You’d expect to find restaurants with three Michelin stars – and, indeed, you do – in major world capitals. London, Paris, New York, Tokyo…
But you also find them in more out-of-the-way places. How about Bray in the UK or Alba in Italy? Yountville, USA (with its grand total of around 3000 inhabitants)? Or why don’t you try Valence, France for size? As a Franco-British couple living near Paris, we have in the past found that you can pay a lot in France for dated or substandard food, served in places where the main aim is to see and be seen while paying €25 a crêpe. However, if you push the boat out enough, there is such thing as friendly and accommodating service (yes, I just used the word ‘friendly’ in relation to the French) and excellent food in divine settings. Le Maison Pic, whose bistro Le 7 we had already tested, certainly lived up to the standards set by its Michelin stars.
This was not just down to the staff’s considerate and discreet attitude (for example, asking if it would be more convenient for them to speak to us in English after hearing us speak it at the table), or the luxurious décor (such as crystal water glasses and chandeliers), but also the innovative vision and high-quality ingredients that have clearly gone into the food itself. The amuse-bouches were prime examples of this, exemplifying delicate yet intense flavours, as well as textures that both complement and contrast each other. The foie gras crème brûlée was served with an apple mousse that cut cleanly through its creamy richness, and the peanut marshmallow, foie gras pearl and snail that were served on a single plate were surreal versions (in a positive way) of their traditional counterparts.
Crucially, even simple things were done well and with an emphasis on local produce. The bread (four different varieties: olive oil, black olive, buckwheat, and cereal) lives up to the excellent levels expected of the French, while utilising the olives for which the region is famous; meanwhile, local water from Vals-les-Bains is available for consumption throughout the meal. With these basic components in hand, we went on to the meal itself, which after the amuse-bouches, kicked off with carrots served three ways: in the form of a purée and a jelly, as well as raw, and complemented by a yoghurt flavoured with orange flower water and Voatsiperifery pepper. The latter’s potential to be overpowering was instead well-tempered, and even those who aren’t the biggest fans of raw carrot will appreciate the artistry involved in both presentation and in the combinations of flavour and texture.
Perhaps Anne-Sophie Pic’s greatest achievement on this menu (the Menu Harmonie – one of three menus offered. More of which later…) was the goat cheese ravioli, served with a cress, bergamot and ginger soup. One cannot only chalk this achievement up to the fact that the dish is beautifully fragrant and spiced, but also the noteworthy presentation, which makes the ravioli look like leaves thanks to the dark green pasta and the pool-like illusion created by the soup and accompanying leafy herbs.
Perhaps after this triumph the next courses would seem to fall a little flat. The langoustines (served with green tomato and verbena soup) seemed just a little conventional and forgettable by comparison, and while the presentation of the ratatouille on the fish plate makes one feel like you have stepped straight onto the set of the eponymous film, the entire dish – from the fish to the vegetables – tasted overwhelmingly of dill, which is likely few people’s favourite herb to begin with. This lack of variation in seasoning (which naturally obliterated the camomile that was also allegedly included) was a little disappointing compared to the balance achieved by previous courses, but luckily the meaty punch of the Bresse chicken that followed, and its accompanying stuffing and sauce (made with brown rice tea, Tonka bean and parmesan as well as the chicken juices), was enough to wipe it out.
Further to this, the Brie de Meaux foam (which in fact had a more mousse-like texture) was sublime, thanks to the elevation provided by the added Bourbon vanilla. This was effectively our pre-cheese course, with the cheese trolley itself being covered by an unusual (and large) wicker basket which drew the attention of the whole room (effectively stunning them into silence, literally, as the waiter explained the trolley’s contents). It’s possible that few people take the cheese course at Pic as the most basic menu doesn’t include it, charging you an extra €25 to add it separately. As we’d gone for the second menu, it was included, and if its sheer size and unusual presentation wasn’t a good enough advertisement to everyone in the room, it’s difficult to know what would be. Sadly, no wines are available by the glass in case you fancy matching a different tipple with your cheese – or indeed your dessert.
In this regard, there were also pre-desserts: one was an aduki bean concoction with a cherry centre, served with caramelised sugar discs and Clairette de Die (another local drink) ice cream. This again benefited from its contrasting textures, which ranged from a fine, slightly biscuity sponge base to a runny cherry middle. The other pre-dessert was a small series of petits fours, ranging from more traditional flavours (coffee and raspberry) to more experimental ones (green tea, pistachio and bitter lemon; white chocolate, poppy seed, orange, and Lapsang Souchong). All were stunning and delicious. This, in a way, leads to even higher expectations for your real dessert: our menu gave a choice of four, from which we ended up with a chocolate and beeswax tart, and a white millefeuille (built with vanilla cream and halva). Sadly, the latter was rather large, and by this point in the meal, one begins to struggle after so much food, particularly given the desserts’ creamy richness. The jasmine and Voatsiperifery pepper just disappeared under the weight of the millefeuille’s sugariness, although the chocolate option seemed better (thanks to its inclusion of pine and forest honey to counteract the chocolate’s bitterness and beeswax’s creaminess).
All of this was consumed with a white Château de Fonsalette, which proved a rounded wine with a spicy woody background. This matched virtually all of our courses well, without being too rich; the Clairette grape used in this Châteauneuf blend adds freshness against the power of the Grenache Gris and Marsanne varieties. The €150 paid for this exclusive wine can make it worth it thanks to the good vintage (2007) and the wine’s overall rarity.
After this came high-quality coffee and Pic-branded chocolates, which we were able to enjoy in the luxury of the restaurant’s separate lounge, where appropriately calm mood music is played to signify the end of your night. All of this eating and drinking took four and a half hours, and while going to Pic for dinner is a romantic and luxurious experience, you can’t expect to sleep well afterwards while your body tries to digest that amount of food. The people who go for the next menu up – L’Essentiel – need to find room for two additional courses: lobster later on, and a tomato dish in the early stages of the night. This blockbuster menu costs €320 per person, not including drinks. The lighter Découverte menu excludes our fish course, and only includes the Brie de Meaux course cheese-wise (as mentioned, the trolley is extra), for the price tag of €160. Our menu, therefore, unsurprisingly cost something in the middle: €240 per person. With drinks, we ended up paying a little over €600 in total, which is roughly in line with other Michelin-starred restaurants, and may even be considered a little on the ‘cheap’ side, seeing as the cost of the beverages is up to you (nobody ‘has’ to spend €150 on a bottle of wine). However, this is what overtime is for, and is without doubt an experience to savour.
285, avenue Victor Hugo 26000 Valence
telephone: 04 75 44 53 86