I first met Benoît Poulet at the Cours Saleya market, where appropriately enough ("poulet" means chicken) he sold farmers' eggs alongside deep yellow organic potatoes, delicate Mara des Bois strawberries, pointy-tipped potimarron squash and occasionally wild chanterelle mushrooms that he had picked himself. I remember him telling me that he let his chickens run free in the forest, with the result that some fell prey to hungry foxes. Idealistic you might think, yet it's this very quality that makes his restaurant in the tiny village of La Penne so exceptional.
Franck was the one who told me about L'Auberge de la Penne, and when he raves about a chef I take notice. Philippe, Sam and I first drove to this restaurant about an hour from Nice through a twisty mountain valley a couple of years ago, staying for a night in one of the simple rooms that Benoît and his British wife Maria haven't yet had the time to redecorate. Though the dining room also had a rustic spirit with wood beams, sunflower-yellow tablecloths and a sweeping view over the village church and the green mountains, I remember being astonished by Benoît's attention to detail. Even when only a few people have reserved, which happens in the off-season since La Penne is not on the road to anywhere in particular, he will plan a full menu of complex dishes with two or three choices for each course.
Word about the Auberge has gradually spread, and last year Benoît and Maria were too busy to come to the Cours Saleya: no free-range forest eggs, none of his green asparagus that heralds the spring. But their food is not easy to forget. Before Christmas Philippe and I returned to the restaurant with two food-loving American friends who are living in Nice, first stopping in the pretty medieval town of Entrevaux to stock up on the air-dried beef known as secca, a local specialty. The chatty charcutier inside the medieval walls told us to eat the thin slices of beef remniscent of Italian bresaola with warm potatoes and a drizzling of good olive oil in the winter, and with tomatoes and mozzarella in summer.
"Be sure to add the olive oil only at the last moment!" he cried out as we left.
As we climbed up the hill to La Penne scrub gave way to snow: it has been an unusually white winter in the back country. Though the village is only a few kilometers from Entrevaux, the road quickly feels remote and lonesome. Just when we were starting to doubt our memories, the village appeared and we zig-zagged up to near the top where the restaurant looks out over the valley. Benoît and Maria greeted us with their usual warmth and presented us with the blackboard menu. The first sign that this is no ordinary country auberge: the not-so-little bowl of chestnut and squash soup topped with milky froth and served with truffled scrambled eggs in a radicchio leaf. That was just the amuse-bouche, not even listed on the menu.
The prix fixe cost €36 for four courses or €31 for three: clearly we would be foolish not to order the full four courses. First up was a plate bearing foie gras terrine, a millefeuille of pan-fried foie gras and melting-soft apple rounds, and a foie gras flan with lamb's lettuce salad in a basket of crisp brick pastry. Accenting it all was balsamic vinegar reduced with lemongrass, whose surprising flavor was easily detectable. Benoît was not just serving us foie gras, but foie gras prepared three ways with modern flourishes and presentation worthy of a Michelin-starred restaurant. His career has taken him to London and Los Angeles, so his cooking is more cosmopolitan than you might expect.
To follow this luxurious starter, what could be more appropriate than lobster prepared "lasagne-style" with tiny diced vegetables, confit tomatoes and lobster bisque? At this stage I snuck into the kitchen to watch Benoît, who was layering three different kinds of homemade pasta - plain, tomato and squid-ink - inside pastry rings for precise presentation. The lobster bisque came in a shotglass alongside the lasagne. "It should be poured over top when you eat it," he told me, "but it looks nicer this way."
For the main courses we had a choice of three dishes: duck breast with chanterelles, sea bass with Menton lemon, and venison cooked at low temperature with "sauce Périgord". On this cold winter's day we all had a longing for meat, and I didn't regret my choice of crisp-skinned duck magret which came on a bed of apricot-colored mushrooms. Alongside it were lacy slices of socca, the chickpea pancake beloved of the Niçois, and a vivid green Savoy cabbage leaf wrapped around a mix of finely diced, lightly cooked vegetables. More intriguing still were the accompaniments for the venison: a purple potato mash topped with thick truffle slices and a "risotto" of potimarron diced nearly as small as rice grains and cooked as in the classic rice dish with white wine and stock just until al dente.
Since Benoît isn't one to do things halfway, dessert was a full plate of homemade confections: runny-centered chocolate cake, a mini variation on tiramisu, homemade vanilla ice cream ("I treated myself to a Pacojet," Benoît told me with glee) and a macaron in a cage of spun sugar.
Once we had finished the last drops of our Domaine de Sainte-Croix Côtes de Provence a long hike through the hills would have been ideal, but after chatting a little with Maria and Benoît we had to rush back to Nice to pick up Sam from school. Poor Sam, toiling over his handwriting while we
stuffed ourselves with delicately nibbled on lobster and foie gras, venison and truffles. But I have a feeling we'll be back with him before long, now that the local truffles are at their best.
L'Auberge de la Penne, 1 rue Pontis, La Penne, 04 93 05 09 81. Reservations essential.
9 comment(s) on this page. Add your own comment below.
Balsamic with lemongrass? Another idea you've set me to hastily jotting down notes!
Sounds like a glorious way to eat lunch. Poor Sam, indeed.
David, I'm not quite sure what will happen if you are ever let loose with a Pacojet! Maybe if you ask Romain nicely enough...
Lucy, it's one of those unlikely combinations that works. Cuts through the sweetness. Yes, Sam will have a lot to talk about with his therapist when he grows up.
Dear Rosa, I have just discovered your website and am an instant fan. coming from Australia and arriving in Paris on sunday then on to Tourette sur Loup, i am most looking forward to eating at Auberge la Penne. It looks amazing. How in advance do you think i should i should book? I might even try and book one of your food classes in Nice.
Hi Daniel, you should call the Auberge de la Penne (everyone there speaks English) and see when they are open - it depends on the number of reservations they have. They would be thrilled to see someone who has come all the way from Australia! It would be great to see you in Nice, too - the website for my cooking classes is www.petitsfarcis.com.
I'm DYING to go to France!! The dishes you've got here are insane!!!
Curious question: how much did you pay? :D
Hi Mona, I hope you will make it to France someday! This menu was a bargain at 36 euros - he could charge much more, but because his location is so out-of-the-way (to put it mildly) he prefers to keep his prices down.
thankyou for your blog. I love it.
We are coming to France in December and shall be spending a week in Nice from the 30 DEC. To your knowledge would this delicious sounding Auberge be open then? Loads of people have rubbished me for spending a week in Nice at that time however it will be summer here in Australia then and I prefer winter.
Thankyou again for your generosity sharing your experiences and insights, Kathryn
Kathryn, I think you will enjoy Nice at that time of year! I would guess that the Auberge de la Penne will be open - you could send them an e-mail to find out for sure (they speak English).