Christian EtienneChristian Etienne's Michelin-starred restaurant is unarguably one of the best in Avignon, for its outstanding and inventive food, historic setting, very fair prices and friendly welcome.

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NewsIn 2016 Monsieur Etienne sold his restaurant to his long-time deputy chef. Guilhem Sevin, who has worked there for 16 years, said he intends to retain some of its most popular features, such as the tomato menu (see below) while placing his own personal stamp on the business.

So far, so good: the restaurant's Michelin star was retained in the 2017 guide. Our own visit, reported here, was during Monsieur Etienne's tenure.

You'll find this restaurant perched on a rock up a long flight of steps, in a lovely, slightly crumbling 12th century stone house adjoining the Palais des Papes. The building was formerly used as the residence of papal dignitaries, then became for a while the town hall.

The more formal interior dining room is decorated with wall and ceiling frescos, but the idyllic spot to eat in warmer months is definitely the large, shady terrace decked with vines, plants and a little kitchen garden of window boxes.

The view is nothing special - it looks out onto other buildings, including one whose walled-up windows are decorated with trompe l'oeil paintings, and you can just catch a glimpse of a corner of the Place de l'Horloge from certain tables.

Christian Etienne Restaurant, AvignonBut, unlike some more formal Michelin-starred restaurants, such as Le petit Nice in Marseille, the atmosphere is extraordinarily relaxed and congenial.

Etienne is an extrovert and clubbable type (he also regularly swaps his chef's toque for another hat, that of deputy mayor in charge of tourism).

He takes plenty of time to meet and greet his guests, kissing the regulars and even treating one diner to an impromptu Happy Birthday serenade.

On our visit, the clientele included a raft of celebratory parties, while another top local chef, Richard Bagnol, fresh from his cooking demonstration that morning at the Les Halles food market, dropped by to take lunch with some friends.

Christian Etienne restaurant terraceBorn and bred in Avignon, Etienne puts fresh provençal produce at the centre of his repertoire and nothing demonstrates that commitment better than his celebrated seven-course summer set menu starring the humble tomato.

The chef explains that his passion for the fruit began as a child when his family grew tomatoes in its garden. They weren't much good, he admits now.

But, ever since, he made it his mission to find new and tastier varieties - he has even published a book on the subject, La Magie de la Tomate (available in French only).

Etienne has offered his tomato menu every summer since 2000 and seems to delight in devising ever more ingenious variations on his theme.

The dishes change from year to year and, apparently, from day to day, since those sampled differed significantly from the line-up posted on the restaurant's website.

The menu features all sorts, from astringent Green Zebras to rich, sweet Black Crimeas and, if you thought the tomato was a rather uninspired ingredient to base a meal around, you'll need to eat your words along with the succulent results.

Highlights include a cappuccino of black tomatoes with garlic foam, a tartare of three different varieties of tomato, a creamy goat's cheese mousse with green tomato chutney and, for dessert, a tomato sorbet drizzled, surprisingly but deliciously, with mustard (pictured).

Tomato sorbet at Restaurant Christian EtienneThey're accompanied by a selection of four home-made breads (including a tomato one with Parmesan crust) and bookended by tasty amuses-bouche and little sweet confections.

Portions are satisfying, but the meal overall is light and well-balanced enough not to feel bloated afterwards.

The wine list majors on Rhône wines, of course, but also has offerings from Italy, Spain and the New World. To accompany the tomato menu, the sommelier suggested a modestly priced vin rosé de pays du Gard, the Roc d'Anglade 2010, an extremely good wine from a small producer near Nîmes.

The service is on the casual side, but professional and courteous, and doesn't leave you with the sense of being rushed through the meal.

At other times of the year, themed seasonal menus spotlight the truffle or spring and autumn vegetables, and there is also a pricey tasting menu. This is a restaurant for splurging out - and Etienne makes the meal feel like a special occasion - so budget at least 100€ a head for these options, including wine.

But the prices are more than reasonable for cuisine of this calibre and there is also a bargain set lunch, the Menu du Petit Palais, for less than half that amount.

Visited September 2011

Where: 10 rue de Mons, 84000 Avignon. Tel: (+33) 4 90 86 16 50. Website for Restaurant Christian Etienne

Click here to find more of Avignon's best restaurants

Find further reading on Amazon: Christian Etienne is also a prolific writer of cookery books. Many of these have not been translated, but The Best Recipes From Provence is an exception.

 

 

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