La Vague d’Or, Saint Tropez
June 18, 2013
Only one restaurant gained a third star in the 2013 Michelin Guide for France, La Vague d’Or in the hotel, La Résidence de la Pinède, in Saint Tropez. Its 35-year-old chef, Arnaud Donckele, thus became the youngest, as well as the newest, of the 27 top-ranked chefs in France. This, of course, generated many enthusiastic articles about him in the general and gastronomic press. So Linda and I had high expectations when we went for dinner, and to stay, the night of June 5, 2013.
This was the view of the hotel’s private beach from the little balcony of our hotel room.
We passed up the opportunity to have our apéritif on the terrace, which was filled with a business group, and went directly to our table. After we sat down, the Champagne cart was wheeled over and we ordered glasses of Laurent-Perrier blanc.
Various hors d’oeuvres arrived.
The eggshells contained snails in barely cooked egg and parsley; nice. The spheres were small accras, or codfish fritters; the wafers contained flower petals.
A pat of butter enriched with flowers of borage and thyme arrived. The three different olive oils for dipping were described to us in detail.
The bread tray was quite varied; it was hard to choose.
We ordered the tasting menu: Balade épicurienne. With the help of the genial sommelier we picked out two wines of the region to go with it: a bottle of Sacha Lichine’s 2011 Déesse Astrée, Caves d’Esclans, all vermentino, and a half-bottle of 2009 Champs de la Truffière, a cabernet/syrah blend from the Domaine du Deffends in the Coteaux Varois.
Both were interesting and good.
The first course was
Sériole et chair d’esquinado marinés à la mandarine Berlugane,
Feuilles de farigoulette, primeurs et herbacés à cru.
Flaked crab meat was layered between slices of amberjack. They had been marinated in juice from mandarines (flavorful tangerines) grown in the patio of La Pinède’s sister hotel, La Réserve de Beaulieu. The marinade then was used as a sauce in a little pitcher and in the decorative dots. The Maître d’Hôtel told us that Escoffier only used mandarines from Beaulieu-sur-Mer. (I could not find any confirmation of this on the internet.) This was interesting as we have lived in Beaulieu half-time for 23 years and had never heard of mandarines Berluganes before. But there is a little street called the Montée des Mandarines in the warmer part of town, so there must be a history there. Escoffier created crêpes Suzette at Le Café de Paris in Monte Carlo in 1896 with mandarines. Anyway, the little seafood cubes were very good, but frustratingly small. The crisp small vegetables were dressed with thyme, farigoulette in Provençal, and a sorbet ball made with the same mandarine juice. This provided nice texture and temperature contrast.
Langouste puce et poutardier en deux services,
Nacrés et cuits dans leur eau de mer,
Grains croquants de caviar, haricots marins, infusion à la verveine.
Pieces of young spiny lobster and cubes of mullet (under the chef’s apparantley invented word “poutardier,” maybe referring to its roe known as poutarge) were cooked in sea water and served with greens. This part was nice.
In the second part the seafood was in a bowl of verbena flavored foam over green seaweed beans. They were topped with caviar and were excellent.
La pâte zitone de foie gras truffé, gratinée au parmesan de montagne,
Artichauts violets étuvés au basilic.
Pasta tubes had been filled with truffled foie gras, topped with parmesan made with milk from cows grazing in the mountains and broiled quickly. They were served with three different sauces, plus varied garnishes on top including small artichoke pieces. There were some nice flavors here amongst all the frou frou. I would have liked them better with a more direct presentation, such as the one in a similar dish which we had enjoyed at La Grande Cascade in Paris four years before.
Courbine meunière déglacée au jus de vernis, puis braisée longuement,
Sabayon soyeux d’estragon et sudachi,
Carabinero enrobé de ses sucs,
Asperges fondantes et d’autre croquante ou croustillante.
This complicated dish featured a piece of courbine, a fish like a sea bass, sometimes known as corvina. The sauce was based on tarragon and a small Japanese lime. There were also a limp shrimp and three types of asparagus: green, white and wild.
Granité à la fleur de thym,
sorbet fenouil de Florence,
Une flanquée d’absinthe à votre table.
A scoop of fennel sorbet was atop a thyme flower granité. Absinthe was poured over it at the table. I usually do not eat these palate cleasing intermezzos, but this one was quite good. I imagine that the fennel and the absinthe did more to deaden my palate than to refresh it.
L’esprit d’un pot-au-feu de pintade fermière et homard bleu,
Le jardin y distille le parfum de légumes, d’herbes et gingembre rose.
A line with pieces of guinea hen, lobster etc was presented and doused at the table with a very salty broth from a picturesque teapot. When the Maître d’Hôtel came around to ask how we liked it, as someone did with every course, we gave it a very negative review.
This resulted in an extra, comped course. I have taken its title below from the à la carte menu on the website; it gives the right idea, but the à la carte version would be bigger and include everything, particularly the second part.
Agneau de « Sisteron » en deux services :
Le baron d’agneau au serpolet, jus embaumé d’huile d’argan,
Aubergine de Sicile et marmelade de tomates/oignons blanc.
Deuxième service :
Pieds et paquets, épaule à la cuillère, ris d’agneau et rognon,
Vivacité d’un jus corsé et breuvage pimientos/sarriette.
This two-part dish was superb. The lamb chops from Sisteron had a lovely flavor, which was enhanced by the simple, but beautifully executed, sauce and the traditional eggplant and tomato accompaniment. The confit shoulder in a package with a foamy broth was more inventive, but very nice.
Le lacté de brousse du Rove,
caillé de brebis au miel de safran de la Môle
Yaourt Caillolais de Marseille,
poire en deux textures et huile de bouteillan.
This complicated pre-dessert was based on a milky goat’s cheese from the other side of Marseille, ewe’s milk curds with locally grown saffron, two preparations of pears and regional olive oil.
For the dessert we were given a glass to drink before the two plates
Autour de la rhubarbe et la pomme verte ravivée au combava,
L’éphémère d’un soufflé chaud, un jus centrifugé au moment.
This combination of ice cream and a warm soufflée was based on rhubarb, green apple and kaffir lime zest.
With the mignardises I ordered from the extensive digestif cart a glass of marc from Château de Pibarnon, which was excellent. The sommelier gave me a small glass of the marc from Domaine Tempier to compare since I had hesitated between the two; I found it to be harsher than the other. Two days later we went to both vineyards to buy wine and I also bought a bottle of the Château de Pibarnon vieux marc.
Although there were some very nice dishes, this meal was not what I expect in a Michelin three-star restaurant. The chef emphasizes complexity and cuteness to excess. While the ingredients were fresh and good, he seems to emphasize rarety over simple goodness. The descriptions include some very local providers as well as exotic foreign flavors. I imagine that he has gone to a lot of work to find them. He didn’t avoid traditional luxury items such as foie gras, blue lobster and langouste, but did not let them shine on their own.
The invented words were too precious. François Audouze, a sophisticated, experienced French food and wine blogger wrote of the Balade épicurienne: “Mon potentiel au Scrabble va s’enrichir d’un coup, car il y a la moitié des mots de ce menu que je ne connais pas.” “My scrabble possibilities were suddenly enriched, as I did not know half the words on the menu.” This menu cuteness would not be serious if it did not reflect the cuisine, as it does. When presenting, our server kept saying things like, “Now, to continue your Balade épicurienne, Arnaud takes you on a journey to …” This added pretentiousness to what was annoying me.
I don’t think that complexity is always wrong, but it frequently is for me. It should serve a purpose. Pierre Gagnaire, for example, is a master of poetic, complex presentations, but they are beautifully conceived. Here they seem to be thrown together for a “wow” effect, such as the three sauces with the zitone and the guinea hen/lobster combination. In traditional French cuisine many ingredients included in the stockpot can create a rich sauce, the complexity of which adds to its interest; but then it becomes a single ingredient which makes a statement. Serving the same ingredients separately does not achieve the same effect.
I suppose that some of my readers are thinking: “Well, it’s Saint Tropez. What did you expect?” Good point, but that should not divert from our three-star expectations.
After dinner we took a little walk around the hotel’s terrace down to its private beach. On the way back I took this photo of the dining room.
We had just left one of the tables on the left. The center and right of the photo show tables occupied by business executives in town for a seminar. They filled two-thirds of the dining room; we had to listen to their speech and endure the group flash photos. I can’t imagine another Michelin three-star restaurant which would have had such an event in the main dining room.
In the morning we had breakfast on the terrace.