Anne-Sophie Pic has restored the third Michelin star to the venerable restaurant Pic. The restaurant was opened in 1889 in a different location, and then moved to the unassuming town of Valence in 1936. Anne-Sophie’s grandfather won three Michelin stars for Pic in 1934, and her father also achieved three stars in 1973, but the restaurant had slipped to two stars in modern times until 2007. The hotel has a large display cabinet with all the Red Michelin Guides to France dating back to 1900 (a close look shows a few early ones missing, but this is clearly a place that takes its history seriously). The hotel is very modern in style, with a central courtyard, and a brasserie that faces the main street.
We tried the “generations” tasting menu, which features dishes from each generation of the restaurant. It is hardly a snip at EUR 320, though there is another tasting menu at EUR 195. Few restaurants in France have a costlier menu. The wine list is lengthy and mainly (but not exclusively) French. Au Bon Climat Chardonnay 1999 was EUR 60 for a wine that costs around EUR 20, Chateau Musar 1996 was EUR 80 for a wine that you can buy in the shops for about EUR 27. Guigal La Mouline 1996 was EUR 600 for a wine that costs around EUR 215 if you could only find it. Chateau Simone 2005 is EUR 85 for a wine that costs about EUR 27, to give an idea of the mark-up level.
Bread is made from scratch, and was a choice of rolls of either mustard bread, seaweed or walnut, served warm. The rolls had lovely crust, had balanced seasoning and tasted strongly of their respective flavours (19/20). We began with assorted nibbles. A sphere of duck liver melted in the mouth and had stunning intensity of flavour (20/20), cauliflower with basil was a slightly odd combination but had lovely texture (18/20), a jelly of avocado and prawn had great taste and silky texture (19/20), while chorizo with mint in pastry seemed an odd idea (17/20). A further nibble was a little crème brulee of foie gras topped with apple cream. The execution was faultless, and the apple cream had just enough acidity to offset the sweetness of the sugar, but I am not sure whether the idea of mixing foie gras with crème brulee was really such a great one (17/20).
The meal proper began with blue lobster arranged prettily, the slices of lobster framing a series of tomato jellies. “Green zebra” tomato and “pineapple” tomato gave a colour contrast to the conventional tomato between them, and the dish was finished with little cubes of intense lobster and tomato gelee and a smear of gold saffron jelly. The lobster tasted superb, the tomatoes had excellent taste rather than just being there for show, and the flavour combination worked well; this was served with a broth of tomato and lobster with a little celery (19/20).
Even better was a dish of crayfish tails (an updated recipe served in the restaurant in 1929!), gratinated with a little summer truffle inside and the centre containing an extract of lobster, cream and melted cheese. This was seasoned perfectly and the crayfish was wonderfully tender, the truffle adding a little extra note to the dish (20/20). Next was line-caught sea bass topped with Aquitaine caviar and a champagne sauce. The sea bass was again faultlessly cooked, the caviar adding a natural saltiness that was a good balance to the richness of the champagne sauce (20/20). Next was an in-between course cup of grape gelee and emulsion of Muscat with olive oil and grape foam, which was decent enough but seemed superfluous to me (17/20).
My main course was classic beef tournedos, strips of Charolais beef served in between slivers of ballotine of foie gras from Landes, served with a cream of baby leaks with a little nutmeg. The beef had tremendous flavour and was very tender indeed, while the leeks had remarkable taste, adding a necessary element to offset the richness of the foie gras. This was served with a stunning demi glace, reduced to exactly the right consistency (it is easy to over-reduce and end up with something gloopy and over-rich). I’d have been happy just to have sat there with a bowl of this sauce and a loaf of bread all evening. While a rich dish, the leeks cleverly balanced things out, and the tastes were simply sublime (20/20).
While I ate the beef my wife had John Dory meuniere with black cardamon flavour and a tian of laurel (bay) and courgette with courgette jus. The tian was inset with aubergine and tomato, topped with courgette slices inside a square of potato, was pretty as a picture and had lovely texture, while the John Dory benefited from the cardamom spice, which lifted the dish to a higher level (20/20).
The cheese board is worthy of comment. Sourced from two separate affineurs, the board had a selection of classics and some local cheeses, and were in simply perfect condition e.g. the St Marcelin was beautifully runny, the Brillat Savarin suitably creamy, the Camembert practically making an escape bid. It is one thing to choose a good supplier (or two), another to keep the cheeses correctly and serve them only when perfect, ruthlessly eliminating any that are not in optimal condition. Even in 3 star restaurants in France, where the standards are very high, I can hardly recall a better cheese board than this (20/20).
Even better was an iced version of the Grand Marnier soufflé, this a recipe of Anne-Sophie’s father, with carefully balanced flavour and fine texture (20/20). The meal finished with profiteroles with raspberries, a chocolate sauce with a (fortunately very much muted) green anise poured at the table, with vanilla ice cream and whipped cream – fine choux pastry and attractive presentation (19/20). Coffee was merely good, with some superbly made petit fours.
This was a meal out of the top drawer (admittedly, at a price to match). Ingredients were of the highest quality, presentation was beautiful, technique superb, the dishes themselves a delight to eat. Some of these dishes sound old fashioned but in talking with Anne-Sophie Pic at the end of the meal she explained how each has been modernised (a common theme is that they are lighter than the originals). There is a reason why dishes become classics, and to have perfect dish after perfect dish like this really shows off French cooking at its finest.