When I learned at the beginning of a long, rainy Parisian winter that one of the most brilliant young restaurateurs in France, Antoine Pétrus (previously sommelier at Le Clarence and maître d’hotel at Taillevent in Paris) had taken over running this storied establishment in Châteauneuf-du-Pape, I immediately started counting the days until I could discover this place for myself. So it was with great anticipation that a friend from Boston and I headed to this lovely and globally renowned old wine town in the Rhône Valley for lunch on a sunny Saturday afternoon on back roads that trace the famous vineyards.
It was a hot day, and I arrived nearly panting for a glass of one of my all-time favourite French wines, which is a good white Châteauneuf-du-Pape. And as if the charming and very knowledgeable young sommelier had read my mind, this was the pour he suggested right after we’d been seated at an outdoor table, with verdant views over some of the world’s most famous vineyards. Though it would have been more economical to order one of the prix-fixe menus, both of us wanted dishes from the à la carte that didn’t figure into these, so we decided, carpe diem! And we ordered what we wanted without blanching at the prices, which, though hardly inexpensive, aren’t unreasonable for the quality of cooking from very talented young chef Julien Richard.
Even before the food came to the table, though, I loved this place, where the pendulum has been so shrewdly reset to 2021 without losing the accumulated charm of one of the greatest gastronomic addresses in provincial France. This restaurant was founded by Germaine Vion in 1922, and everyone came here including Mistinguett, Jean Gabin and Fernandel. It fast became a much-loved stop on the route des vacances, or the holiday highway, leading from Paris to the Cote d’Azur. Now many holidaymakers take the autoroute instead, but with the opening of a very attractive hotel here, this restaurant and its new bistro have become the absolutely ideal stopover if you’re travelling between Paris or English Channel ports and the south of France.
My first course was one of the best summer dishes I’ve ever eaten, but it would also be good eating on an autumn or winter day – briney oysters from the Camargue with ewe’s milk, cucumber poached and en gelée, soft ewe’s milk cheese and tzatziki, the Greek dish that brings all of these flavours together. With a whole spectrum of lactic tastes that interacted and flattered each other, it was sexy, refreshing and healthy; which also describes the fried courgette flower with lemon-dressed sardine tartare my friend ordered, a dish that was first-rate upmarket comfort food. If I loved my lamb with baby artichokes and a gorgeous jus spiked with Châteauneuf-du-Pape, we were both slightly underwhelmed by the little timbale of macaroni with ris de veau, a veal quenelle and a gorgeous ruddy sauce that my friend had. Why? Ris de veau doesn’t lend itself to dainty portions, when it becomes overcooked, but rather warrants a more muscular portion that offers the pleasure of savouring the custardy texture and superbly ruddy flavour of this irresistible gland (sorry if I made you flinch, but ris de veau is the thymus gland of a young calf; now that you know this, forget it instantly and just enjoy it without dwelling on its biological function).
If I preferred my roasted apricot dessert to my friend’s gorgeous declension of single-bean chocolates it may have been because the fruit presented an excuse to sip a Châteauneuf-du-Pape dessert wine; these rarely leave the region and are bliss with summer stone fruit like apricots, peaches, nectarines, and, shading into autumn, plums and pears.
Having enjoyed the charming service of a smart, intuitive and well-drilled team, I’m putting this address on my autumn list for a weekend away, which will allow me to sample a lot of wines in local cellars and discover the new bistro as well.
3 rue du Commandant-Lemaître, Châteauneuf-du-Pape,
Tel. (33) 04 90 22 78 34,
Average €80, Prix-fixe menus €88, €118.
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From France Today Magazine
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