L'Isle Sonnante, Avignon, France (long)
I was in Provence, and that fact was driven home by the surprisingly addictive tapenade that the gentlemanly maitre'd had just put before me with slices of bread. Something as simple as a black olive puree seemed too perfect here: the olive flavor was rich but also perfectly restrained. The full pungent intensity of olives was held in check, as if by a case of cultured upbringing; instead, the tapenade adoped a suave posture, a sign of the kitchen's care and skill. I was in the South and this first sign was good.
L'Isle Sonnante is a beautiful little island of warmth within the Roman walls of Avignon. The pretty decor is very polished, down to the dark wood accents, brass fixtures and beautiful table settings. It is not the place for luxuriant grandeur, instead it is elegant, graceful and most of all, charmingingly hospitable.
It was game season, and that night I had my second partridge. This young bird nests in a pie that is sliced in half to present the steaming succulent meat and chunks of savory not-to-be-missed liver. On the side a little green salad with walnuts that shares the sauce with the pie. Quite memorable indeed.
I was torn between rabbit and wild boar for my main course. The warm and kindly madam diplomatically says that the wild boar is in season; she smiles brightly when I order it. After the patridge, the rabbit might be a bit too tame. Madam is right, and the wild boar (the only one I had in France) is superb. It is as tender as any regular pork tenderloin could hope to be, but its wilder nature shines (not to the full livery extent, but to a beefier intensity), especially in the light of the sweet accompaniments - a pear puree and cooked soft chestnuts (I love chestnuts!!!). A dark red wine sauce presides. It is unforgettable.
Dessert is premade and displayed in a stand on the counter next to my table. I am at a loss. What to get? Monsieur says I can have a taste of everything (9 in all!) and I am tempted. But I resist - it would be waaaay too much. Your choice, I demure, please, not too much. He walks behind the counter and starts bringing down plates and cutting and spooning stuff. I hold my breath. He brings forth five plates all beautifully made. Anticipation and trepidation - so much, yet all so good.
I think my favorite is the chestnut chocolate-praline composition - a nutty dark sensation with a wholesome sweet chestnut flavor. The fruit cake topped with a fairy-light vanilla sauce is also good, although I must confess, the sauce really took the cake. Also, a zesty slice of lemon tart, a smooth meltingly delicious wine poached pear, and lastly a well made flan.
It was hard to walk away from such a beautiful dinner. I recovered from the disappointment of the previous night at Hiely-Lucullus and I now looked forward to the next dinner at Christian Etienne the next night. I was in the South and her culinary embrace was starting to win me.
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You've captured the essense of Provençal olives and tapenade perfectly. I did a mini-tasting of several varieties when I was there in the spring and was similarly impressed by the subtlety and restraint. Now you can understand why I cringed when folks on the General Topics board were recommending using kalamata olives to make tapenade! (vbg)
Another great report. Cannot wait for your report from Lucas Carton which is one of my favorites. I eat alone a lot myself since my wife cannot often make the trip with me so I feel a companionship with you. Your post put me over and I am ordering some shirts today. Keep up the good work.
The temp in the usually empty cubicle next to me is undoubtedly wondering about the little moan of pleasure I was unable to supress -- I'm afraid "chestnut chocolate-praline" put me over the top.
Looking forward to the next installment!