If two or three foodie friends recommend the same restaurant, I’m usually all over it. Yet despite all the raves I’d heard about Le Vivier, it took me more than a year to get there. My friends and I arrived a bit weary—it was a cold, grey Thursday in Isle-sur-la-Sorgue and many of the shops and galleries we tried to visit were closed--so we were looking forward to a great lunch, a nice bottle of wine, a comforting atmosphere and whatever that extra something was that was making the foodies swoon. Score!
Built on the site of an old flour mill, Le Vivier is nothing to look at from outside. Inside, however, we found a serene light-filled room, where orange glasses, a few painted walls and whimsical light fixtures—more on that later--provide the perfect counterpoint to a sleek and minimal backdrop. But rather than industrial modern, the vibe is warm and welcoming: white-cloth elegant but not formal. Large windows provide great Sorgue River views and the tables are generously spaced.
Generosity, it seems, is the Le Vivier philosophy: portions are large, ingredients top rate, sauces plentiful, linens luxe. Having ordered the set three-course €28 menu, the last thing we expected was an amuse-bouche or mignardises…but we got both. Restaurants all over France are struggling, cutting costs left and right, but you’d never know it here. My meal reminded me why I fell in love with French food in the first place.
Lyonnaise owners Patrick and Céline Fischnaller (pictured above) both speak perfect English, thanks to 14 years experience in top London spots such as Le Gavroche, Pont de la Tour, The Orrery, The Wolseley, Quaglino’s and L’Escargot. (I knew something was up when I spied their display of English celebrity-chef cookbooks.) The couple moved back to France in 2005, settling with their three kids in Fontaine de Vaucluse. They opened Le Vivier (“the fish pond”) three years ago and earned a Michelin star last year.
Céline runs the dining room and Patrick is executive chef: he writes the menus, sources ingredients, buys all the food and wine. Day-to-day cooking duties rest in the capable hands of Champagnois chef Arnaud Vaumerel, whose impressive resume includes the Bristol and Taillevent in Paris and the Bastide de Gordes in Provence. Patrick describes the cuisine as “classic French bourgeois, but contemporary with a twist.”
This is modern French food at its finest: seasonal, creative, refined, flavorful…complex without being fussy.
Born into a restaurant family and trained at a well-known chef school, Patrick learned early on that the quality of ingredients is key. So he markets on a daily basis, buying his fish at Metro in Avignon (“the best and freshest selection,” he says) and meat from the Boucherie Schaeffer in town. Produce comes from local farmers, depending on what’s in season: organic root vegetables from Pernes les Fontaines; asparagus and fruit from Roussillon; watercress from Velleron. At any given time, Patrick is buying from 15 or so different purveyors.
Our 28€ “Menu du Marché,” offered weekdays at lunch and dinner, is truly one of the best values around. (Three courses are pictured above and you can click to enlarge.) After an excellent amuse (a multi-layered brandade mousse in a tiny mason jar), we moved on to a starter of tender mignons of lièvre (hare), served with a rich hare parfait, beet salad and crispy green-olive wafers. Next came a perfect cabillaud (cod) filet, on a bed of artichoke mousse topped with a criss-cross of fried chickpeas (panisses).
Dessert was a pear-and-chocolate sampler: creamy poached pear sandwiched between thin chocolate wafers, with pear sorbet, crème vanillé and graceful chocolate drizzles. Bravo to the pastry chef! Our plates were irresistibly pretty and packed with delicious flavors.
Le Vivier offers both à la carte and prix-fixe menus, which change on a regular basis. In addition to the Menu du Marché, there’s a three-course 43€ option (with many choices) and a seven-course 70€ Menu Gourmand. There are also special truffle menus (Thursdays in January and February) and wine menus in November and December. A 70€ Valentines Day menu is planned for February 14th.
Le Vivier’s wine list is substantial, with 150 labels from all over France and a smattering of Spain and Italy. Nineteen wines and Champagnes are available by the glass, priced 5€ to €16.
And what about those light fixtures? Playing on the restaurant’s name, the waterfront location and the Fischnaller name, designer Nono Girard (of La Capucine in Carpentras) gave the space a subtle aquatic theme. Glowing red plastic fish float serenely over the bar, each in its own clear bag, like an Alice-in-Wonderland version of a carnival prize. They’re become so popular that Le Vivier sells them in three different styles; Patrick calls them “Fish-to-Take-Away.”
The only negative I could find here--and it’s minor--is Le Vivier’s location: 500 meters outside Centre Ville (direction Carpentras/Fontaine de Vaucluse). Which means that if you’re in Isle-sur-la-Sorgue for the market or shopping, you’ll probably want to move your car. What you get in return, however, is a fabulously tranquil setting, where you can dine in summer on a shaded terrace and hear the gentle splash of an old water mill. (In the searing summer heat, Céline says, the patio stays cool and breezy.) Plus, the restaurant has its own lot, so there are no parking hassles.
Le Vivier is open for lunch (Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Sunday) and dinner (Tuesday through Saturday). It closes February 23 and reopens March 18, 2009.
Restaurant Le Vivier
800, cours Fernande Peyre