Here we are at the foot of mount Sainte Victoire, a hop from Aix-en-Provence city in the South of France. We are welcomed by the shining star of a big white Christmas tree and the peaceful sound of a water fountain. We head left to a small door with the letters “SE”, the short form for this Michelin-starred restaurant. SE stands for Saint Esteve, a name familiar to Bordeaux wine lovers.
We start with a bottle of Billecart Salmon Blanc de Blancs champagne, which delicate thin bubbles perfectly match the light, crisp and fresh atmosphere. There are several menus to choose from and a-la-carte, and we opt for the “Sainte Victoire” menu, named after the magnificent mountain just outside of the window. Victoire means victory in French, and we feel we already won it.
The trio of amuse-bouche wets our appetites: creamy cauliflower potage, foie gras mini-burger and chilled crab cake – all in perfect unison with the champagne. The waiter pours a delicate soup from a cute mini-glass bottle over a crushed chestnut: the result is divine, the chestnut, slightly crispy at first suddenly melts in the palace with this delicious coating – a perfect winter dish. And our menu hasn’t started yet, this was not even the appetizer.
A beautiful ballet of black-dressed waiters starts. For nearly each dish, pouring some sort of soup, sauce or liquid seems to be the signature event. It feels like a theater play (which reminds me of the etiquette of our Napoleon events) where the stage is the plate. As appetizer, a masterpiece comes in the form of extra thin veal carpaccio topped with mussels and fresh onions – a pure delight where meat and seafood blend in heaven. This is followed by a sumptuous crab meat ravioli with three different types of cauliflower – I didn’t know that many existed and it was an amazing taste discovery for me.
The menu’s main feature is the deer with foie gras: an incredibly tender, well cut piece of game flesh, with minuscule cranberries, tiny salsifis and soft gravy. The slightly sweet winter berries bring a beautiful acidity to the exquisitely tasty meat – lightly chewy and melting on your tongue. It is hard to describe the unbelievable blend of textures, colours and flavours – you have to taste it.
What else than a fine wine from Burgundy, Charmes-Chambertin Grand Cru “Les Mazeroles” of Domaine de la Vougeraie? In an all-French wine list of reasonable length and prices, this one caught my eye. As soon as the bottle was uncorked, flows of medium-ripe blueberries tease all our noses and lift twice as many eyebrows. This wine shines, albeit young as a 2013 vintage but with early claims of victory.
When the Chef comes to our table, it is not to say a mere “Bonjour, ca vous a plu ?” (“Hello, did you enjoy?”) but to exchange a genuine heart-to-heart conversation. He created this place just two and half years ago and already joined the awarded circle of Michelin stars. I see he is not just a man from the kitchen, but also from the cellar – his careful selection of local winegrowers, farmers and suppliers is a mission to support the local economy. “In the end, they are the ones who come regularly here or send us new guests – I ought to thank them by putting them on my menu”. Chef Mathias Dandine is a heartful man of terroir and tradition.
There are more types of cheese on the tray than guests in the restaurant and it’d be too long to explain here my own selection. Finally comes the signature dessert, the buche, or log cake; the one with forest fruits and mascarpone is a delight of sweet sensations, and the other with chestnut cream, dark chocolate, fresh pear and pear sorbet is a tradition of ultimate refinement. Time for digestives which count a 1964 Bas-Armagnac and a selection of Scottish and Japanese whiskies.
The walk outside in the garden is pleasant and birds are singing. The breeze and the cold air are warmed up by the rays of sun and the Sainte Victoire mountain is surrounded by a pure halo of blue sky. Just like the weather, the service has been perfect. The youngest staff managed to flatter my mum. When all waiters lifted the genuine silver bell to uncover the dish underneath, my mum praised his strength and youth; “Madam, he replied as a modest victor, you have been younger than me for a long time already, and you will always be young”. Give him a star too. Time to rest by the peaceful spa & lodge villa nearby.