‘Women’s cuisine’: Villa La Coste, Hélène Darroze’s new Provencal restaurant
For the French chef Hélène Darroze, 2021 has started with a bang. Well, two bangs, actually. In January, its Parisian flagship, Marsan, received its second Michelin star. A week later, his restaurant The Connaught in London took its third. “[Getting] the third star was the most moving moment of my professional life, ”says Darroze. “I couldn’t speak. I was shaking. It was a great happiness. But it was frustrating because I wasn’t with my team. I was in Paris. And it was difficult to have the star and not be able to cook.
Following confinements on both sides of the Channel, Hélène Darroze from Connaught only reopened in May. Its second Parisian venue, Jòia, reopened in June. Marsan remained closed until September, in part because – this year of all years – Darroze had agreed to start another restaurant at Villa La Coste in Provence.
But what a restaurant. And what a place to open it. Located in the heart of the Château La Coste vineyard and facing a spectacular landscape of green slopes and distant mountains, Villa La Coste is both a luxury hotel and an open-air museum. The 600-acre lot is dotted with bold sculptures by leading artists such as Richard Serra, Sean Scully, Louise Bourgeois and Jenny Holzer, as well as lodges by world-class architects such as Frank Gehry, Tadao Ando and Jean Nouvel. . Walking the field is exhilarating.
Villa La Coste is owned by Paddy McKillen (co-owner of the Maybourne Hotel Group which includes the Connaught people), who has a very good working relationship with Darroze. She first brought her team here for a pop-up in 2019, when the Connaught restaurant was undergoing renovations, and the residence proved so popular that McKillen suggested Darroze take over the restaurant – housed in a glass box suspended above a mirror basin – on a longer term basis. Then came the extra stars – and with them raised expectations. Darroze began to wonder if this was the right time to take on the project after all. “When you get a second and a third star, and you’re closed for a few months, you have to reopen everything and get organized. If it hadn’t been for Paddy, “she said,” I’m not sure I would have. ”
And yet, the project remained extremely attractive. For Darroze, who leads a great team of “people who want to grow with me,” she says, Villa La Coste presented a new opportunity for its staff to grow. He also tapped into a long-standing ambition of his own. Having worked for Alain Ducasse at the Louis XV in Monaco at the start of his career, “I always had the idea of one day returning to Mediterranean cuisine”. At Villa La Coste, she can put her mark on Provencal cuisine (what she calls “women’s cuisine”), with a particular focus on vegetables. “For me, Provence is vegetables,” she says. “And the sun.”
Fruits and vegetables are in the spotlight in its eight-course menu “Walk in the gardens of Provence”. Each dish is titled “Melon”, “Cucumber”, “Zucchini”, “Aubergines”, etc., accompanied by meat or fish as a garnish. When I visited in September, I wondered if this was just a labeling tip, as each dish had a fairly large portion of protein. Were the meat and fish fillings just in name? The “Melon” dish, for example, featured shaved ribbons of Piel di Sapo (Santa Claus) melon on plump oyster flesh with a generous helping of Baeri caviar in a silky ponzu dashi. However, the oceanic flavors of the seafood and the fleeting hint of a few scapes of garlic served mostly to bring out the fragrant sweetness of the melon. You would think the fruit would be eclipsed. Instead, her melon character took center stage and became as bright and exquisite as a soprano’s voice.
Elsewhere, the balancing act was just as skillful. On a plate that contained grilled red mullet and lemon verbena aioli – two overpowering flavors – it was the zucchini (a ratatouille-stuffed flower and a crispy seared patisson) that really caught my attention. Accompanied by a thick slice of roasted saddle of lamb, the candied eggplant, barbecued and glazed with lavender honey managed to dominate. “I have never had such great comments on my food,” Darroze said of comments she has already received from locals on TripAdvisor.
But the menu is just the start. Darroze wants to develop the vegetable garden (vegetable gardens) on the estate so that more products are grown on site. She also hopes to bring more visual flair to the plate, befitting a restaurant in a world-class destination for art. “I want to create a dish with vegetables and herbs that looks like a painting,” she says. “I can see it a little already.” And what about getting another star? “Oh dear,” she hesitates. “I don’t know about this.” But would that be good? “For the team, yes. I think so.”