Little Dishes and Large Platters

Hostellerie de l’Abbaye de la Celle, 83170 La Celle, (near Brignoles) 04 98 05 14 14

Alain Ducasse is big on plates. Yes, he’s also the first chef ever to receive 3 Michelin stars - and now possesses enough to populate a small Milky Way - but the first thing I noticed in his atmospheric Var restaurant (tipped for a star in 2005) were the large, beautifully hand-painted platters, each individually portraying plants like eucalyptus or glycine or murier. Of course, as soon as food approaches the table (on plain white porcelain), the original plates are whipped away and you never get to see them again - but I made a mental note to go and check if they were on sale in the Boutique, at the end of the meal.

The Hostellerie is a lovely restored 18th century country house, attached to the ancient Benedictine abbey with its historic cloisters, in the tiny village of La Celle. In winter you eat in the attractive renovated chapter house, in summer you sit outside on the terrace overlooking walled parkland, the cooing of doves competing with the chatter of diners and the clatter of lusted-after crockery.

As you’d expect from a Ducasse restaurant, the food isn’t cheap, but it is extraordinarily good — and it can be great value. It just so happened on the day 3 of us went recently, that the three course ‘Menu du Marché’ at €40 was a little too heavy on broccoli for our tastes, so we decided, for much the same price, to choose 2 courses each, à la carte. I chose a starter rather than dessert, whilst my two companions plumped for pudding rather than entrées.

This mixed approach, as it turned out, is the trick to eating especially well chez Ducasse. Once the table was cleared of its groaning platter of dips and crudités that had already accompanied our apéritifs, the amuse gueules arrived - melba-toasted olive bruschettas of moist, spicy chicken. Having efficiently polished them off, it was time, at last, to start the meal proper: with my entrée. As I was dreamily dipping my asparagus tips into meltingly soft-poached quails’ eggs, the waiter arrived at our table with a “cadeau de la cuisine” for the other two — a terrine of superb rabbit rillettes, just in case they were feeling peckish whilst watching me eat.

Next we turned to our main courses. I, having enjoyed her eggs so much, had decided to order the unfortunate quail herself, succulently roasted with a luscious foie gras stuffing, whereas the other two had gone for equally salivatory lobster and lamb dishes.

As I watched my friends dig their spoons into their Grand Marnier soufflé with its extra serving of orange sorbet, I realised with a pang that my own culinary feast was over. Not so. Along came an unexpected dish of sweet nibbles: fresh fruit tartlets and the lightest madeleines in the world, just so I wouldn’t feel left out. So, although we’d only ordered 2 courses each, in effect we’d all had five unforgettable gourmet stages to our excellent meal.

Ducasse, obviously, doesn’t cook here himself, but his chief disciple (he only employs people he’s developed personally) the brilliant Benoît Witz heads up the kitchen, with a keen young crew, all trained on the spot, and all warm, sparky and so bend-over-backwards-helpful they make the young Olga Korbut look positively arthritic.

Replete, and warmed by such generosity and hospitality, I popped into the Boutique. Yes, the Moustiers plates were there! And they were as beautiful as I remembered! Nevertheless I came away empty-handed. The food at the Hostellerie had been great value, but frankly, I considered the €114 pricetag per platter - if you’ll forgive the pun — downright escroquerie…

Juliet Young

REVISITED in 06 and 07
This is no doubt one of the best restaurants in the area, and never fails to impress — it now deservedly has a Michelin star. Still excellent food, professional but friendly staff, and generous style. Wine prices are steep, though. Great food, I’m still a real fan, and a regular. So pretty, too.

Copyright © 2007 Anglo-American Group of Provence