Perestrello Geller reviews Le Bistrot, Auberge La Feniere, Lourmarin, Provence.
Note since this review was written Reine Sammut has handed over day to day responsibility to her daughter Nadia. La Feniere now specialises in gluten free cooking
The brief was clear – I want a battle of the bistros article: two show-biz Michelin starred chefs from neighbouring Luberon villages, Loubet vs Sammut, going head to head for the populist vote. Loubet with the weight advantage vs little Reine, ducking and diving in and out of reach, nimbler on her feet etc. For me it was sensationalist journalism, cliché friendly, easy to write, if a little lazy, but I was commissioned and after a summer of abstinence my stomach was calling.
My mistake was to invite my new partner, a woman who takes an intellectual approach towards journalism and a rather dismissive attitude towards restaurants. In fact she happens to think that 99 per cent of the time she can do better at home with fresh produce from our garden. Typically I don’t bother to argue, instead I flick through my address book and see if I can find someone with a more amenable attitude to the pleasures of restaurant service and massaging writers’ egos.
On this occasion I thought I would make an exception, ‘female chef, renowned for using fresh produce, isn’t it worth taking the chip of the shoulder for once’, I gently prodded at breakfast time. There wasn’t even a murmur of protest, my partner was sitting in the passenger seat of the Aston bag on lap, before I’d finished my measly fruit salad. As the engine throbbed into life, she tapped me on the leg, and said ‘but you can forget about all those silly boxing analogies, if I am coming along you are going to write a proper review, you know about the food.’
We shared a drink in the garden of the hotel first. For me a generous kir, for her a strawberry juice. ‘We must have this more at home’, she said, fresh strawberries, a little water, no added sugar and a quick whizz in the liquidizer. Terrifyingly she was imagining the juice not as a replacement to my kir, but as the entirety of a light lunch. Until the beginning of my new relationship, I’d observed a pleasing correlation between my receding hairline and expanding waistline. No longer, under the rule of the new Mistress of the house the two recede together.
For a day at least I was of the leash. First impressions of Reine Sammut’s Italian inspired bistrot, were positive: Cote Sud dappled light on the terrace, vibrant coloured chairs, and attention to detail that extended to the canteen style cutlery. Inside the décor verged on the dreaded theme restaurant, particularly a large shelf hung diagonally rather than horizontally on the wall. Presumably this was some attempt at humour, but the relevance to the Italian ambiance Reine was trying to create escaped me.
The menu immediately made me hungry. 36 euros for four courses, with four choices for each course (excepting the cheese). The listed dishes were Italian classics with the occasional twist exemplified by a gazpacho sitting on a layer of caviar d’aubergine. There were other whimsical marriages of the Provencal with the Italian such as a daube served with gnocchi. All in all it was pleasing on the eye – unlike the wonky shelf.
To start with I had carpaccio de bouef. A dish routinely – excuse the pun – butchered by local cafes, where thin slices of anonymous meat which taste more of their packaging than a cow are smothered in oil and pre-grated parmesan. Reine’s version was the real thing, a delicate oil dressing, thick slices of meat, freshly shaved parmesan, and delightfully sharp capers. I could have eaten two plates of the stuff. In fact I would have eaten two plates of the stuff, had I not been under scrutiny. My watchful partner declared her gazpacho and aubergine concoction to be simply delicious. Praise indeed, from a woman who I can assure you is not given to hyperbole.
Next up for me was the fish of the day. Roasted cod with a simple but delicious ratatouille. It may just be that I haven’t eaten properly all summer, but the slice of fish was on the small side, rather as if my partner had telephoned in advance to advise of my cholesterol problems. No matter it was well flavoured, even if I did cast covetous glances at the adjacent basil and ricotta ravioli. Eventually I was allowed a small sampler of the pesto sauce, conceded for professional purposes only, which showed the chef’s wonderful delicate touch.
Goat’s cheese with a peppery oil dressing followed. Then dessert. I couldn’t resist the cheeky chocolate ice cream, thinking that surely this was kids’ food. As suspected when the glace arrived it looked like it had shot straight out of a Mr Whippy machine and that all that was missing was the 99 flake, but the flavour, was rich, deep, unctuous and all together too good for a brat on a windy peer. My partner had fresh peaches and cream, and enjoyed it so much she refused to let me have a taste.
As I paid the bill, the Italian waiter who served us, was taking the restaurant manager through a slide show of dishes from Puglia, which he thought could be adapted for the menu. Nobody was looking so I pushed the wonky shelf to check that it really had been deliberately fixed at an angle to the wall, rather than just falling down. It didn’t budge, which is lucky, otherwise I’d have nothing to complain about.