The story so far: After a long and slightly arduous drive from London, we had finally arrived in northern Provence, spending our first afternoon explosing the lovely Coustellet farmer’s market. Our next stop was the hilltop village of Menerbes where we enjoyed a truffle-tastic lunch at the Maison de la Truffe et du Vin; followed by a visit to the Ochre Conservatory in Rousillon. Now, read on…
In the late afternoom, pretty exhausted by our exploits, we headed for the village of Bonnieux. Bonnieux is another of the many historic hilltop villages in the Luberon, dating back to Roman times (and bordering on an unusual Cedar forest that began with trees imported from North Afrca during the Napoleonic era – fact!). Our destination for the night was the Bastide de Capelongue, a Relais & Chateaux luxury hotel owned and run by 2 Michelin-star chef Edouard Loubet – a man with an impressive pedigree. Loubet was born in 1970 in the ski resort of Val-Thorens, where where his mother Claude opened a restaurant for the workers building the resort. A talented skiier, he first joined the French under-21 national ski team but his mother persuaded him to abandon skiing for a pastry chef apprenticeship and he has never looked back. In 1995, at Le Moulin de Lourmarin, Loubet received his first Michelin star and became the youngest chef in France to hold a star. Three years later, he received his second star. He subsequently opened Bastide de Capellongue (and Ferme de Capelongue across the road) on land that his mother had originally acquired in Bonnieux. We stayed in Bastide de Capelongue, situated in a restored provencal stone farm house (with some strategic modern additions!) and I knew I was going to love it as soon as we drove through the gate and saw the mass of lavender and the secluded courtyard complete with tinkly fountain. The accommodation consists of 17 generously-sized bedrooms as well as a spa, a swimming pool with a view over the valley, a beautifully landscaped garden full of lavender sweeping away from the house, and of course Loubet’s restaurant. Across the road at the Ferme de Capelongue there are 10 luxury self-catering apartments in a garden setting, all fitted out in a contemporary style with private terraces, and a 40m lap pool.
The first thing that strikes you upon arrival is the attentiveness and friendliness of the staff – that and the feeling that you are entering a grand home rather than a hotel. Comfortable sofas are dotted around the cosy reception area and the intimate neighbouring lounge bar, making it feel as if you are in a rich friend’s country house. There are definitely parallels with the wonderful Le Manoir aux Quat’ Saisons in England. All the airy and generously-sized bedrooms are individually decorated in cream and white with cool teracotta tile floors and Provencal-style limewashed distressed wood furniture. Rooms come with a flat-screen TV, a small coffee station and probably the prettiest welcome fruit plate I have ever seen with jaw-droppingly lovely little apricots, cherries, macarons and other berries. The bathroom was similarly spacious (although they still had an over-bath shower rather than a separate one) and came equipped with fluffy robes and excellent toiletries made from olive oil and fragranced with provencal lavender. There was meant to be WiFi but evidently not in our room – maybe the result of thick walls but still an annoyance in a hotel of this calibre.
After freshening up and a taking quick walk to explore the area, we got changed and headed down to the restaurant for dinner. The room is bright and airy, lined with arched windows that overlook either the courtyard or the garden and furnished in Provencal-style distressed wooden furniture. Having been settled into a table by the window looking out over the gardens, we were served a house cocktail consisting of sparkling wine laced with a herbal infusion – refreshing but probably not something I would normally do to my sparkling wine. Shortly after that, the charming Edouard Loubet himself sallied forth from his kitchen to come and greet us warmly and have a chat (pulling the rug out from under the grumpy woman seated next to us, to whom he did not chat and who had been loudly tut-tutting at my camera – the one not pointed at her or her food and not flashing its flash. Sometimes the universe works in mysterious ways, lady!). He explained that we would be having the chef’s menu – a selection of dishes that he felt would best show off the restaurant’s philosophy and skills – before returning to the kitchen and leaving us to nibble on the excellent warm bread and smoky salted butter.
So what was on the menu? Well, that’s a tough one. We were given no printed menu so I made notes but they get sketchier as the evening wore on, and asking the waiters more often than not produced a volley of French impenetrably accented English. I did ask to be given a list of what we ate, and was promptly given a pencil instead. Ah well. Here’s the best of my recollection. The amuse bouches were rather spectacular and included: a tiny savoury cone filled with anchovy cream and topped with crisp diced vegetables; foie gras bonbons in a beetroot glaze; a potato and cheese puree and cream topped with crisp potato spirals; and a paper-thin pizza bianca with truffles. I loved all of these and would be hard-pressed to choose a favourite – they were all markedly different and were all explosions of flavour and texture – but the cone and the foir gras were extraordinary. If I had any negative comment it would be the fact that they came out in far too rapid a succession. I was still dreamily nibbling on the first when the second was brought out, and so forth – leaving little time to comteplate each taste as I would have liked to.
With the amuse bouches out of the way, our mail meal could start to flow. As neither of us was much ion the mood for drinking, we ordered a glass of white for the fish dishes and a glass of red with the meat – both of which were from Loubet’s own estate Domaine de la Citadelle. First up were mussels in a creamy coriander leaf veloute, topped with a crispy mushroom. Both Nick and I absolutely loved this dish. The mussels were plump and their sweet flesh was perfectly matched to the fresh flavour of the veloute. It did make me wonder why you don’t see more coriander soups/sauces on menus, as it was quite heavenly. This was followed by foie gras terrine on toasted brioche, served with an earthy mushroom soup. I am a sucker for foie gras terrine and this quite literally melted on the tongue – a gutsy, earthy and decadent dish. This was followed by a playful interlude of a meaty “savoury tea” or broth served in a little teracotta mug – a light but umami-rich consomme, reminiscent of a similar concept of venison “tea” that I enjoyed at The Fat Duck.
Next up was the most colourful dish of the evening: monkfish in a field poppy foam with broad beans and chamomile. At first we could not place the flavour of the sweet, exuberantly pink foam but when it was explained that it was a coquelicot sauce, the floral almost Turkish delight notes made sense. The monkfish was delightful, but I could not help but wonder whether the sweetness of the poppies might not have worked better with a more robustly flavoured fish like salmon. Bonus points, though, for the gorgeous side of a tiny bamboo steamer full of of baby vegetables This was followed by one of Edouard Loubet’s signature dishes: rack of lamb smoked with wile Claparedes thyme, served with steamed baby vegetables and his grandmother’s potato gratin. The first hint that this was to be no ordinary lamb dish came when two waiters arrived at our table with a piping hot Staub casserole and one whipped off the lid to release the pungent, smoky thyme aroma and reveal the lamb rack nestled on its herby bed. Once served, the dish is nothing sort of sublime with the rack cut into perfectly pink chops, gently flavoured with smoke and served with a herb-infused jus. Grandma Loubet’s ridiculously creamy, cheesy, garlicky potato gratin is a simple but effective accompaniment, complementing rather than competing with the meat. It’s not hard to see why this is Loubet’s signature dish, relying as it does on simply prepared outstanding ingredients and referencing the flavours of the local countryside with the wild thyme.
And from there, we moved on to dessert. First up was iles flottante and chartreuse flavoured ice-cream in a bitter chocolate soup. I liked the idea of this more than the actual execution, I must say – or maybe chartreuse is just not the herb for me? The astringency of the herb does offset the richness of the chocolate soup, but my palate was after something sweeter. More to my taste was a slice of pistachio opera cake with macerated strawberries, which contained a slew of my favourite things on one plate: chocolate, pistachio and strawberries. I loved not only the pretty presentation but also the combination of sweet chocolate, salty pistachios and tart strawberries. And as if that wasn’t enough, a little pot of jasmine creme brulee also arrived at the table – small yet perfectly creamy and delightfully floral. The final flourish was a plate of mignardises with our coffee, including more of the pistachio macarons that had graced our welcome basket, mimi canelles topped with cramelised nuts; mini lemon tarts; and mini financiers topped with apricots and nuts – each one a unique and indulgent lavour and texture.
Overall, it was a thoroughly impressive meal with flashes of true brilliance (the rack of lamb and the musels in coriander soup spring to mind) – but at the same time it was not overly contrived or fussy as fine dining can often be. The dishes relied on excellent locally-sourced ingredients that had not been mucked about with too much, and interesting use of local herbs to produce some stellar moments. Clearly Mr Loubet and his kitchen team know their stuff. And although the meal is not cheap, it compares favourably with the prices at otherIf I were to have any criticism it would be the timing of the service. Initially, when we were having our amuse bouches, the dishes followed rather too quickly on one another; but when we got to the tail end of our meal, things slowed down to a snail’s pace – slightly wearing when you are exhausted and longing for your bed! But that aside, it was most enjoyable and I am a sucker for a romantic dinner where you can sope off to your bedroom on the premises afterwards – which is precisely what we did next.
Stay tuned for a sumptuous breakfast at Bastide de Capelongue followed by a cooking class in their 2-Michelin starred kitchen!
Domaine de Capelongue
Chemin des Cabanes
BONNIEUX EN PROVENCE
Tel. +33 ()4 90 75 89 78
Fax: +33 (0)4 90 75 93 03
E-mail: [email protected]
Double rooms at Bastide de Capelongue start at between €140 and €250 per room per night and breakfast costs €22 per person. A 5 course dinner like we had (including amuse bouches and mignardises) is available for €140 per person, and a more extensive menu is available at €190 per person. There is also an a la carte menu available.
DISCLOSURE: I visited Bastide de Capelonge as part of a self-drive trip that was partially funded by the Vaucluse Tourist Board, and both my meal and accommodation were paid for by the tourist board.
Other posts in my Vaucluse series include: