Vague d’Or (meaning Golden Wave) restaurant in the hotel Residence de la Pinede (Residence of the Pine Grove) in St Tropez opened in 1954. The restaurant gained its first Michelin star in 1990, its second in 2011 and its third in 2013. Chef Arnaud Donckele trained at Gourmand-Prunier in Paris before working with the great Michel Guérard at Eugénie-les-Bains in 1998, at Louis XV in Monaco in 1999, Plaza Athénée in Paris in 2000, and Lasserre in Paris, where he quickly became the sous chef to Jean-Louis Nomicos. He took over as head chef here in 2005, working with his chef de cuisine Guillaume Gaudin. Twenty-one chefs work in the kitchen here.
If planning a trip here, bear in mind that the hotel operates from April through October only. The hotel, with a private beach, is located on the water and is a ten-minute walk from the town of St Tropez itself. If travelling from abroad, getting to St Tropez is not a trivial task, the 115km drive from Nice taking a little under two hours. Otherwise there an absurdly long train journey on the slow train along the coast, followed by a further lengthy journey from the nearest rail station St Raphael, itself 42km and a one-hour drive from St Tropez. Presumably many of the visitors here turn up by boat or helicopter, and indeed this may not be as extravagant an idea as it sounds: if you are travelling by yourself and arriving at Nice airport, the one way helicopter price of €280 was slightly less than the taxi fare that I was quoted.
The restaurant is on the ground floor of the Residence de la Pinede hotel, with a terrace looking out directly over the sea, the entrance to the nearby port of St Tropez visible as you sit and have a drink. The dining room has well-spaced, large tables with impeccably ironed white linen tablecloths. The main tasting menu, which we opted for, was €295, and there was a shorter, fish-based tasting menu at €245. If you went a la carte the bill would not be so different, with fish soup at €68 and turbot at €108, for example.
The all-French wine list had a good local selection from Provence as well as the usual parade of well-known wines from Bordeaux and Burgundy, though to have just a single offering from Alsace seems something of an omission. Example wines were Massenot 2011 Chateau Valentines at €80 for a wine that sells locally for €18, Alain Gras Les Tillets 2011 at €165 for a wine that retails at €31, up to prestige wines like Petrus 2001 at €3.000 for a wine that costs about €2,200 in a shop.
Nibbles comprised salted marshmallows with rosemary, tempura of langoustine with bergamot oil, sea snail with seawater jelly and cardamom foam, and crisp bread with bacon, fennel and herbs. This was quite an eclectic collection, the crisp bread to me the most enjoyable along with the quite delicate tempura (average 16/20).
Bread was made on the premises and consisted of baguette, country bread, brioche, olive bad and tomato bread. These were of a very high standard, the texture lovely, the respective flavours coming through strongly (19/20). Amberjack and crab marinated with local mandarin oranges was served with a selection of baby vegetables and a citrus sauce flavoured with honey and thyme. The crab was very fresh, the amberjack had good flavour and was not dominated by the orange, whilst the baby vegetables were excellent. This was a simple but enjoyable dish (18/20).
Baby lobster and sea mullet were served in two ways. First they were cooked in seawater, served with caviar and salicornia salad with verbena, with leaves infused in shellfish broth. The second way was served cold with yuzu marinade and a sauce of the coral with verbena. The lobster was tender, the caviar a good match for the lobster, though for me the verbena was too strong; it is a powerfully aromatic ingredient and needs to be carefully controlled, but here rather dominated the dish (17/20).
Zitone pasta was filled with summer truffles and foie gras, with violet artichokes flavoured with Thai basil. The pasta was quite al dente, the over flavour not too strong, the artichokes an interesting contrast (18/20). Sea bass with thin slices of braised Spanish prawns came with a dressing of tomato, clams and lime, smoked courgette and oregano. The fish was carefully cooked, the lime refreshing, though the courgette did not seem to add much to the dish (17/20).
At this stage there was a palate cleanser of thyme sherbet ice with fennel heart sorbet, with absinthe poured over at the table. Although this region apparently has a tradition of such things, I have never been convinced about the wisdom of plate cleansers, which to me interrupt the flow of the meal and can be jarring with their intervention of sweetness between savoury courses. In this particular case I found the absinthe very strong, the thyme and fennel having a cough mixture-like flavour that I simply did not enjoy.
Blue lobster and guinea fowl was served in a vegetable and herb stew, flavoured with basil and pink ginger. The guinea fowl had excellent flavour, the lobster was tender, though an unannounced parcel of liver in spinach leaves was extremely powerful, a sledgehammer flavour when tasted with the guinea fowl and shellfish. It seems to me perfectly reasonable to introduce liver into such a dish, but this was just too strong (16/20). Local goat and sheep cheese were served with pear, saffron and honey. The cheese was pleasant, though I was not sure how well the honey worked with the cheese, albeit there was balancing acidity from the pear.
Granny Smith apple soufflé was technically very good, cooked evenly through with plenty of apple flavour, though for me the lime with it was a little too strong, so you tasted more lime than apple. This was served with marmalade of apple with apple sorbet and apple crisps, though these were not as crisp as I was expecting. This was a good though not flawless dessert (17/20). Coffee was excellent, served with a selection of petit fours. Chocolate with banana was an acquired taste, a financier had good texture and mercifully subtle Earl Grey tea flavour, and macaroon of lemon and nuts had nice texture.
Service was superb, our waitress enthusiastic and efficient. The bill came to €400 (£335) a head including wine, water and pre-dinner drinks, which is hardly a bargain. If you ordered a modest wine and went a la carte then your bill would come to around €280 (£235) a head. Overall, the food here used top class ingredients and the dishes were strong technically, but for me there were a few slightly jarring notes throughout the meal that brought the overall experience down a notch. Eating in the Riviera is rarely cheap, but this is an awful lot of money for a meal, and for me it did not compare well with three star restaurants in Paris like Ledoyen or Arpege, nor indeed with the nearby Louis XV.