Three St. Paul de Vence Restaurants–
When Fine Art Meets Les Arts de la Table à la Provençale
by David Lincoln Ross
Fine Art Meets Les Arts de la Table à la Provençale at three St. Paul de Vence restaurants. A mere half-mile from the chic hill town of St. Paul de Vence, and only 12 miles from Nice, the Foundation Maeght is a world-renowned museum of 20th and 21st century art and sculpture. Nearby you will find three St. Paul de Vence restaurants.
The Maeght is set amid towering umbrella pines, well-manicured lawns and outdoor plazas all studded with abstract sculpture, the museum’s permanent collection features artworks and paintings by Jean Arp, Pierre Bonnard, Georges Braque, Alexander Calder, Marc Chagall, Wassily Kandinsky, Ellsworth Kelly, Juan Miro, Henry Moore, and Pablo Picasso, among others. The tranquil setting and stellar museum were established and endowed by famed Niçoise art dealers Marguerite and Aimé Maeght in 1964 and annually attracts more than 200,000 visitors.
Michelin’s Red Guide invokes a famous expression, “vaut le voyage” or ‘worth the trip’, when its anonymous reviewers wish to call a traveler’s attention to three-star gastronomic temples of French haute cuisine. One could truthfully apply this three-word commendation to St. Paul de Vence itself, not only in terms of all the seductive art on display, but also owing to the presence of three restaurants in town where one can eat reasonably well, if not quite at the level of Michelin’s highest star-studded accolade.
Here are three St. Paul de Vence restaurants are recommended, addresses where each chef ably draws upon the sheer variety fresh seafood and crustaceans from the Mediterranean; locally raised pork, beef and lamb; fowl from guinea hens to rare breeds of chickens; wild game, notably boar; a variety of olive- and garlic-based tapenades; local vegetables and herbs; and fruit from ripe white peaches to succulent black cherries. And with any meal, don’t miss sampling a chilled rosé wine from one of the dozens of nearby estates—especially those labels from the surrounding Côtes de Provence appellation, think quenchable pinks from Château de Pourcieux to Domaine Ott to Rock Angel from Château d’Esclans. Over two days—one lunch and dinner the first day, and lunch the next afternoon—your correspondent and wife, who is my official food photographer, enjoyed dining at these three spots.
Le Vieux Moulin
Perched above a strategic turn on the road uphill to Vence, and just outside St. Paul de Vence’s 17th century fortified gate, Le Vieux Moulin was in its day a dual-purpose wheat-and-olive oil mill, all powered by an ancient aqueduct. Proof? A massive gristmill is right inside the restaurant’s entrance next to the bar, and at the back of the room, a huge olive oil press resides, whose wooden pressoir is raised and seemingly poised to receive and crush the next harvest. Whether you sit on the terrace, or at a table inside, Chef de cuisine Olivier Depardieu – no relation to the French actor – serves up a classic Provençale dishes.
At lunch, after an amuse bouche of rich, black olive tapenade accompanied by gressins, or thin breadsticks, your correspondent, accompanied by his wife, shared pan-sautéed squids, artichokes seasoned with parsley and garlic sauce, resting on a rocket (arugula) salad to begin, followed by two different risotto dishes, one starring five sweet scallops (coquilles St. Jacques), matched with a quintet of perfectly fried, crispy-thin slices of spicy chorizo sausage; the other main featured three large prawns (crevettes), graced with lightly fried artichoke wedges. Each delicious risotto dish was perfectly creamy and just slighty al dente or crunchy in texture.
Desserts looked too good to resist, so we plumped for an apricot clafoutis, an egg custard/fruit concoction, as well as a trio of peach, strawberry and chocolate sorbets, the latter served at their ideal temperature, soft and effortlessly ‘spoonable’. Le Vieux Moulin’s wine list is strong on local rosés and robust southern Rhône reds and fragrant whites; service was correct and friendly, but not overly so. Reservations are recommended.
Le Vieux Moulin, Tel: 04 93 58 36 76, St. Paul de Vence, France
This charming indoor/outdoor restaurant is named after a magnificent, centuries-old linden tree that stands proudly like a silent sentry guarding the restaurant’s wide terrace situated on the town’s ramparts. (See photo.) Indeed only steps from the town’s walled fortress designed by Sébastien Vauban (1633-1707), the tree’s expanse effortlessly covers most of the tables. Looking south from a terrace table, one can see all the way to the coast on a clear day.
Under Chef de cuisine Bastien Hodé, Le Tilleul features arguably the best cooking in town, exceeding in creativity, presentation and skill even the far more celebrated La Colombe d’Or, which is located almost directly below the ramparts and terrace dominated by the linden tree.
At dinner, we quickly downed a summery ‘shot’ of chilled, blended watermelon and heirloom tomato juice; this refreshing potion offered a mouth-watering mix of sweetness and zingy acidity as our amuse-bouche. (See photo.) Then we shared a summer salad of aged Serrano ham on a bed arugula, punctuated by tiny red and yellow cherry tomatoes, and topped with fresh sliced Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese. (See photo.) Having lunched on scallops at lunch, for my main course, I ordered a gambas risotto dish that surpassed in creaminess my midday risotto, with the giant shrimp teaming with mild sea-salty tenderness. (See photo.) Graced with paper-thin, shavings of peppery red radish and generous dollops of Parmigiano-Reggiano flakes, the dish offered forkfuls of genuine pleasure when complemented by a bone-dry rosé. My wife ordered a tender, perfectly cooked supreme de volaille (chicken) accompanied by Robuchon-worthy mashed potatoes—read virtually equal rations of butter to tuber!
We ended our evening with a citron sorbet, bracing, almost tart as fresh lemon juice but not quite owing to the addition of not too much sugar sweetness, complemented by a thin sugar-butter gaufrette or waffle-like biscuit that served as a cooling end to a hot, but wonderfully art-filled day. Reservations are a must for both lunch and dinner, as we saw many couples, families and groups sadly turned away.
Le Tilleul, Tel: 04 93 32 80 36, St. Paul de Vence, France
La Colombe d’Or
Long esteemed by film icons (Francois Truffaut), legendary artists (Pablo Picasso) and literary lions (F. Scott Fitzgerald), Le Colombe d’Or hotel boasts the privacy these celebrities crave and a singularly amazing, private art collection dating back to the 1920s. (See photos of rebus sign and garden dining area.) It was an era when the hotel’s founder, Paul Roux—a Provençal native with a fondness for art who owned the quirky bar-cum-auberge—befriended, boarded for free and spotted money to an assortment of poor, but talent rich artists at the bar and restaurant in exchange for their paintings. So came to be a remarkable, museum-quality collection of paintings that may be freely viewed in the dining rooms, bedrooms, pool area and its outdoor garden restaurant, where you are as likely to see a brilliant canvas by Miro, Picasso, Braque as a drawing or sculpture by Chagall, Calder or Matisse. Today Paul’s grandson, François, and his wife, Danièle, run La Colombe d’Or.
Given this introduction, one would hope, even expect, a gifted cuisine nearly as elevated as the art on display. After all artists—and hoteliers—have been known to worship Dionysus, the Greek god of wine, as much as Aphrodite, the goddess of love and pleasure. Alas, Demeter, the goddess of nourishment, seems to have neglected La Colombe d’Or’s kitchen. In a word, some dishes deliver, and do so heartily and generously, but others miss the mark by a wide margin.
Our experience there confirms the hotel-restaurant’s reputational cliché: Comfortable, private, high-priced and afforded with an art collection vastly superior to its cuisine. We lunched on a hot day in early July, after some delicious olives to enjoy while reviewing the vastly oversized menu, I ordered a selection crudités, which proved as abundant as any market day basket loaded to feed six! (See photo.)
Delving in required a lot of work, which I would have preferred a commis (a lower-level kitchen team member) to do in the kitchen than I working through all the slicing, dicing and paring. A melon appetizer ordered by my wife was similarly ‘deconstructed’, in that, once again, the diner was obliged to do most of the work in cutting, combining and re-constructing the aged ham (was it Serrano? no telling) and with do-it-yourself melon chunks.
For our main course, plat in French, my wife ordered quenelles de saumon (salmon quenelles) that we both tasted and agreed it was not as refined, light and molten as one should have expected; besides its rough, granular texture, it lacked requisite flavor, in both the salmon itself, not to mention its bland-tasting sauce.
I had much better luck when I ordered braised rabbit and tagliatelle noodles, whose dark, mushroom-enriched sauce exploded with forest-floor, red wine and gamy animal flavors. This was a profoundly satisfying dish and married perfectly with a bottle of brut rosé Champagne made exclusively for the hotel by Champagne Cattier in Chigny-Les-Roses in the appellation’s Montagne de Reims sub-region.
All we could think of for dessert was La Colombe d’Or’s house specialty, a toothsome almond tarte, whose dazzling flower petal frame was as simply entertaining as the evocative colors of Provence. (See photo.)
Reservations here should be made well in advance, and be sure to wander through the downstairs rooms of this celebrated inn with its world-class art collection.
La Colombe d’Or, 04 93 32 80 02, St. Paul de Vence, France