Spa hotels aren’t known for their restaurants – people usually go to diet, detox and slather themselves in peppermint-scented elixirs rather than feast like gods on Michelin-starred cuisine. La Voile at La Réserve Ramatuelle just outside St. Tropez does things differently. For the last seven years, head chef and foraging fiend Eric Canino has been on a mission to prove that healthy food needn’t be bland. His hard work has paid off – in February the restaurant was awarded a Michelin star, which is no mean feat considering that he shuns the use of two of the pillars of French cuisine: butter and cream, in his dishes.
Lucky enough to be invited to spend two days unwinding at the five-star hotel, a tranquil hideaway in the tiny village of Ramatuelle offering the beauty of the Riviera minus the bustle, before dining at La Voile, Eric gave me a guided tour of his 13-hectare herb garden, which he’s immensely proud of. Taking a seasonal approach and using fresh produce wherever possible, the herbs, fruits and vegetables grown in his garden weave their way into many of his dishes, which shine a light on Mediterranean flavours and put fish upfront – meat meanwhile, is given a cameo rather than a starring role on the menu.
Ushering me into the greenhouse, he gets down on his knees and starts feverishly plucking herbs from their pots, rubbing them between his fingers, inhaling their perfume and passing them on to me. Over the next few minutes I’m handed fennel, nasturtium, spearmint, coriander, thyme, Madagascan lemongrass and lemon verbena, which is served as a tea.
With its tasteful cream colour scheme, the 40-seater restaurant is cosy and welcoming – it’s so laid back in fact, that it feels more like you’re dining at a friend’s house than at a Michelin-starred restaurant, which is all for the good. Our feast begins with a chilled glass of brut Champagne produced by owner Michel Reybier, a hip hotelier who counts esteemed Bordeaux estate Château Cos d’Estournel in Saint-Estèphe among the jewels in his well-endowed crown. A blend of Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier and Chardonnay, the fizz adroitly navigates the line between power and elegance, delivering a punchy yet graceful drop.
Here to try the seven-course tasting menu, priced at €127, before course one I find it hard to resist the lure of fluffy homemade bread drenched in local olive oil and sweet balsamic. Before the main event, I’m served a divine amuse bouche formed of a single ravioli rammed with shellfish, ginger and lime swimming in a seafood foam that slaps me around the chops with its aerating ginger kick. First out of the blocks on the menu proper is a painterly plate of seasonal vegetables. A dish both Picasso and Matisse would be proud of, the former for its geometric structure and the latter for its bold use of colour, Canino’s eye for beauty comes into play here. It’s almost too pretty to eat, but I soldier on and am rewarded with a symphony of fresh flavours and crunchy textures as if his herb garden had come to life in my mouth, the basil, lime, coriander and pineapple all coming through assertively.
Next up is Canino’s signature dish and my favourite of the evening: Bluefin tuna rubbed in exotic spices served with a soft boiled quail egg sitting on a bed of brightly coloured vegetables cut into cubes so tiny, it looks like the work of the Miniaturist. Mauve and glistening, the meaty tuna sings with sweet spice, ginger and salty soy in this Asian-inspired ensemble. To pair with it, we’re served a white blend from Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie’s Provence wine estate, Château Miraval. Better known for their rosé, the white blends local grapes Rolle and Grenache Blanc to great effect, the fresh, mineral, linear nose giving way to an elegant, creamy palate of white fruit.
Hungry for more of Canino’s alchemy, following the tuna was a colourful sliver of red mullet served in a zucchini flower with a tomato, lime and onion pissaladière. Fresh and vital with a citrus backbone, the dish exemplified Canino’s aim of translating the bold flavours of the Med without the need for butter or cream. Interestingly, it was when we got to the meat of the matter that I was least impressed. His milk-fed lamb shoulder rubbed in herbs with aubergine and carrots in a mustard sauce seemed to jar with the rest of the offering. In appearance, it lacked the elegance of its predecessors, with the aubergine having no place on the plate. In taste also, it failed to make the grade, with one cutlet almost bereft of meat and the other slightly overcooked.
To pair with the lamb, our sommelier poured the acclaimed 2009 vintage of Cos d’Estournel’s second wine, Les Pagodes de Cos, which was a joy to drink, with notes of chocolate, cassis, leather and violets wrapped around an alluring velevety core. Before pudding came a bowl of goat’s cheese and black truffle shavings drizzled in olive oil, which was as decadent and delicious as it sounds.
Ending on a high note, the final course was lemon served five ways on a biscuit base. Evoking a work of abstract expressionism, the artfully crafted dish danced across the palate, leaving my taste buds soaring in their own orbit. While the lamb may have failed to woo me, all of the other dishes were on point and after seven courses I left feeling as light as a cloud. Canino’s passion for provenance and using homegrown produce is infectious and I’m delighted his hard graft has been rewarded with a richly deserved Michelin star. You’ll never eat a better meal at a spa hotel.
A seven-course tasting menu at La Voile costs €127; La Réserve Ramatuelle, Chemin de la Quessine, 83350 Ramatuelle, France; www.lareserve-ramatuelle.com