpiece. With each bite, he managed to capture the pure essence of eggplant, tomato, and lamb, ethereal tastes created by a culinary gymnast.
Not just tasty but beautiful was his duo of molded tomato tartares, one red, the other green, standing like little glistening columns flanking a superb green salad. The brandade of rouget was a fine play on the classic salt cod brandade, with the intensely flavored Mediterranean fish turned into a rich and chunky purée, enveloped between stacks of crisp, dried, paper-thin slices of vibrant red Roma tomatoes. As a garnish, a full-flavored garlic cream met its match, making for a dish that was a spectacular to look at as to savor.
Nor was there anything wrong with his giant, warm tomato, peeled and stuffed with tiny Provencal snails and a soothing mint butter. The textures here were smooth, smooth, smooth, a dish just oozing with flavor and character. At that moment, we asked ourselves, “Is there possibly a better way to eat a tomato?”
The only dish that I did not get was the tiny disc of goat’s milk cheese that was enrobed in a pale orange, glue-like paste made of tomato water.
Dessert was spectacular. A thick slice of zucchini had been infused with an orange essence, topped with that gorgeous sweet and salty tomato sorbet, all teamed up with a sweet baklava-like pastry.
Service here is efficient and friendly, and the wait staff expresses an authentic enthusiasm for Etienne’s food. The only sour note of the day came from the behavior and attitude of two different sommeliers. After ordering a favorite white Châteauneuf du Pape – the stunning 100% Roussanne Grand Veneur La Fontaine – I inquired as to the grape variety. The young female sommelier rattled off a list of potential suspects but insisted that it was illegal to make a Châteauneuf from a single grape, which is not true. A request for her to “look it up’ and get back to us met with no response. Later, another sommelier offered a glass of red with the lamb, played the silly “you guess what it is game,” and got the grape varieties wrong again. A minor error? Not when you are a few moments away from one of France’s most glorious vineyards. Study up, please.
10 rue des Mons
Telephone: 04 90 86 16 50
Fax: 04 90 86 67 09
email : firstname.lastname@example.org
Closed Sunday and Monday, except in July. Menus at 30 (lunch only), 50, 60, 70, and 95 euro. A la carte, 65 to 95 euro, including service but not wine.