4 bis rue jean-jacques rousseau, L'Isle-sur-la-Sorgue
Call for reservations: 0490385729
We had reservations at another fine restaurant following the advice of Noel, Tony's friend who lives in L'Isle and generously acted as Igo's French liaison all week. Knowing our writing class ended at 9pm that night, Noel made dinner and taxi arrangements for us at 9:30pm. Almost late enough to pass for locals!
When we arrived, the elegant dining room was empty. Two young waiters emerged from the kitchen. Simultaneously grabbing menus, in hushed tones they engaged in a brief discussion before the more serious one approached, and identified himself as our waiter.
The three of us inconspicuously (or so we thought) whipped out our tiny notebooks and began jotting down details – decor, place settings, menu selections, wine… The waiter, formal, suspicious, and a keen observer, kept close tabs on us even though he didn't speak a lick of English. He watched us from the sidelines as we ogled over the shimmering silk tablecloths, running our hands over the fabric that cascaded to the floor like expensive draperies. He pretended not to notice when we got up from the table to take photos of the elaborate dining room and peer through the glass that housed the canal running through the middle of the establishment.
He found our behavior peculiar, if not amusing. He held his head high and curtly nodded when we made our selections, but slipped, for smirks and half-smiles occasionally cracked those rigid lips of his. The language barrier didn't prevent us from communicating with him, who, judging from his resigned behavior, rathered that we didn't.
Renate, the blond German girl who spoke the best French and was the most aggressive one among us, boldly asked him question after question about the wine, food, and chef. Each time, embarrassed at being in such an awkward position, he tilted his head ever so slightly, bowed curtly, and then disappeared, returning with answers from the chef. Or sometimes on the heel of the other waiter, who made rudimentary attempts to translate.
Renate whispered that someone had just peeked out the kitchen door at us.
Our stoic waiter placed soup crowned with a cherry tomato in front of us, but we hadn't ordered a first course. Actually, we were kind of in a hurry. We had an interview with another chef at 11:00pm (Daniel's request), and didn't have the luxury of a four-hour meal. So we each ordered a single entree. Surely we had time for that.
We tried to communicate this to our waiter – just the part about not ordering the soup – but he stood there blinking and then gestured for us to eat. We looked at each other, shrugged our shoulders, and ate. It's not like the waiter messed up our order with someone else's. We were the only ones dining.
The cold tomato and basil soup was delicious. The small serving simply teased the palate and left us wanting more. And the bread! Triangular turnovers, for lack of a better description, warm and chock full of black olives, were so soft, plump and chewy. Delicious. We agreed that we should save room for our dinner, but finished off the bread.
Renate caught another sly peek from the kitchen. In a low voice she asked, "Do you think it's the cook?"
Every dish we ate was faaabulous. We could certainly understand why Noel and guidebooks rated this as one of L'Isle's finest. But where were the people? Prices were a bit higher here (42 euro prix fixe) compared to other restaurants, but the quality of the food was exquisite.
Renate ordered lamb and ratatouille, tender and much to her liking. Carolanne and I both ordered poisson au vin rouge, a divine fish dish. A meaty rolled fillet prepared just right complemented fresh steamed vegetables in a hearty red wine sauce.
After clearing our plates, the waiter brought out a cheese tray. Oh no, thank you. We shook our heads, cognizant of the time, and asked for the check. He seemed a bit perplexed, and insisted we select some cheese. In French, Renate explained we were in a bit of a hurry. He disappeared to figure our check.
Or so we thought. But dinner wasn't finished yet. The door swung open and revealed our waiter holding a silver tray with three tempting desserts. When he placed one in front of each of us, none of us balked. Instead we dove into the tall glass filled with a delightful nougat glace layered with toffee, the nougat thick and creamy. Oh, wonderful, wonderful.
Check, please? Our waiter emerged from the kitchen a final time, with another silver tray which he laid on our table - an assortment of petit fours. Giggles escaped our chocolate-ringed mouths as we plucked them from the plate. Would this never end? Maybe we were on to something. Feign indifference by ordering a single item and take out your pen. We had difficulty stifling our laughter. We weren't indifferent - anything but. We only ordered á la carte to save time. The irony of being served an entire menu was almost too much. If we hadn't been in such a hurry – it was now 11:30 and past our interview – we would've relished the attention. But how could we explain we were late for an interview? With another chef?
As if on cue, the chef emerged from his kitchen, a young man, maybe 30. He introduced himself as Chef Severine Alloin. Then wanted to know, who we were. And who we were writing for? We told him we were here for a travel writing workshop. Still convinced we were food critics, he recited background information regarding his training and experience - and shared his story of moving here from Paris.
A few years back when he first visited L'Isle with his wife, they fell in love with the place and the restaurant. He vowed that if this building ever came up for sale he would buy it - last year his dream came true.
His eyes lit up as he talked of operating the restaurant with his wife Jean-Marie. She's responsible for selecting the gorgeous crinkled taffeta silk on the tables and decorating the niches set into the rustic stone walls. And running their latest venture, a B&B scheduled to open next week. They were creating five bedrooms upstairs, each decorated in a different theme. Did we want to see? Our eyes darted to each other, as he advanced toward the stairway.
Well, now. We could hardly rain on his parade, could we? Especially after such a scrumptious dinner. So up we followed around the curved staircase, whispering apologies to Daniel under our breath. We stepped into each room, admiring the contemporary purple and chrome touches in the lavender room, and the sunny warmth of the yellow room, even at midnight. He pointed out the Jacuzzi and separate sitting area, and described the curtains that would be hung in the unfinished suite. Leaning out an open window, we saw tiled rooftops of surrounding homes in the quiet central district. The rooms were classy, refreshingly free of anything frilly. Anyone staying here would enjoy thoughtful furnishings, and, a spectacular breakfast.
We thanked him for a memorable dinner and wished him well in his B&B endeavor. He shook our hands proudly, and ushered us outside. We passed the canal and walked through the attached brick arched tunnel.
Back in our waiting taxi, we replayed the evening and our mistaken identities – and marveled at the power of a pen.