The pedigree that allows Anne-Sophie Pic to cook with such confidence, distinction and innovation reveals itself gradually. She is the third generation of the Pic family and the one now at the helm of a culinary empire based on an elegant restaurant with rooms in Valence in the northern Rhône Valley of France.
There is a sign in the car park that proudly proclaims 'Pic since 1889'. Beyond the reception desk, there is a long glass-topped display counter that contains copies of the Guide Michelin back to the 1930s, when Pic's charms were first officially recognised. Scattered among them are touching black-and-white photos of kitchen brigades past, including the original premises across the river in the village of St-Péray. And on the far wall are portraits of Anne-Sophie flanked by her father and grandfather.
A series of corridors leads into the particularly spacious, comfortable restaurant. There is a sense of studied calm about the place with nothing to detract from the pleasure the food and wine are to generate. The surprises come with the style and presentation of the menu and the size of the wine list.
The numerous pages describing each of the nine savoury dishes that constitute the longest of the three menus arrive in a colourful package tied with a pink ribbon. The most important is the last page that contains the matrix for these menus, named Surprise, Harmonie, and Essentiel, 160, 240 and 300 euros respectively, with the five, seven and nine dishes each constitutes listed across the page. Once diners have chosen their menu, they are presented with a take-home pocket-sized version of it with an essay on each dish, a gesture that, aside from being a boon for any restaurant reviewer, also shows careful consideration of all diners' needs and curiosity, a practice not always the norm in chef-led restaurants.
Within seconds of our order being taken, sommelier Denis Bertrand approached, carrying one of the thickest, and certainly heaviest, of wine lists, showing again the roots that here go so deep.
Bertrand has been on the floor for 41 years – 'I even knew the grandfather', he said with a smile. But by the end of the evening I had come to view his style as similar to, but far gentler than, that of Didier Deschamps, the former defensive midfield footballer who now manages the French national team. Short and stocky, Bertrand prowls the restaurant, knowing precisely when to step in with a few words of recommendation, to pour the wines to go with a particular dish or to discourse more generally about how, over the years, both the wine and the food have become lighter in body and more perfumed in style.
This long career and the close working association he has obviously built up with the winemakers of St-Péray, Condrieu, Côte Rôtie and Hermitage so close by manifest themselves in a tome of a wine list that is too big to set on the table; too bulky to lean against the table as it digs into one's thighs; and with slightly unclear headings as to which wines are red or white (and most producers in this area make both). We abandoned all responsibility and left the choice in his hands: well-chosen glasses of piercing 2013 St-Péray made from Pic's original vineyard in collaboration with Chapoutier; Cuilleron's Petite Côte 2013 Condrieu; and Ducloux's perfumed La Germine 2011 Côte Rôtie ensued.
However enjoyable these proved to be, they definitely played second fiddle to an extraordinary series of dishes that promptly destroyed the hypothesis that top French chefs are not inclined, or interested, in preparing dishes in which vegetables are the single, and most important, ingredient. Here, in three dishes, they reigned supreme.
The first was a white bowl that held thin cornets of five different-coloured carrots, inlaid with a thin carrot mousse, their place secured by a light, appetising base of yoghurt whose flavour had been enriched by jasmine. At the same time as this came an arrangement incorporating beetroot in several different and slightly more sinister colours, their earthy flavours enlivened, most unexpectedly but effectively, by a touch of coffee.
The next dish, and the highlight of the meal, both visually and in flavour, took its name, berlingot, from the pyramid-shaped boiled sweets that were an obviously memorable part of Anne-Sophie's childhood. Here, however, they come as small green parcels of pasta containing an unctuous, warm liquid filling of smoked Banon goat's cheese. Over these, a thin consommé of a light green watercress sauce was poured gently, a sauce infused with ginger and bergamot.
Unlikely but costlier combinations followed. Langoustines in a green-apple consommé; two crisp fillets of red mullet with saffron, Kabosu lemon, popular in Japan, and amaretto, the Italian liqueur; scallops steamed with mature rum inside a whole white-shelled coconut (the bottom of the shell had been sliced off, the scallops inserted, and then pasted closed); and, finally, a small piece from a fillet of venison marinated in pastis alongside pieces of differently coloured cabbage.
I have only enjoyed a meal of such finesse, excitement and delight at one other restaurant in France and that was at Troisgros in Roanne, another restaurant to share a similar pedigree. I do hope that readers may have the opportunity to eat at one or the other in 2015.
Hôtel Restaurant Pic 285 Avenue Victor Hugo, 26001 Valence, France; tel +33 34 7540 96 03.
The photo above is taken from the restaurant's website.