Today we headed out to Moustiers Sainte Marie for sightseeing and dining at Alain Ducasse’s low key Provencal concept Bastides de Moustiers. Moustiers is a small village clinging to the cliffs in the Alpes-de-Haute-Provence. It lies at the western entrance of the Gorges du Verdon, France’s version of the Grand Canyon. The village has been a center for beautiful hand painted faïence pottery for centuries.
Above the town, a gold star hangs on a 670 foot long chain suspended between two cliffs. According to the legend, during the Crusades the knight Bozon de Blacas was held prisoner by the Saracens and vowed to hang a star over the village on his return. The legend was popularized by Provençal poet Frédéric Mistral.
The town is another one of those amazingly beautiful Provencal towns you wish you could just take home with you. The steep narrow streets are home to several artisans and restaurants. We were lucky to come on a market day which added even more character to an already colorful town. Beaumont, as usual, ran to every single fountain in town and to all the amazing views of 50 foot waterfalls that run thru the town center.
The town is surrounded by super fertile farmland where every single amazing lavender shot you see of Provence is taken. Since it was early for lavender I took the obligatory beautiful sheep picture instead. Beau was in heaven as his favorite toy is a stuffed sheep named bah bah. Poor Beau sounded like he had Tourette syndrome with the repeated bah bahs.
The absolute highlight of the day and by far the best dining experience of the trip was at Michelin superstar Alain Ducasse’s Bastide du Moustiers. I have eaten at two other Ducasse restaurants, Louis XV in Monte Carlo and Alain Ducasse in Paris and been wowed. I expected no less here.
Dining in a proper French restaurant is a quasi-religious experience. It really starts before you eat, even long before you sit down at your table. The experience starts as you pull into the property. I think the single thing we miss the most in most of our restaurants that appreciation of the food/wine experience has as much to do with the mood you are in as it does the actual food/wine. If you are in a terrible mood no food on Earth will taste good to you. If you are incredibly happy even a mediocre meal can bring ecstatic joy. Part of upscale dining is creating that mood early and reinforcing it throughout. The drive onto your property, the landscaping, the genuine reception you receive as you encounter employees along the way, the décor of the restaurant, the restaurant setting, a pleasing menu, a few simple bites of food to nosh over while drinking a glass of champagne to the actual food. I might even argue the experience begins at home when we read about the restaurants and drool over pictures and menus.
The meal started with glasses of Alain Ducasse’s signature Champagne, a selection of crunchy flat breads and just picked French radishes with herbed Fromages Blanc. It may not sound so exquisite but it set the tone for what the concept is. While nibbling and drinking Champagne we chose the menu and ordered a bottle of 1999 Chateau Rayas Blanc, a straw colored wine that was poetry in a glass. It absolutely sang with our first and second courses.
The first course was a super flavorful puree of Asparagus with Goat Cheese Raviolis and shaved Asparagus. They set the perfectly heated bowl down with three raviolis and three thin slices of asparagus and poured the puree over.
The second course was Salted Codfish with Fennel and Olives. There was pureed fennel, roasted fennel and raw fennel slices. The Chateau Rayas sang with both courses amazingly well, for different reasons. For the main course and cheese we switched to the best wine of the trip which was a Domaine de Trévallon from 2001. The nose was ungodly good and the flavor was sublime.
The roasted Veal Chop was presented whole on a silver platter then carved into thick slices and served on Swiss Chard stems with veal stock. Swiss Chard leaves were blanched and tossed with a fruity olive oil. Simple, uncomplicated flavors showcasing quality ingredients. Simple appearing food is much harder to pull off than plates with 20 ingredients on. The real art is not how much you can put on BUT how much you can take off. The veal was so tender and flavorful.
Astute followers of my diatribes probably guessed that cheese was coming next. The cheeses were all local and served with two condiments, a sweet pepper jam and a caramelized onion and black pepper jam. The onion jam was crazy.
Dessert was just picked sweet as candy strawberries with a fromage blanc sorbet served with a 50 cl bottle of Domaine Allemand ~ Goutte de Soleil from 2010 that absolutely married the dessert. Not on the menu was the first of a series of surprises starting with a rhubarb tart, also just picked from the garden.
Next was an unexpected plate of handmade white chocolate flavored lightly with lemon; hazelnut biscotti and strawberry gelee. The meal finished with homemade limoncello poured from a gigantic bottle. We were reminded by the Monty Python routine where the waiter tries to get a guest to eat just one more thin wafers. Just one more thin wafer. It was spectacular. We ended with a tour of the kitchen, pastry kitchen and purchases on a Ducasse book.
Wow and Goodnight!