Last February, the Michelin restaurant guide awarded a third star to the sea-side restaurant La Vague d’Or (“Golden Wave”) in Saint-Tropez. The chef, 35-year-old Arnaud Donckele, is the youngest three-star chef. He’s a soft-spoken thin man who speaks more like a philosopher than a chef. He focuses on using local products that he combines in innovative ways to maintain lightness in the foods.
Locally sourced and innovation are the current buzzwords of most of the hot new young chefs both in France and Santa Monica. Heavy traditional foods are out.
While vacationing in France last month, my wife, son and I decided to see what all the fuss was about and stopped in for a meal at La Vague. We took menus in both French and English, and couldn’t figure out either of them. We did understand that for about $450 per person we could order the fixed-price menu and basically get one of almost every dish. But the a la carte selections were too complicated for us. Most of them consisted of a central product served in at least two different ways, but it was very difficult to envision what was coming from the descriptions, or how much to order.
First came a little tree with marshmallow squares, a wonderful fried lobster ball and a beautiful green-flavored oyster in its shell. While noshing on these we ordered a half bottle of a white wine Rhone-style blend from the Southeast area of France. It had beautiful color and good body, with little acid.
Next came a very attractive young blond woman speaking excellent English and holding a tray of six or so breads from which we selected two each.
We were fully occupied for the next two hours with a constant delivery of plates with different foods on them, most with flavors too complex for me to describe, but each an artwork on the plate. There was one plate with a square of penne pasta stuffed with black truffles and foie gras in a light but rich-flavored butter and lemon foam and basil sauce. There were two fish dishes with complex layers and small amounts of sauces poured around the edge of the plates. There was a little piece of some exotic tuna in a light creamy sauce served cold, with little prepared vegetables on the side such as peeled baby cherry tomatoes and an avocado puree.
Then came a plate of very small ravioli (like the “plini” in the Piedmont region of Italy) in a “sea broth” with little balls of spinach stuffed with a mushroom ragout, and bits of tomato in the broth.
A glass of thyme and fennel-flavored shaved ice arrived, and the blond was back to pour some absinthe over it, all to cleanse our palates. And it did, especially the licorice flavor of the absinthe.
I thought I was done when my main course suddenly arrived. There were baby lobster tails and slices of rare pigeon with little potatoes, chestnuts, slices of mushrooms and baby peeled tomatoes in a seafood foam broth.
My wife had fish soup, which was nothing like the traditional fish soup served in almost every French restaurant in our area. This one was much lighter, really a broth rather than a soup. There was a piece of toast with a poached egg on top in the middle, and two pieces of rouget fish tempura and the traditional “rust” — garlic flavored mayonnaise — on the side.
My son Spencer’s main course consisted of slices of guinea fowl, also with small lobster tails in an Asian-influenced broth from the fowl, laced with ginger.
After about three hours the table was cleared for new action. A small plate of cheese snacks was served to Spencer, including a “boat” of cheese sorbet with a boat shaped biscuit on top.
With each course, one of the lovely young blondes appeared like an actress reading lines to describe each dish in great detail, with vivid facial expressions. The combination of these performances and the artful arrangements on the plates did turn the dinner into a performance. Many of the ingredients were hard to distinguish though, such as the corail of the lobster, yuzu, melisse, haliotisa, verveine and vernis. Only Spencer recognized these exotic ingredients from Japan.
At 11:30 p.m. another palate cleansing drink was served, this time an apple and rhubarb fruit juice. Then my chocolate soufflé arrived, with a scoop of chocolate ice cream on the side. I dug into it with my spoon and this was my first disappointment. The texture was more like an undercooked mousse than a soufflé. Instead I satisfied myself with the “mignardises,” small bites of various sweets.
Other than letting you know that the bill was just over $1,000, and we spent four hours eating, what can I say? It seems that the new prestige food in the world today is Japanese, not French. And so it is not surprising that this meal seemed influenced by Japanese cuisine. The arrangements on the plates reminded me of the Kaiseki restaurant I reviewed recently. The variety of the ingredients and flavors seemed very Japanese, although the chef has no connection to Japan.
Also, nowadays it seems that two distinct types of upper-level restaurants compete. One focuses on single top-level products served very plain. So a steamed lobster dish is completely focused on the lobster. And in Los Angeles a steak is a steak.
In the new fancy French restaurants both in the U.S. and in France, the trend is toward lighter dishes in lighter sauces using local ingredients. While there is one lamb selection on the La Vague d’Or menu, no beef is offered; the focus is clearly on products from the local gardens and the nearby sea.
Maybe I’ll get used to the new style, but I think I prefer the more traditional restaurants where a steak is a steak and a fish is a fish.
Merv Hecht, the food and wine critic for the Santa Monica Daily Press, is a wine buyer and consultant to a number of national and international food and wine companies. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.