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Provence Chefs

Food Heaven: Four Provence Chefs that Make us Ooh and Aah

Lionel Levy

Ah, la Provence! It conjures memories of fields of lavender abounding in the Alpes-de-Haute-Provence. The perfumed hills of Grasse. Marseille, this alluring blend of sophistication and edginess that most port cities can only dream about. The markets and wineries of the Vaucluse. Sitting at a café with a glass of pastis. Arles, Aix and Avignon. There are so many wonderful villages, towns and everything in-between, it's no wonder everyone wants to live there.

Then, of course, there's the food, which is reason enough to go. At any town market, ask yourself if it's possible to improve upon the colorful displays of aubergines and artichokes, fennel, greens, tomatoes and asparagus. Or the endless varieties of cured olives and goat cheeses. The fruits are sensational. Seafood couldn't be fresher. Even the table-bound rabbits, lambs, pigs and cows seem happy. Perhaps, Provence is food heaven.

No wonder this is where you'll find some of the world's top culinary talent. On a recent winter swing through Los Angeles, we caught up with four of Provence's most gifted chefs.

First, Lionel Levy of Marseille's Une Table au Sud presented his scallops roasted in olive oil with a gratin of celery root. The scallops were big, fresh and superb-perfect by themselves. They were rendered decadent on the stage of Levy's deadly rich gratin-garlicky, silky, light, and citrus-spiked after he added orange, lemon, lime and grapefruit zest. Levy, incidentally, trained under Alain Ducasse. Much to his mentor's surprise Levy left to strike out on his own, and in Marseille of all places. He developed a signature repertoire of "instant" food-fresh, prepared on the spot, wholly Mediterranean and definitely not fussy. Levy likes to work with seafood like monkfish, langoustines, tuna, sardines and anchovies; local produce like fava beans, asparagus, red peppers and truffles; and seasonal game.

Francis Robin

Francis Robin's saffron-grilled langoustines were impossibly perfect, large and tasty. They needed nothing more than that bath in his lemon and saffron butter. For more than 30 years, Robin has been presiding over his restaurant and charming ten-room hotel, Le Mas du Soleil, located in Salon de Provence. Robin's guests enjoy meals he creates from local fruits, vegetables and seafoods. He's also known for rustic holiday and seasonal specialties like pigeon leg in pastry with foie gras, and pressed rabbit with thyme. Salon de Provence, once home to Nostradamus, is an ancient village nicely located between Avignon and Aix-En-Provence. Olive trees are abundant here.

Christian Etienne

Christian Etienne's restaurant in Avignon bears his name and a Michelin star. His deceptively simple herb- and shallot-seasoned tomatoes reminded us again why we love Provence. This was nothing more than overnight-drained tomatoes rehydrated in very good olive oil, and dressed up with shallots, basil, salt, pepper and balsamic vinegar. An Avignon native, Etienne serves his cuisine in a frescoed dining room with painted ceilings and a view of the spectacular Palace of the Popes. We need no convincing to book a table at Restaurant Christian Etienne.

Dominique Frérard's sabayon of seasonal fruits was a dramatic but tasteful finish—a dazzling, composed plate of blackberries, blueberries, strawberries and raspberries under a velvety blanket of Beaume de Venise sabayon. Sprigs of thyme were torched atop just before serving. Just what we would expect from a highly decorated chef who's done stints at La Poularde in Montrond les Bains, the Kunstuben in Zurich, and the Hôtel du Roi Théodore in Porto Vecchio. We suppose we'll be spending a lot of time in Marseille, shuttling between Frérard's Les Trois Forts (Sofitel Marseille Vieux Port) and Levy's Une Table Au Sud.

Although this offsite indulgence took place far from home for these chefs, such displacement didn't reflect in their food that day. In fact, their brief visit took us to Provence for a few hours. And, it left us inspired and wanting more.

Une Table Au Sud
2 Quay du Port
Marseille, 13002
04-91-90-63-53

Le Mas Du Soleil
38 Chemin Saint Côme
Salon de Provence, 13300
04-90-56-06-53
www.lemasdusoleil.com

Restaurant Christian Etienne
10 rue de Mons
Avignon, 84000
04-90-86-16-50
www.christian-etienne.fr

Les Trois Forts
Sofitel Marseille Vieux Port
36 Boulevard Charles Livon
Marseille, 13007
04-91.15.59.56

For more information on visiting Provence go to www.provenceweb.fr.


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