Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Restaurant Review: Le Vivier

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
84800 Isle-Sur-La-Sorgue

Friday, January 23, 2009

Expat Party Update

Top Photo: More than 100 expats and friends gathered for the annual New Years Potluck Picnic at the Col de Cérèste, at the eastern tip of the Grand Luberon. At 720 meters, the picnic site offers a 220 degree view of the eastern end of the Parc Naturel du Lubéron with the snow-covered southern Alps and the Parc National du Mercantour in the distance. The annual tradition, begun in 1998 by Glen Kendall and Ems Magnus, is an ad hoc affair open to all. The organizers provide a large cooking fire and soups; most everyone brings a dish to pass. For info: glenkendall@btinternet.com Photo by Alain Carles. Bottom Photo: There was an equally great turnout for the debut party of the Expat Club of Provence, a new non-profit association, held Jan. 17 at the atelier of painter Jacqueline Schell in Greoux les Bains (in the Alpes-de-Haute-Provence, 15 minutes from Manosque, 30 minutes from Aix). Among the 100 attendees were folks from Canada, the U.K., the U.S., New Zealand, Brazil, Germany, Belgium and India. The Expat Club offers bi-lingual workshops in cooking, photography, painting and local crafts, along with fiction and non-fiction writing (in English). Membership benefits include monthly cocktail parties, family events and an English library. For info: www.expatprovence.org, provenceworkshops@gmail.com, 06-27-86-07-79. Photo by Marie-Noël Paschal for La Provence.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Baby You Can Drive My Car

Based in St. Remy, Pascal Dumaine has started a chauffeur service with an interesting twist: he’ll drive you or your clients or guests anywhere…in your own car. “The advantages,” he says, “are if you want your car with you…or you want to relax on the road. Or if you’re traveling with a group of friends or only need one-way transportation. Or you want to go out for the evening and not worry about drinking and driving.” He can also pick up and drop off your rental car.

Pascal recently brought a client’s Jaguar back from Paris while the client flew and has worked for corporations hosting guests and out-of-town visitors. He has a truck driver’s license as well and can help with a move, to destinations all over Europe. But the bulk of his business, Pascal says, is doing airport runs; prices depend on the day and the time. For info: 06-60-30-49-54, pascal2008@service-chauffeur.fr or www.service-chauffeur.fr

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Skiing on Mont Ventoux...Who Knew?

When I saw my friend Angela Billows the other day, she looked positively radiant, all rosy and glowing. Turns out she had just returned from skiing. “In the Alps?” I asked, but Angela—a costume designer for film and TV who lives in Tarascon--had actually been much closer to home, on Mont Ventoux. I had no idea there was skiing there so I asked her for all the info...and she sent this.

If, like me, you enjoy skiing, but have a husband who hates the cold and won’t be enticed to take a ski holiday, then the answer is to look for something closer to home. I found it about 20 kms north of Carpentras, on the north side of the mountain. The resort is called Mont Serein. I went last week Tuesday (before the heavy snow fall) and had a great day out. I haven’t skied for at least ten years, and so I stayed on the lower green slopes, which were perfect for getting my ski legs back. My friend ventured to the higher red and black slopes. There are nine lifts in all, all of them button lifts (also called platter lifts or téléski), which can be a bit tricky at first if you’re not used to them. (I gave much cause for hilarity as, time and again, I fell splat on my face with my skis crossed behind me having let go too quickly or too soon!) There’s a lovely old traditional hotel on the slopes, to the right of the green runs, called Chalet Liotard, where we had lunch. It had a huge roaring fire and beautiful views onto the snow-covered surrounding countryside. I had the plat du jour, which was biche (roe deer), for €11. My friend had steak and chips. It can get very cold and windy at Mont Serein, I’m told, and busy at the weekends. The day we went, however, there were few people and no queues! Everyone was very friendly and helpful and we felt we knew the entire ski staff by the end of the day. There are a couple of ski-hire shops--my skis and poles cost just €16 for the day--and the ski pass cost just €15. And we were home by 6 p.m., in time to get to the shops to buy cheese to make fondue! 

Station de ski du Mont Serein Mont Ventoux versant Nord, 04-90-63-42-02, www.stationdumontserein.com.  

Chalet Liotard au Mont Serein 04-90-60-68-38.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Provence: A Photographic Journey

For 26 years, award-winning fine-art photographer Elizabeth Opalenik has taught weeklong summer photo workshops in Provence, bringing a group of students with her from the States. This year, for the first time, she’ll also conduct a four-day workshop designed specifically for locals or travelers already here in Provence. The base will be St. Remy and the dates, June 26th to 29th, 2009. “I first arrived in Provence in 1983 to assist a photo workshop and like many, I fell in love,” Opalenik says. “In my 30-year career as a photographic artist, I can truly say that Provence has been the biggest influence on my vision. Besides my love for the region, it’s the sense of community that keeps me coming back. I’m hoping this workshop will help strengthen the community of locals who share my passion.” The group will meet on Friday afternoon to share photos and stories; Opalenik will discuss light, which she calls “the basis for all beautiful images.” A field trip will be followed by dinner in a local restaurant. Saturday and Sunday will be devoted to shooting, critiques and lectures on portraiture, “finding the beauty in your own space,” using infrared film and digital infrared and working with models. The course will include daylight, twilight and night-shooting sessions and one live-model session. Opalenik will share her portfolio and also discuss her experiences in the French photo community. Monday will be devoted to reviewing what’s been shot and discussions on editing, print presentation and handmade books. The day will finish with an afternoon photo session. “The focus of the class is making images,” Opalenik says, “but also sharing our collective knowledge and finding your personal vision. There will be lots of laughs, good meals and new friends as you continue your photographic journey in this incredible part of France.” Tuition is 400€, which includes four meals, field trips and model fees. For more info or to register: www.opalenik.com, elizabeth@opalenik.com.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Stone Alone

Karen and David Webster moved to Eygalières in Provence from the UK five years ago. In the course of doing home renovations they found a great source for custom hand-crafted stonework in Les Baux--the Carriere Sarragan—and they ordered a fireplace. Karen says they were delighted with the craftsmanship, service and price so I asked her to share the info.

The foundation of Provence is laid on a bedrock of limestone, itself the mortal remains of billions of tiny crustaceans. From this bedrock climb the Alpilles, a jagged backdrop to the landscape and also the source of the stone from which the charming local houses are built. Since Roman times and probably before, the stone has been quarried, dug out by hand, cut, carved and carried to the towns by the strength and sweat of the local men. Two thousand years on some things have changed--but not much.

Down from the Cathedral d' Images, next to the Cave de Sarragan is the Carriere de Sarragan, the quarry from which local stone is still cut, carved and carried--straight to your door, if you need it. A fascinating place from where you can order pretty much whatever you want. Fireplaces, doorframes, spiral stone staircases, ornate window casings, balustrades and a replica roman temple should you desire; there’s one standing in the quarry grounds amongst stone urns and massive tumbled rocks.

As dangerous a place as a working quarry sounds you can go in there, just park next to the Cave de Sarragan, walk past the entrance and continue until you find yourself looking down into the huge entrance of the quarry mouth. Go left, past the Roman temple and down between the massive white pillars, following the tracks of lorries in the thick white dust. Continue amongst the pillars soaring above your head, past the spiral staircase on your left and fireplaces and fountains on your right until you see a dusty sign carved from the rock stating ’bureau’. Follow this further underground - beware the lorries and stone cutting machines--and knock at the bureau door. The ‘chef’ is usually around and can help with your designs, give advice and a quoted price. A fireplace can cost as little as 400€ and be ready within a week…replica roman temples take a little longer.

Part of the fascination of France is the way it seems to leap forward and stand still at the same time. Here, in the heart of the Alpilles is yet another industry, that--like France--is still supplying the modern world, but from a foundation as old as time itself.--Karen Webster

Carriere Sarragan
13520 Les Baux-de-Provence

Friday, January 2, 2009

Irish Eyes

Kieran Coffey lives in Cork, Ireland, where he combines a day job in information technology with "as much photography as possible.” In his personal work he loves to shoot landscapes and to work with community groups, documenting their projects such as a recent dance class for autistic children. He’s passionate about Provence and travels here as often as possible. I came across some of Kieran’s Provence photos online and think they’re wonderful; you can click on these three to see them larger. All Kieran's images are available as prints, at very reasonable prices. For more photos and info: www.kierancoffey.com, info@kierancoffey.com.