Aix en Provence restaurant review: Le St Esteve
Perestrello Geller heads out to Le Tholonet and Les Lodges Saint Victoire to review another Aix en Provence restaurant.
Menu: €68 for three courses with two glasses of wine, or €55 without wine.
The verdict: “If the world were about to end and one had to imagine an environment in which to eat a final meal it would closely resemble the St Esteve restaurant.”
My stomach is something of a champagne socialist. It likes to eat well but instinctively it also favours some sort of ownership of the means of production. By this I mean restaurants where the chef is also the boss. The capitalist alternative is the mercenary chef. Someone who rides into town, waves his knives for a year or so and then leaves when a better offer arrives. My digestion tends to rebel (or is it revolt) at dishes produced by such kitchens – where’s the heart, where’s the soul, where are the sauce-stained pans hanging from the kitchen where Mama used to cook?
As I sit and wait for my meal to begin at the Restaurant St Esteve in Le Tholonet just outside Aix en Provence, the finely attuned political organ that is my stomach, begins a party political broadcast. It goes something like this: There’s nothing these days that financial muscle can’t package up and re-sell. Back in the 19th century, dear old Cezanne spent his life regarding every wrinkle on the face of Mont Saint Victoire, famously saying that the old rock never once looked the same. To Cezanne Mont Saint Victoire was an artistic chameleon, altering its skin with the changing seasons and times of day. To the modern entrepreneur it’s a cash-cow.
Enter Les Lodges de Saint Victoire, a two year old, five star, luxury, spa, resort entirely conceived around the view of Mont Saint Victoire. Take away the venerable old rock and the place does not exist, simple as that, but thanks to the magical Mont it has become a licence to print money. The picture postcard view has been beautifully framed. I counted over 20 newly planted ancient plane trees and at a market price of nearly €10,000 each, that’s a lot of money to spend on the garden. After that there’s the spa, the hotel itself, and the luxury villas in the grounds. My left leaning stomach’s no accountant, but millions must have been thrown at the place, it grumbled.
Finally of course there’s the restaurant. Like a Hollywood actress and her plastic surgeon, no self-respecting 5 star hotel is complete without a Michelin-starred chef these days. Enter Mathias Dandine, a son of the south, born in Bormes Les Mimosas, and trained in the great restaurants of the Riviera. Parachuted into the St Esteve restaurant, his brief is simple:- create a dining palace and garner plaudits from the critics, particularly the Michelin inspectors. So far there’s one star, but another one or even two are desired.
You’ll gather that my stomach was not particularly disposed to like the place. Until that is the amuse bouche arrived. Formulaic, scoffed my political organ, the chef is only doing this to please the inspectors. Then it fell silent. The miniature sandwich of parmesan and artichoke was quite simply delicious.
My starter, artichokes a la barigoule, is a Provencal classic, and something which I once tried to cook at home with disastrous results. Fortunately Mathias had a surer hand, each mouthful, was soft, and unctuous. I cleaned my plate, and mopped the juices with bread. The main was slightly less good. A roasted wood pigeon, served with a light sauce, on a bed of seasonal vegetables. The flavours were right, the ensemble looked pretty, but as with every wood pigeon I have ever eaten, I found myself longing for more flesh. Give me a pheasant any day. Dessert was a mixture of red fruits served on a biscuit base with coulis and crème.
Good, very good, I noted in my book, then I sat back to re-assess. The St Esteve restaurant is beautiful. The terrace is a wonderful peaceful place to sit. The view of Mont Saint Victoire is unsurpassable. Service in the restaurant is impeccable. The small touches, and the attention to detail, are of the highest level. Ladies are offered little tables for their handbags and the food is theatrically revealed from underneath silver serving domes. The choice of bread is extensive from olive to sundried tomato, taking in various derivations of sesame in between. If the world were about to end and one had to imagine an environment in which to eat a final meal it would closely resemble the St Esteve restaurant.
Ultimately even my socialist stomach has to concede that money in the right hands can create places of beauty. Congratulations to all concerned it said with a satisfied capitalist belch.
Provence Guru – The Insiders’ Guide to Provence, top tips:
If you would like to read more about Aix en Provence restaurants then check out our Aix en Provence restaurant summary.
Planning a holiday in the area, Provence Guru, has compiled a list of the best Provence boutique hotels.
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