If you thought that Saint-Tropez is all about flashing celebrities sunning their perfect bodies on the Pampelone beach, rosé and champagne splashing around, and super-yachts hanging in the glittering bay, then your vision is not complete. The ‘golden wave’ only hit the local gastronomic scene in 2005 when chef Arnaud Donckele took over La Vague d’Or back then at La Résidence de La Pinède and now of the ultra-luxe Cheval Blanc hotels portfolio. Trained by Michel Guérard and Alain Ducasse, the chef inherited the three star French heroes’ sensitive approach to cooking and passion for local ingredients. His effort peaked in the third-star by the eponymous Michelin guide, but there is more to savour here than just the exquisite food. The location is stunning, so make sure you can eat at the Mediterranean sea lining terrace.
Regional bounty is introduced right at the beginning when the Mediterranean-themed amouse-bouche arranged on and around a miniature olive tree are laid on the white-clad table. A savoury thyme-scented marshmallow on a branch, while the grapes are masked as olives down under, as if they just fell from the tree, complement the baked cheese crackers nurturing the acid bite of your aperitif. The chef proves that he is an artist with a passion for local ingredients, all carefully acquired from small farmers, that are entirely dedicated to their extraordinary produce. He doesn’t stop with superficial gimmicks though as the show moves to serious flavours one devours with a Bacchanalian zeal.
The golden touch at La Vague d’Or
By calling each course an “act” Arnaud, as the team amicably calls the chef, serves a cue that each plate has a story. The big tales have forms of three degustation menus: Timeliness, Provence Escapade and An Epicurean Adventure. The title of each hints exactly what the multi-course dining experience will be about. The more selective diners can also choose from the wide selection of the à la carte dishes.
Ideally, be guided by your momental emotions as the chef did when creating the dishes.
The first time my intrepid husband ordered the eight-course Epicurean Adventure, while I went for the Timeliness because the chef claims: “This menu is made with some emotional dishes, improved slowly in time. The others are newly gourmet creation. With the idea to combine them in harmony to please you.” I am an emotional person seeking harmony, therefore, I was in. As each year La vague d’Or lures our spoiled tongues in, we moved to the à la carte picks. Knowing the flavours, one can be better guided by his mood of the moment when selecting the plates.
First, the bread, perfectly fresh, crunchy, soft and oozing with aromas as it should, and if you are very of gluten, ask, and soon a perfect gluten-free bun arrives warm. Served with an annual press of local olive oil and the most unctuous borage-scented butter one can imagine, enter the world of heavenly flavours created at La Vague d’Or.
In the first course of the ‘Amberjack and crabmeat marinated in Berlugane mandarin oranges, Thyme leaves, raw baby vegetables, herbs and baby salad leaves’ I was introduced into the chef’s sea world. A light plate expressing natural flavours of local southern French produce.
Lightly seared Scarlet Gamba Prawns from the Mediterranean followed. Accompanied by veggies in multiple forms from sauces and jellies to dried, fried and even frozen in a sorbet. A creamy bonito (tuna) sauce enhanced with Lambrusco wine made it more intense than the previous dish.
Closing the curtain of the sea story was the ‘Loin of seabass slow-cooked in seaweed, Crispy tartare of belly and sea spaghetti, spinach leaves seasoned with caviar, poached abalone and cuttlefish, my creamed seafood potato’. This sea kingdom on a plate made its produce more familiar to an earthbound human like me.
A ‘Thyme blossom granita and Florence fennel sorbet with a touch of absinthe‘ poured in front of you at the table marked a change of stage and also served to refresh your palate before the land revealed itself transformed under the chef’s skilful hands.
The English description of the dishes on the menu might sound a bit too detailed, but the chef seems to highlight the complex processes of his cooking, the precise steps involved in preparing each dish. I can imagine how the “Breast of chicken slowly cooked in a bladder with an aromatic broth. Zitone pasta delicately stuffed with black truffle and foie gras. Patties of thigh meat, oyster meat, wing and a touch of breast meat. A consommé infused like a tea” were meticulously made.
At the first look, the chicken looked as if it were dressed in a Halloween costume as it was brought to our table in an inflated bladder in which it was “slowly” cooked. Paul Bocusse allegedly invented this style of cooking chicken and Éric Fréchon at Le Bristol in Paris also prides in this theatrical homage to French poultry. This animal balloon protected the flavours of the meat and once taken out from its “bubble”, it looked and tasted sublimely tender on the plate. The Zitone (chopped short as macaroni) pasta served on the side are one of the chef’s star features on the menu that he learned when assisting the Parisian Michelin chef Jean-Louis Nomicos. The tube-shaped pasta are intense, and the foie gras and Provençal black truffles stuffing leaves an impactful mouthfeel.
As my sea and land omnivorous appetites were sated, I was ready for the sugarland. My dessert came in the form of “A lightly minted ten citrus millefeuille, a confit of frozen sudachi, and Middle Eastern lemonade served aside at your table“. The Milleufeuille was the most enjoyable for its refined, creamy but not too rich taste, and a delicate texture. Ideal with a pot of fresh herbal infusion.
The pastry chef Guillaume Gaudin further treats you with a tray of mini-deserts such as his take on the local creamy Tarte Tropèziene, making sure that none of your cravings remain unattended to.
When sitting outside, the shades of the cauliflower-shaped pine trees at La Résidence de La Pinède (promptly named ‘the pine grove residence’) are magnified in the evening as the sun is setting beyond the Mediterranean horizon. Their dark silhouettes add mystery to the romantic open gaze of fishing boats rubbing their fair corpses with the giants of the luxurious yachts docking around the St Tropez’s petite port.
Vintage armagnac and cognac for cigar aficionados, Provençal wines for locavores, house tisanes for tea-to-tellers, …
La Vague d’Or has an interesting selection of single origin coffee, tea and herbal tisanes. Premium arabicas surely elevate pre-party energy with their caffeine boost, while herbal blends aid digestion or relax, so you can easily zen out after the long meal. Who wouldn’t succumb to infusions with names like “Pense pour toi” (A thought of you), dedicated to the chef’s wife; or “Perle Mèditerranée” (The pearl of the Mediterranean)? I enjoyed them both on different occassions.
The head sommelier pairs the plates with the local wines like the white blend by La Ferme des Lices from Saint-Tropez, Domaine Gavoty, the biodynamic wines by Henri Milan – Le Jardin. The first time we dined at La La Vague d’Or we went for the local wines pairing and can recommend it to any curious wine connoisseur. On the following occasions we ordered a bottle of Burgundy (the lighter styles like Chambolle-Musigny and Gevrey-Chambertin), which compliments the superb chicken. By the end of the savoury part of the meal, an impressive trolley of digestives, generously supplied with vintage armagnac, cognac, sweet wines and other spirits, may seduce you for an indulgent full stop of this marvellous gastronomic feast. My husband succumbed.
There is only one negative aspect of the restaurant – the prices. Being located at Le Cheval Blanc by-the-luxury-besieged St Tropez a meal for two easily comes above €500, not adding the wines! The margins are very high for drinks, therefore the smartest choice would be to stay local and try either the flight of the Provençal wines paired with your menu starting at €115 or one of the more affordable but very good bottles from the surrounding Languedoc-Rousillon or Provence regions. Wines by the glass (priced around €25) also won’t keep more in your pocket unless you limit yourself to one glass for the entire meal.
The Mediterranean has imprinted itself deeply into the Normandy-born chef’s culinary mind, and for any serious food lover, La Vague d’Or is worth the splurge and a compulsory stop while passing by Saint-Tropez.