In May, with great anticipation and for the first time, we traveled to Provence, that legendary, surreal and almost magical region of France that so many artists and poets called home throughout the last couple of centuries. The ethereal light, healing air and that mystical “terroir” are only few of the remarkable attributes of this land. We were excited to see the lavender pastures, luscious countryside, breathe the air, soak up the sunshine, drink the wine and sample the wonderful cuisine! We checked into Villa Gallici, a premier boutique hotel in Aix-en-Provence full of old world exquisite charm and prepared for our Provence immersion. The real epitome of our Provence culinary experience came as a complete surprise the next day in Cassis. We went to visit this charming coastal town in the morning and took a boat tour to view the rocky calanques, a French version of the fjords – really wonderful scenery! Afterward we had a lunch reservation at Villa Madie, an upscale restaurant recommended by the concierge and were looking forward to a leisurely mid-day repast in a beautiful setting. But as soon as we walked into the restaurant, saw the chic understated designer décor and the magnificent terrace with a glorious view of the Mediterranean azure waters; we knew that we were in a special place. Chef Dimitri Doisneau from Normandy together with his wife Marielle created this incredible epicurean outpost on the coast of Provence to the delight of every gourmand in the northern Cote d’Azure. Before we even sampled the food we noticed the tenacious attention to detail which palpably permeated the atmosphere. The staff were impeccably attired and silently, seemingly effortlessly glided across the floor from table to table. We observed the table service around us and the choreographed discipline of the staff reminded me of another wonderful restaurant, Calima by Danny Garcia in Marbella, Spain. By now it was evident that Chef Dimitri Doisneau and Villa Madie had more than one Michelin star and was going for the top rating of three. We spent over three hours having lunch – just didn’t want to leave, every minute, every new course brought new heights of culinary euphoria. We got to meet chef and his wife, both delightful, humble people, visionaries dedicated to their art and focused on continued success of Villa Madie. We would most definitely recommend this restaurant for anyone travelling to the area or even if you’re not that close, it will be worth the trip! Our friends E. & S. with whom we share the love of France and especially its beautiful region of Provence, graciously opened their gorgeous house for our Provence themed dinner. E. is a bit of a gardener and enjoys growing various vegetables as well as flowers and she actually planted a beautiful herbal centerpiece for the table to channel the casual relaxed atmosphere which further enhanced the enchanting table décor (but more on that in the décor section of this post). Their property is meticulously and tastefully landscaped and the terrace where the dinner was set has a wood burning fireplace and dry stacked stone façade that perfectly set up the scene. Moreover, E. & S. are always perfect, generous hosts with such elegance and style whose love for entertaining is only eclipsed by their love for their children and family. We had a fabulous evening with enough memories to share for years to come. The menu was a combination of foods we tried on our trip that inspired us.
Photographed by Gary Flom Radishes with Chive Butter & Sea Salt is an easy hors d’oeuvres, French classic. Good quality, softened butter counterbalances the spiciness of the radish in addition with coarse sea salt it is a match made in heaven! During the hot summer months ratatouille is one of the most popular dishes in south of France. The recipe and presentation vary with each preparation but all are based on the classical foundation of slightly sautéed summer vegetables with that unmistakably delicious zest and velvety texture for which this dish is known. Zucchinis, eggplant, tomatoes and bell peppers are the key vegetables in this unpretentious summer treat. It can be served hot, cold or at room temperature; its versatility works with any occasion. The presentation for our Provence Dinner was somewhat elegant – I used individual molds to shape each serving of this delectable concoction of sautéed vegetables. To add a briny bite, garnish it with few capers on top and two strings of chives. Drizzled with the viscous and sweet aged balsamic vinegar, this dish is a mouth melting delight. Serve it along with toasted baguette slices and black olive tapenade, another Provence staple and the success guaranteed. Our guests could not get enough! For the main course we offered our guests a choice of two, different yet distinctly Provencal dishes – Bouillabaisse and Lamb Stuffed Cabbage Leaf. Summer classic, more of an Italian dissent but so loved by everyone is Cherry Tomatoes with Fresh Burrata, Basil & Aged Balsamic Vinegar. Bouillabaisse is the trademark seafood soup of Marseille. Traditionally this dish is flavored with fish bones and various regional fish. Cod, monkfish, European conger or scorpion fish are all cooked in the broth to create a dense palpable flavor. The fish is then removed and served separately on a large platter along with hot broth and a thick slice of bread with rouille, a mayonnaise with saffron and cayenne, on a side. To put a spin a classic, I used all sorts of seafood- lobster tail, shrimp, squid, clams and black sea bass fillets. Steep the broth with all the aromatics, shrimp shells and fish bones including the head for almost an hour to develop a rich, fragrant flavor of the broth. You know it is ready when the fragrant aromas will overtake your olfactory sensors in the most satiating way. Drop in the potatoes (I like to use purple-skinned variety), thinly sliced fennel and only then your seafood but in the order of what cooks first. Garnish it with some cherry tomatoes and chopped parsley to add some color and extra taste! And voila the best summer seafood soup is ready to be served! Lamb cooked to tender perfection and wrapped in a cabbage leaf served in a tomato sauce is a dish we tried in Gordes, a small exceedingly picturesque mountain village in Provence. French lamb that graze at the base of Mount Ventoux in Provence have a strong pronounced flavor that some may find a bit overpowering, so instead I used the American mild flavored ground lamb which I mixed with finely diced sautéed zucchini and onion. Form a sizable ball of stuffing from the mixture and place it in the middle of the cabbage leaf, carefully enclose the leaf. Whip up a quick tomato based sauce and cook the lamb seam side down for 30 minutes or so. When serving, scoop some of the delicious broth into the each plate first and top it with perfectly cooked lamb stuffed in a cabbage leaf. This dish was received incredibly well by our friends and became an instant hit. The flavor of the lamb came through in a subtle wave with each bite, the sensation further heightened by the unique juxtapositions of textures of crunchy cabbage, diced vegetable and gently yielding lamb. You have to try it! For dessert, the classic Cherry Bakewell Tart, the tart baked with cherries and almond paste. We decorated the tart slices with some fresh mint picked from my friend E.’s amazing garden, few berries and lots of sugar powder on top. It was not too sweet or heavy and proved to be an excellent finish to this summer Provencal dinner.