La Fenière, Lourmarin
September 24, 2009
Reine Sammut started cooking in 1975 in her mother-in-law’s kitchen in La Fenière, a small restaurant up a staircase in the middle of Lourmarin, in the heart of Provence. In 1979 she and her husband, Guy, took over the restaurant. In 1995 she gained a Michelin star, one of very few awarded to a woman in that era. In 1997 they moved La Fenière to 15 hectares with an old postal relais in the countryside south of Lourmarin. Sammut still has the one star, but our excellent meal was at least two star quality.
With my mother, Linda and I had been to the old restaurant in the 1990’s, but our first time at the new one was on September 15, 2009. We stayed in the modern annex, which is well separated from the main building. Its ambience is very modern and spacious, quite a contrast with the charming old building where most of the rooms are. We were joined for dinner by another Linda who lives just five minutes away. We sat in the bar for our apéritifs. A tray arrived with an amuse-gueule of swordfish in a spoon, a little square croque-monsieur and a frothy espuma of carrots.
All three were very nice.
We looked at the menus and ordered the Menu Dégustation ‘Autour des huiles d’olive de Méditerranée’ at 110 €. Each of the nine courses was prepared with a different Mediterranean olive oil. This is inspired by the chef’s mother-in-law who has Sicilian, Maltese and Tunisian ancestry. (Reine Sammut has two daughters who are working on a project of a gastronomic cruise including these countries.) After we moved to our table, we were also given a tray with little bowls of the nine oils to taste alongside with the three little spoons provided. This seemed like a fun idea, but as there was a lot of food, we didn’t keep up with it.
We ordered bottles of two wines from Tardieu-Laurent, which is based in Lourmarin: a Condrieu and a Saint Joseph, both very nice.
The menu started with
Carpaccio d’artichauts violets, copeaux de bresaola et truffes d’été
This was very good. The three ingredients were each top quality and complementary to each other. The local summer truffle slices were unusually flavorful.
Voyage autour de la tomate : « pan con tomate » et pétale de morue, rougail en raviole transparente, confite et farcie à la mozzarella
The tomatoes were ripe, fresh and good. The mozzarella stuffing was light and frothy. The slab of tomato jelly had a concentrated flavor without being cloying. The fried egg was made from codfish with a half yellow cherry tomato on top.
Tartare de grosses gambas en fine feuille de concombre, pourpier d’été aux perles d’Orient et bisque crémeuse
The slices of very large shrimp were resting on packets of finely diced cucumber wrapped in cucumber ribbons. The purslane and the radish slices were mixed with tapioca balls which added an interesting exotic effect. The dressing was a cream of shellfish reduction. Excellent.
Filet de rouget poêlé, calamars comme une daube en fleur de courgette, d’autres en salade citronnée, jus corsé de bouillabaisse aux poivrons
A rouget filet had been perfectly cooked with a crisp skin. It rested on thin zucchini skin slices and a sauce of puréed red peppers in a bouillabaisse broth. The zucchini flower was stuffed with squid purée. There was also a salad of cevice squid rings topped with a blue borage flower. While this may seem overly complicated, all the seafood flavors were pulling in the same direction. Excellent.
Filet de daurade aux anchois frais marinés, fenouil cru et cuit zestes de citron confit
The generous piece of daurade was topped with marinated anchovy slices which helped bring out its flavor. The fennel was prepared two ways: thin raw slices and braised with lemon zest. Once again, what seems like a complicated dish was based on different preparations of two basic flavors which went very well together. They were enhanced, not concealed by the variations.
Côtelettes d’agneau panées au chorizo, moules farcies et poivrons glacés
The lamb chops were top quality; their excellent flavor was brought out by the sauce. The glazed red peppers and zucchini balls were conventional and good accompaniments: the stuffed mussels were unusual, but added a bit of humor.
Copeaux de parmesan en mesclun de fleurs
A salad of baby greens was topped with edible flowers. One ate the parmesan slices and the salad with the chopsticks which prevented their getting crushed.
Sorbet au romarin et huile d’olive
The olive oil and rosemary flavors were elegant in this sorbet.
Sablé au chocolat crémeux et myrtilles fraîches, sorbet au yaourt grec, coulis de framboises légèrement parfumé à la lavande
The chocolate was unctuous without being heavy. The blueberries and the sheep’s milk sorbet were nice, slightly tart offsets.
These were all good, but I don’t remember what they were. We took the fresh wrapped caramels home.
This was an outstanding meal. The ingredients were top quality, in many cases local and seasonal. There was no reliance on caviar, foie gras, lobster etc. The chef matched the flavors exquisitely, keeping their basic themes in each dish while adding variety in their preparations. The visual presentations were varied and lovely without being too cute. The high level continued through each course despite varied styles.