In the 1930s a little bistro for fishermen opened its doors in the modest village of St Tropez. The village then was, indeed, modest, but it was certainly not unknown. The prettiness of its buildings, its near-perfect location on the bay which shared its name and the quality of the sunlight which shone upon its streets had already begun to attract artists and lovers of beauty. By the 1950s the likes of Picasso and Simone de Beauvoir were eating and drinking at the tables where once the talk had been of nets and catches. And now La Ponche is not only one of the best restaurants for miles around; it is also an elegant hotel with five stars. I have yet to stay at the hotel, but I have eaten in the restaurant – and it is splendid.
The establishment is owned by Simone Duckstein, a charming and gracious lady. I suspect that her presence has much to do with the high standards which are maintained here. The stone building is found on one of the steep and narrow thoroughfares which criss-cross the hill on top of which sits St Tropez’s ancient citadel. Even a cursory glance reveals that this is a place of taste and refinement. The swish-ness of the atmosphere positively tumbles out onto the street.
Once settled at my table on the terrace of the restaurant, with the roof drawn back, the details of my surroundings confirmed the initial impression. The crisp napery was salmon pink; the gleaming glasses were by Schott; the waiters were smart in black bow ties and back waistcoats; and the view of the bay – between the weathered walls of the adjacent buildings – was enchanting. Moreover, even though my table was the only one at which the gentlemen were wearing ties, it was evident that the other diners had made an effort to dress well. The setting promised a splendid meal. And a splendid meal was what I got.
Chef Christian Geay’s speciality is seafood, as one would expect in a seaside location. But the excellence of his cuisine – based on sound technique and the selection of the finest ingredients – was displayed for me in a meal based firmly on the land. My first course arrived on a rectangular black plate. I am not, as regular readers will know, a fan of any crockery which is not round and white. But the wonderful quality of the food upon it made me quickly forget the shape and colour of the porcelain. What a joy was this home-made foie gras! Strips of caramelised apple had been placed carefully within the terrine of liver, and a mousse of goat’s cheese and summer truffle had been put beside it. The combination of tastes and textures – subtle, delicate and captivating – was thrilling. And my main course was nearly as good. This roasted rack of lamb – served with violet artichokes and mashed potato (with more truffles) – was pink, tender and delicious. I finished with a very good version of rum baba – poached in old rum, perfumed with cinnamon and decorated with small pieces of mango. (Allow around 90€ for three such courses at dinner. A set lunch is offered for 35€.)
The all-French wine list has 89 offerings, ranging in price from 29€ for a Provençal rosé to 1,390€ for the 2004 vintage of Château Latour. Three other grand clarets caught my eye: 1999 Cheval Blanc (1,185€), 1995 Lynch Bages (460€) and 2004 Margaux (1,140€). Kevin, the young Sommelier, recommended an excellent white Rhône and an equally good red Burgundy. The 2014 Condrieu delivered a typical nose of lychees and tropical fruit and had enough stern elegance to stand up to the foie gras (‘Invitare’, Chapoutier – 99€), and the youthful red fruit of the 2012 Santenay was ideal for the richness of the lamb (Domaine Chanson – 62€).
I left La Ponche as I supposed its artist patrons had always left it over the years: full of the joy and satisfaction which comes from eating and drinking well in the prettiest place on the French Riviera – St Tropez.