Provence, for me, is at its best out of season. In the hush of midwinter, gnarled bush vines crouch still and leafless in the vineyards and mustard-yellow puffs of fragrant mimosa hang from silvery branches – and competition for the hottest restaurants melts away. This is when I pounce on a usually difficult-to-come-by table at L’Oustalet, an alluring little inn in the village of Gigondas, not far from Avignon.
Opened in 2009, L’Oustalet is owned by the Perrin wine-growing family and chef Laurent Deconinck, and wine underscores the whole enterprise. The combination of pared-back Mediterranean-inspired cuisine and an eclectic wine list (not exclusively Perrin-made ones, although its celebrated Château de Beaucastel is certainly worth trying) makes the place irresistible for people like me whose appetite for imaginative food is matched by a thirst for fun, under-the-radar wines.
Deconinck takes his cue first from what’s in season, before consulting sommelier Hugo Boulay as to which wine his dish will work best with. The result is a concise, regularly changing list of suggestions (“Les Produits du Moment”) and wine-pairing menus (from €89 to €136). Standout dishes from my past visits include a memorable monkfish poached in almond milk with slivers of pickled pink ginger; juniper-crusted beef fillet with shallot confit and wild mushrooms; and a dessert of trembling, just-risen chocolate soufflé with a cool blackberry and grape coulis. Right now, there’s a distinct whiff of black truffles in the air; the Menu Truffe (€96; available during January and February) features such delights as soft-boiled, truffle-buttered egg complete with soldiers for dipping, and sea bass, Ibérico pork and a soft-ripened Pérail sheep’s milk cheese, each laced with black slivers of deliciousness.
For dedicated truffle fans like myself, there’s also the Grand Menu Truffe (€136) – a seven-course tasting extravaganza. For €84 you can opt into the wine pairings, but one thing I love about L’Oustalet, which is so rare in France, is the wide selection available by the glass – from €6.50 for a simple Côtes du Rhône, to €18 for Didier Daguenau’s rare Pouilly Fumé.