There are two kinds of Michelin two-star restaurants: on the way up and on the way down. A talented young chef with enough money and some early success is bucking for a third star, or an aging veteran has lost the interest or funding necessary to attend sufficiently to detail, and therefore one of his stars. Either way, you risk dealing with slightly edgy three-star attitude when you eat there.
The way our trip in 2005 went, we were looking for a two-star place near to our destination, Aix-en-Province. Pretty well the only candidate was Moulin de Loumarin, a restaurant of the “on-the-way-up” variety, located in an attractive town in the middle of trendy Provence , one of many there where the cobblestones are polished shiny by the feet of a thousand rich tourists.
The Moulin is a hotel as well as a restaurant (in the three-star tradition), and hoping for a bit better value than you might find at the three-star level, we were disappointed to find the expensive room a bit smelly, smaller than expected, and furnished and decorated as though someone had got furniture bargains and then gone to work with white and gold spray paint. The hotel swimming pool and garden turned out to be two kilometers away, although the staff offered to drive us there (we declined).
Out of a heavy glass door at the back of the beautiful lobby, the mainly elderly-American clientele of the hotel came and went into the village with their expensive shouldered sweaters and sunglasses. We followed, down a pretty curving cobblestoned street ending in a square of sunlit cafes, filled with the same tanned touristic-appearing crowd, serving beers and nice-smelling warm salads at a normal French street price. So far so good; we had a drink there, went back and checked out the hotel, watched CNN on TV for half an hour, freshened up, and headed for the dining room.
The restaurant at le Moulin is pitched as some sort of a cave, with a curved vaulted ceiling and a giant eccentric oval window onto the garden at one end. The room contained about 100 pumpkins of various sizes, set about here and there in little groupings, and the color scheme picked up on orange and yellow, with the dark-blue contrasts typical of Provence. You enter from above down a wide curving ceremonial stairway, which is fine arriving early in the evening, but could be a bit of a different story later coming back from the bathroom after a bottle of wine.
The dining room staff was young. Only the somellier appeared to be over 40, otherwise waiters were all in their 20s, and everyone in the kitchen (whom we met at the end of dinner, quite pleasantly) looked between 25 and 35. Monsieur Loubet, head chef, is a handsome confident-looking man of 32 who came by quickly once to say hello. His confidence didn’t seem to inform the service, provided by youngsters in loose-fitting greeny-beige pants and Nehru shirts (projecting a sort of natural fiber hemp feeling) who all had an air of patronizing bored condescension. I wondered whether they had been given a course in some Gallic existential world-view. Whatever, it was wasted on us.
We withstood this without much trouble until eventually the amuses-bouches arrived, but they were actually awful. A tiny terrine with its brittle toasts needed to be stabilized to pry out the firm excessively cumin-flavored substance, because the toasts kept breaking. Straight raw vegetables were provided to scoop a very salty smoked fish dip, making me feel I was at a grad-student party in 1970. But then two not-on-the-menu appetizers came in bowls: a thick blob of rich mushroom puree floating in sour gaspach had a beautiful contrast of flavours, and there was also an extremely rich-smelling shellfish soup in a tiny bowl. Our sense of mild alarm was relieved.
Two pieces of foie gras came as the first formal course at either end of a long black rectangular plate: one was pan-fried perfectly in its juice so it was crisp and soft; the other was a creamy confit with a sweet green tomato jam, which went with the foie gras like a huge young Sauternes in semi-solid form. Dynamite.
But then, a quite weird item (called on the menu the house specialty): cooked and pickled sunflower hearts served up with girolle mushrooms. I say weird because I got the impression that nobody except affected local history phonies eats sunflower hearts, and we were being given them to demonstrate how unbelievably authentic the kitchen is. Anyway they were bitter, and whatever flavour there was (a bit like unripe artichoke hearts) seemed to me overpowered by a too-big vinaigrette.
Again we were rescued, this time by a piece of perfectly-cooked loup (monkfish), skin on, floating in a foamy sage sauce. There was this subtle connection between the two clear and wonderful flavours: crisp-skinned fish released its mellow taste into the very mild sage juice without either one losing its identity. But then came a seasoned warm pumpkin soup, billed as a “pause Provencale” of the chef, seeming to be filling the role of a sorbet: a change of pace. Maybe for that reason, I was expecting and would have preferred something cold, or in some other way refreshing. There was a piling-on of savory richness to this soup which instead of doing what it was supposed to, somehow got me feeling I was locked on automatic pilot, and the plane wasn’t responding. The counterpoint of satisfying and not-so-great courses was starting to make me feel a little bloated and desperate.
The main course was next, the end in sight. This was lamb kidneys done in chicory sauce with a fried pureed potato. The foamy sauce (by now we had the message that foamy was Trend of the Year) was a nice and quite a strange coffee-like contrast with the mellow meat flavour, but the kidneys were overcooked so they were rubbery. I was now pretty well certain that creativity of flavour contrasts was struggling with some uneven basic skills in the kitchen.
The cheese cart was very showy, on antique steel wheels, layered in its presentation, and covered with pumpkin and other autumn props, but the first three not-very-esoteric cheeses I asked for they didn’t have (Chaume, Epoisses, and anything blue). Desert was their version of an overwhelming end-of-symphony crescendo but for us some of the notes were sour. Creme fraiche with almonds was, um, sour. Crème brulee was beautifully executed but tasted not-that-pleasantly of something like coffee without quite enough sweetness. There was a tiny simple poundcake tasting of peanut butter that I liked for some reason, and then a pumpkin puree with coffee sauce that ended everything on a fine major chord with two lovely flavors that did work together.
We drank a simple little southern Rhone wine which we know, and bought two glasses of sweet Muscat de Rivesaltes to go with the foie gras and desert, all just to keep the cost down. The whole thing (and this was the cheap menu, mind) rang up at approximately $535 Canadian, including some very expensive soda water. By the time we checked out next morning, we had left close to $1000 in that pumpkin patch.
Worth it? Well, some of the food was absolutely wonderful, but the quality was uneven enough to spoil the overall effect, particularly if, like me, you have trouble not thinking about the price during moments of dissatisfaction. Overall, between 7 and 8 out of 10 for the food, between 6 and 7 for the place. Nope, for the price I wouldn’t go back.