Of new Michelin men, and old spare tyres…

Le Vivier, 800 cours Fernande Peyre, 84800 L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue, 04 90 38 52 80
Pierre Reboul, 11 Petite rue St Jean, 13100 Aix, 04 42 20 58 26

I first started these resto reviews back in 2004, so I thought, for my final contribution to the collective AAGP spare tyre, I would look to the future, and the brand new Michelin stars in our area. In fact, this last piece of research has turned out to be particularly revealing, as it perfectly highlights the 2 utterly contrary directions contemporary haute cuisine is taking.

In 2008 three restaurants in our region have been newly starred: Villa Madie in Cassis, Pierre Reboul in Aix, and Le Vivier in Isle-sur-la-Sorgue. I originally thought I’d visit each on your behalf, until I encountered the extortionate prices at Villa Madie. I can neither afford - nor support - somewhere whose “basic” menu starts at €70, however beautiful its view.

So I’m going to concentrate on the other 2 - and there’s more than enough to say about both of these exciting young chefs, each representing a completely different cutting edge style.

Pierre Reboul, is a showman and scientist. He is a disciple of Spain’s El Bulli, and England’s Heston Blumenthal (both of whom have been voted best chef in the world more than once), with a concentration on the molecular make-up of food, and bringing the wow factor to the eyes and tastebuds. I call it the Captain Marvell style of cooking – whizz, bang, kerpow! Exploding popcorn, tomato-lychee lollipops, sorbet squeezed out of individual toothpaste tubes, shot glasses containing cardamon-flavoured fizzy soda, meringue mixture frozen at the table with a liquid oxygen gun – I think that gives you a flavour of where Reboul is coming from….

Don’t get me wrong, this restaurant is an exciting and amusing addition to Aix’s rather dreary collection of eateries – and this culinary circus makes for a fun treat. It’s not exactly a cheap joke, however: there’s a lunchtime menu at €39, but if you want the full showtime you should go for either the 6 course menu or the extensive tasting menu, at €75 & €110 respectively. The wine list is both unoriginal and shockingly overpriced.

I found it interesting that what I remembered afterwards was the surrounding frivolity of the amuse-bouches etc, over the (slightly) more serious food courses in between. Highlights of these were a dish based on frogs’ legs, beneath a pond of popping parsley caviar, and a very pretty dish of scallops floating in a borscht soup, under a magenta meringue filled with frozen beetroot sorbet.

99k’s north of Aix finds a very different kitchen, beside the lazy River Sorgue. Patrick Fischnaller worked for 10 years in the hallowed Michelin-starred food heavens of London’s the Caprice and Wolseley, before opening Le Vivier in Isle-sur-la-Sorgue. His philosophy is rooted in distilling the essence of flavour in everything he prepares, however long it takes. Ingredients are key. Sourcing them from the best producers is essential. Then he strips them down to a pure, perfect eating experience – based on depth of taste rather than external fussy froth.

Patrick’s gone right back to the farmyard in search of inspiration – taking honest, old-fashioned ingredients and turning them on their heads (literally so, when it comes to the vol-au-vent of quail and cockerel’s crest). He triumphs with unusual combinations - like écrevisses and pig’s trotter, or foie gras with smoked eel - but there is also a satisfying method to his madness in a subtler, wittier way than that of Reboul. For example, there was a wonderful river perch dish, which included frogs’ legs and watercress sauce – delightfully, it was “Tales of the Riverbank” on a plate.

Although some of the ingredients sound offaly heavy, they are treated with a lightness of touch accompanied by a remarkable sleight of hand. And, don’t panic – if you’re not a great fan of fried chicken claw, there’s enough choice to satisfy every palate, however delicate.

No-one could come here and complain about getting poor value for money. Patrick’s gregarious (English-speaking) wife, Céline, offers you the choice of an unbeatable 3 course lunch for €25, or a journey into the world of genius via the generous €38 menu. The Vivier’s energetic team is completed by Christophe, a talented, passionate sommelier who prides himself on discovering vignerons of the future, serving their wines - with an admirable selection by the glass - at welcomely realistic prices.

One other important point to make. Compared to the ravishing surroundings of Villa Madie, Le Vivier is oddly placed in a shabby little lotissement. Though it has a large summer terrace overlooking the pretty river, its retro interior rather resembles a 1950’s college canteen. Reboul’s interior is similarly jarring - a mole warren of an air-raid shelter, with brothel-purple, velvet, pouffe-chairs. No terrace.

But where these restaurants may lack sophisticated design taste, they both certainly more than make up for it where it matters most - in the taste experiences of their food.

Whichever style you favour, one thing’s for sure. We’ll never be bored with young, talented men like these, leading the way into our gastronomical future.

Juliet Young
Copyright © 2008 Anglo-American Group of Provence