“The dining room was filled with wonderfully intermixing aromas that I sort of recognized but couldn’t name.” – Julia Childs, My Life in France
After completing our Sea Urchin Experiment, we walked down a short street and found ourselves at Les Caves Henri IV by Le Formal on the Rue Espariat. The restaurant was unassuming from outside but then we entered a long corridor which led to whitewashed stone vaulted cellars dating from 1475 A.D. Only 35 people can be served at well-spaced tables with crisp white tablecloths and dim lighting that immediately established an intimate atmosphere.
The owner/chef, Jean-Luc Le Formal, chooses his food products with the greatest care from only the most meticulous producers of the region. His dishes were not only delicious but works of art, each presented with attention to detail, like a Provençal painting.
After studying the menu, we selected one of the lunch specials “5 Surprises…,except drinks” (roughly translated). This was a five course lunch for € 37 with the only question being, “Would you prefer fish or meat for the main course?” Everything else would be a surprise. We were in the hands of the chef!
Our wine choice was a 2005 Ch. Citran, from the Haut Medoc region in Bordeaux and is a 50/50 blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. The color was quite black with ruby rims. The nose brought to mind blackberries and black currents. On the palate, it was well-balanced, rich and fruity with silky tannins.
The Amuse Bouche was an egg poached to 65° (C) placed on a thin cushion of buttery creamed potatoes and garnished with a slice of smoked salmon and a sprinkle of pepper. A sauce would have been superfluous. When I broke the egg yolk on the potatoes, the color was beautiful and the taste was voluptuous.
The entrée was an elegant scattering of spring peas and a few other green vegetables with slices of Perigord truffles, mounded on a slice of toasted levain. The musky, slightly sweet aroma of the truffle enhanced the vegetables while the toasted bread provided a contrast of texture. At the first bite, conversation at our table faded until we finished the remarkable dish.
For his pièce de résistance (as far as I was concerned) Chef Le Formal served a majestic supreme of wild pigeon pastilla, with a potato croquette and a soft-shell crab topped with a little frisse and watercress for color. It was finished with a simple but rich sauce of pigeon stock thickened with a touch of butter. The sweet and subtle flavor of fresh crunchy crab, played against the slightly gamey tenderness of the pigeon, was lovely in a way I would have never expected. The resulting dish was impeccable – a French compliment of the highest order.
Our cheese course was Camembert baked with roasted apples and topped with a few sprigs of greenery. Camembert, a somewhat bolder cousin of Brie, is a creamy soft-rind cheese showing a slight bitterness at the finish. It traditionally comes from Normandy in northern France, which also happens to be prime apple country. It was, therefore, no surprise when Chef Le Formal combined them. The fully ripened cheese had a wonderful aroma and flavor and when combined with the apples, provided a special treat.
Dessert was a not so simple explosion of colors and tastes: Fresh fruits with sorbet and pineapple plated on a square tile of black slate. The presentation was accented with swirls and dots of salted butter caramel, calvados jus and other flavors that provided visual and taste delights.
We appreciated the professionalism and attentive care, as well as the quality and respect for the products that were shared with us. The lunch was not traditional Provence but happily fabulous in every respect. From the hostess who greeted and seated us, to the servers and bus staff, each person worked hard and provided details of all of our dishes in English. The courses came promptly while still allowing enough of a break between so that we did not feel rushed. As we were leaving the restaurant, we had the pleasure to shake hands with the chef, Jean-Luc Le Formal, and thank him for an incredible meal.