Le Jardin Secret
The opening of the newly restored and renovated Hotel Lou Calen this year is the most exciting thing to happen to Cotignac since the famous singer Joe Dassin had his lavish wedding reception there in the early 1970s. This year the partial opening of this resort and its fine restaurant has already created a buzz. Read on for details on how I enjoyed the food and ambiance at this special destination.
Le Jardin Secret
A personal review
From the discrete entrance of the establishment located on the Rue d'Araignée in Cotignac, one is transported to another world – an oasis right smack in the middle of the rural working village, Lou Calen's flagship restaurant, Le Jardin Secret in Cotignac.
First you'll walk past a vineyard, then the gigantic parasol pine tree, then arrive at the 200-year-old bastide. The grapevine lined archway is stunning, roses are blooming left and right, you'll see carefully crafted stone basins with lotuses and waterways, and colourful exotic plants growing bountifully. Arrival at the restaurant's terrace dining in the back of the bastide felt more like a friendly welcome at an old and tasteful French Provençal family home. It felt like there was no need to dress up or wear heels, show off any expensive jewelry, or be on your best behaviour. But it did feel like I needed to put my phone away in order to soak in the atmosphere, the gentle breeze with wiffs of thyme, jasmine and lavender, and to feel the place rather than just look around.
The stylish rust coloured iron fencing along the terrace's restanques were accentuated with shiny ceramic balls (designed by Vero Vagh in Salernes) in turquoise and navy blue. Olive and Acascia trees combined with large taupe parasols provided shade from the sharpness of the sun. This was ambience without snob factor, therefore setting it apart, too, from the Saint Tropez-bling-style, that over-the-top display of wealth. You get right away that the sensation of bliss was a direct result of the owner's philosophy born from a love of environmental preservation and appreciation of natural beauty but created with careful planning by landscape architects.
The chef here is the reowned Benoît Witz who aquired a Michelin star in 2006, trained at the three-star Louis XV in Monaco, was executive chef at the Hermitage, and has a plethora of articles written about his excellence in gastronomic cuisine over the past decades. But don't let his impressive credentials intimidate you; his friendly and approachable character will melt your heart and enchant anyone.
The 48 euros menu of the day started with home made tapenade and cheese gougères that look like miniature cream puffs, followed by a salad which looked like Renoir's colourful paint palette: finely sliced and arranged raw garden vegetables with flava beans and edible flowers. It was bursting with flavours and amusing consistency. The Aioli as a main course was not the run of the mill Provençal dish you'd expect from a French auntie's kitchen with typically dry fish and bland boiled vegetables. Instead the succulent cod was perfectly steamed and accompanied by parsnips, green beans, brocolli, yellow squash – all cooked separately in broth, dainty quail eggs, a huge and juicy prawn, a delicious mussel, and the best fresh garlicky home made mayonnaise that has ever touched my lips. I can honestly say that was the best Aioli I ever devoured and I'm an exigent foodie. It didn't need potatoes and you didn't get any. For those who did not like fish, there was the choice of veal. The dessert was scrumptious: a strawberry tarte with almond paté and elegantly whipped vanilla cream. The meal finished off with Brazilian and Honduran coffee served with miniardises of chef Benoît's hand-made marshmallows and chunky cookies...because dessert calories don't count biensûr. The carafe's of chilled tap water infused with mint was a nice touch and without extra charge but ordering fizzy water in classy glass bottles (by Cryos) cost four euros each. Note well, however, that Cotignac's tap water quality is excellent. It's easy to overdo chilled white or rosé wine this time of year so it's I important to stay hydrated.
I could talk about the suprisingly reasonably priced wine menu but that warrants a separate article all together as it's extensive, and it should be.
The price of 165 euros for three persons seemed high at first but I asked myself if the bill would have been that different for a three course menu with extras at one of the busy restaurants on the Cours Gambetta. In the 12 years I have lived in Cotignac, I have had meals that actually cost more and made me feel so full I had to waddle home, and without having enjoyed the dreamy surroundings and well separated tables that makes Le Jardin Secret stand out and feel really special.
I give Le Jardin Secret a 9/10 rating because I liked being transported to a quiet utopian oasis, I loved the super-fresh locally sourced and healthy cuisine, I appreciated being at a table with plenty of room and without having to listen to anyone else's conversations, I felt welcome without needing to be formal. Satisfaction here is defined by all of these things, then add to that a sense of community and local knowledge by the staff. If I could have added just one thing it would have been perfect: a more spacious women's powder room (ie, separate from the men's room) that was easily and discretely accessible. The W/C was fine and clean enough but felt a little tight. Then I spoke to the owner, Mr Porter, and he assured me that there is a more spacious restroom that just hadn't yet been finished inside the bastide, that will be open to guests in the next three weeks. He added too that the noise from the on-going construction below will stop during the Summer months and that it would always be controlled for lunch time. So that took away any further criticism from my end.
If you're expecting the more typical Michelin starred restaurant experience with immaculately dressed, white-gloved waitors, exigent of a coat and tie and straight backs, bread plates, cristal glasses and silver salt and pepper shakers, then you may wish to take a detour and head towards Cannes or Monaco. But to any worldly traveler looking for luxury defined more by tranquility and natural beauty, rather than material display, this dining destination hits the jackpot.