VALBONNE, FRANCE: At Michelin Starred Lou Cigalon Maison Martin, in the medieval village of Valbonne, Chef Christophe Martin has realized the dream of his own cozy restaurant guided by principles of fine Haute Cuisine prepared from local ingredients. Tiny by most standards, it is huge in culinary wonder.
Lou Cigalon Maison Martin: Chef Christophe Martin
With just 7 tabless in the dining room, and set in a 500 year-old stone house, it has been open only one year but already has one Michelin star. That is largely because Chef Martin has brought a pedigree of decades to this labor of love.
He is from the same region of France as acclaimed 3 star chef Alain Ducasse. He worked for 5 years in Ducasse’s kitchen at Hotel de Paris in Monaco. Then he spent 10 years in Italy in Milan and the lake region.
For five years he returned to his home region with an acclaimed restaurant. Along the way he picked up some important partners, his wife, and his restaurant manager.
Lou Cigalon Maison Martin: The Team
His wife Yuka Martin is also the Sommelier. She met him 10 years ago while he was working in Italy where she was Sommelier at the same Michelin starred restaurant.
His restaurant manager Alex Laborie has been with him for 5 years. Like so many great Chefs, it is the team, the family, he surrounds himself with that makes the difference in a successful venture.
Tonight his Soux Chef Julie Chaix is at the helm of the kitchen and she is extraordinary. Tonight is the first anniversary of the opening of Lou Cigalon Maison Martin, and they clearly have reason to celebrate.
Lou Cigalon Maison Martin: the setting in Valbonne
The ancient town of Valbonne is quaint and bursting with gorgeous sophisticated ancient buildings of thick stone. Lou Cigalon Maison Martin sits on the main road at the top of the town, and someone could almost miss it driving by. It is their good fortune if they don’t.
The setting inside is rustic and adorable. The entryway is a small room with the open kitchen on a raised area behind it. There a collection of cooper pans hanging from the ceiling, while the Chef works in what is not a large space.
Lou Cigalon Maison Martin: The evening begins
The dining room is a lovely room with only 7 tables. Thick stone walls and huge wooden beamed ceilings make clear the medieval nature of the room . It is cozy and warm, like the drawing room of an old house, elegantly furnished for the evening meal.
The staff is small. Yuko serves as both Matre’d and sommelier. Alex is both manager and head waiter. Julie is shy in person but a wizard in the kitchen.
The evening begins with a sparkling rose from the Provence region from Atmosphere wines Figuiere domaine. It is crisp and dry like a fine brut, and underscores their dedicaton to local wines and ingredients whenever they can.
Lou Cigalon Maison Martin; Champagne, Crudite, and Sardines
Champagne, of course, can only come from the Champagne region of France, but Provence produces exceptional sparkling wine. It is the beginning of an evening of education of the wines of Provence.
A basket of crudité from local farms served with an anchovie dipping paste shows how dedicated to local produce they are. An amuse bouche of Mediterranean sardines in olive oil is lovely, not salty, allowing the true taste of the sardine to permeate.
Lou Cigalon Maison Martin: Sancerre and Asperge
Yuko next presents a bottle of Comte Le Fond Sancerre from the Loire valley to accompany the early courses. Made from the Sauvignon blanc grape, It is more full bodied and less sweet than its American cousins.
She is using a Loire valley wine as she could not find a comparable wine from Provence with sufficient heft and balance. It is delightfully dry, with a thicker balance, a perfect white wine for the early courses.
Since it is April, a plate of white and green spring asparagus is a refreshing starter. Lightly poached and then chilled and served sliced, it is served over an olive oil and asparagus puree.
Lou Cigalon Maison Martin: Sea Bass and Veal
A black cod (Sea bass) is sensational, a thick cut of fish broiled and served simply with fresh peas. The taste is luminescent, tender cod, flaky and light, breaking off in delightful forkfuls.
It is served with a Rimauresq rose from Cotes d’Provence. Light and fruity with a touch of sweetness it perfectly complements the fish.
A fillet of veal is astonishingly good, tender and mouthwatering, thickly cut, and served medium rare. It is accompanied with light cooked fava beans, deliciously fresh, and an exquisite sauce of reduced veal au jus
The dish includes a selection of crispy chick pea biscuits cooked like oblong wafers, and they add a wonderful dimension to the dish.
Served with a local Luberon Chateau Val Joanis cabernet, the rich full-bodied wine cuts the through the expressive qualities of the meat, providing an exceptional full bodied counterpoint.
It is the confluence of wine and food tha Yuko consistently balances in her presentation. Her encyclopedic knowledge of local and regional wines is extraordinary.
Lou Cigalon Maison Martin: Fromage and Dessert
A light fromage course featuring local sheep, goat and cow cheeses is beautiful. The cheeses are served with a delightful Bois de Boursin Chateauneuf du Pape from nearby Avignon.
Throughout the meal the cleanness of the cooking stands out. Very little butter, sugar and salt is used.
The atmosphere is sublime, extraordinary Haute Cuisine served in this singular medieval stone house, while classic blues music plays lightly in the background. Every now and then the sweet strains of blues harmonica break through the conversation of the evening.
Dessert comes in a powerful package. A selectioo of local strawberry with strawberry sorbet is awesome, served with a light white dessert wine from Provence.
A tart of chocolate mouse served with an ice cream of dark chocolate is sensational, served with a dark red Mas Amile dessert wine from Nice.
Lou Cigalon Maison Martin: an extraordinary experience
The evening winds down, and the atmosphere in the quaint dining room lingers in the mind. Serenity reigns. Three hours have passed like a Haute Cuisine fever dream.
Lou Cigalon Maison Martin is the culmination of Chef Christophe Martins sensational career. Here in this lovely ancient restaurant he has found the métier that will sustain him.
Along with his team of his wife and Sommelier Yuko, his restaurant manager Alex, and his Sous chef Julie Chaix, they create an extraordinary evening of uniquely signature cuisine.
Hotel Les Armoiries in Valbonne
Valbonne is a gorgeous medieval town unique for the fact that it is laid out in grid. In the middle of the town is Hotel Les Armoiries, a quaint 500 year old building in the center of the town square.
Owners Richard and Lena Schultz took over the hotel 10 years ago after moving here from Sweden. They are a charming couple with an easy smile who are proud of the singularly special hotel they have sustained.
Hotel Les Armoiries: Beautiful rooms, awesome views
With a golden glow to the exterior, its arches at the entrance embrace a busy town center alive with bars and restaurants. This hotel is literally at the center of the action. Its location is impeccable.
Its 12 rooms are beautifully decorated with antique armoirs and sumptuous Italian bedding. The corner third floor room has glorious views of the town square with two floor to ceiling French doors.
Wrought iron railings and royal blue patterned curtains lend an elegant air to the interiors, while an antique trunk decorates the bottom of the bed. It is the height of comfort in the midst of medieval glory in Valbonne.
The breakfast room is as cozy as someone’s kitchen drawing room, gingham tablecloths adorned across the tables under powder blue walls. The welcoming feel, lovely atmosphere, and superb location make Hotel Les Armoiries a fabulous choice for any vacation in the region.
Hotel Les Armories: In the heart of Valbonne
Valbonne is filled with shops and small restaurants that are homey and very different from the glitzy art galleries and faux sophisticated gift shops that afflict so many mountain villages in the South of France.
It has an authenticity that is hard to beat. A leisurely beer in the town square is the essence of relaxed joy. A walk through its warren of streets leads to a surprise around every corner.
At the top of the village is Michelen starred Lou Cigalon Maison Martin. Within twenty minutes drive are the ancient, more well-known towns of Grasse, Mougins, and Saint-Paul de Venice.
The town square is lively and picturesque. At the center of it all is Hotel Les Armoiries. Affordable, adorable, and beautifully located, it is a perfect choice for a great hotel when you want something authentic, off the beaten path, but in the center of everythjing you look for in the South of France.
Air France flies direct to Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris and from there to the rest of France and all of Europe from Washington, New York, Atlanta, Los Angeles, San Francisco and a number of American cities.
Joel Berliner is a travel writer based in Los Angeles. @JoelBerliner
All photos by Alison Reynolds @BigAlPeoplesPal