Modern French Cuisine at La Mirande
The allure of alfresco dining in Provence is evident at La Mirande.
There is a famous truncated bridge jutting out into the River Rhône in the heart of Avignon, one of the most captivating provinces in France. During the 14th century, the papacy lived in Europe's largest gothic palace. It dominates the Avignon skyline with its spectacular other-worldly presence. There is a gastronomic restaurant within the hotel's sprawling warren of brocaded interiors, stone staircases, and polished parquet in an ancient 700-year-old residence.
Though La Mirande appears unapologetically traditional, it has a quirky side that makes it endearing. In 2016, Florent Pietravalle, the chef de cuisine, returned after four years without a Michelin star, which had stung an establishment accustomed to an exalted position within the Provençal gastronomic circle for many years. In addition to cooking classes, visiting chefs continue to appear regularly at La Mirande.
La Mirande has always enthusiastically embraced the preeminent vinicultural heritage of the surrounding countryside, including Châteauneuf-du-Pape, which is considered one of the most revered names in the global wine universe.
La Mirande's extensive wine list alone includes five pages of Châteauneuf-du-Pape references. Local winemakers conduct tastings and share their expertise regularly.
As the epicenter of Avignon gastronomy, the restaurant at La Mirande possesses a seductive timeless aura of French grandeur.
Pietravalle has never known anything other than a pathway to refine his culinary skills since he was 17 years old and already working in a Michelin-starred kitchen. He romped through some of the most distinguished dining venues in France as a youth, including working for Joël Robuchon, the most Michelin-starred chef of all time, and later serving four years at Pierre Gagnaire's three-star restaurant in Rue Balzac.
So far, so pedestrian. But at La Mirande, he's wowing diners with innovative contemporary cuisine. As a chef de cuisine, the 28-year-old took a gamble by letting him loose in La Mirande's kitchens for the first time, but it has been worth it.
With years spent learning from some of the world's finest chefs and diligently absorbing top-flight techniques, Pietravalle was better prepared when it came time to fly.
With no qualms whatsoever about pushing a boundary or two, he has a deeply creative, highly instinctive and almost anarchic approach to his craft. If you take a look at Pietravalle's methodology, you'll find out he believes in spontaneity, that nothing is set in stone, and that anything is possible.
The irrepressible urge to experiment with off-the-cuff flamboyance can be a recipe for disaster in the hands of an underqualified chef, but for this naturally gifted chef, it simply means they will need to squeeze up.
A growing number of people were calling for Michelin to acknowledge Pietravalle's achievements in 2018. Since then, the gastrosphere has poured praise on white truffle ravioli like parmesan shavings. A Michelin star arrived in 2019, followed by a green star in 2021 for sustainability.
Omnivore Paris awarded him the Revelation of the Year Prize in 2021, and La Liste honored him as a New Talent. A star of the future, Pietravalle was awarded the Grand de Demain trophy in 2022 by the Gault & Millau guide, less known outside France than Michelin, but still influential within it.
It is widely believed that Pietravalle is already a star of the present and that La Mirande will be a two-star restaurant in the near future under his tutelage. I wholeheartedly agree, and I wouldn't be surprised if the wait is long.
Those oyster ice creams will not be any ordinary oysters, though. As with all produce entering La Mirande's kitchens, they will be of impeccable origin and will not have traveled much. A pair of Migliore oysters cultivated to old school standards by Pascal Migliore, from the Étang de Thau, a brackish inlet on the Mediterranean coast close to Pietravalle's hometown of Montpellier.
If oyster ice cream seems too far, there are three oyster options that will satisfy even the most discerning oyster aficionados: with XO sauce, with samphire, and with horseradish. Everything from his old friends in Grau-du-Roi, the main fishing port of the Camargue, he considers a culinary challenge, especially a sea anemone that is about to die in hours, rather than days.
The idea of cooking pigeons in coffee grind crust came from casually eyeing surplus coffee grinds, of which there are probably a lot. Avignon’s restaurants and cafes collect waste coffee grinds, which Pietravalle collects in partnership with a local organization, Cyclo’Compost. A similar oriented organization, Comme Des Champignons, helps him grow mushrooms in his cellar with the compost.
In the city, surplus mushrooms are donated to the hospitality industry because of the subterranean mushroom farm's prolific production. The awarding of the green star is undoubtedly due to his support for these low-key localized initiatives, as well as his notable sustainability commitments such as banning plastic in the kitchen.
As with my trio of oysters, a highly recommended tasting menu consists of a few variations on a theme, which can be presented as “sequences”. Depending on what’s available, and wherever inspiration strikes, the menu can produce pretty much anything. The kitchen features a large wall of fermentation jars perfectly aligned like an apothecary in the modern world, which underscores the importance of fermentation.
He makes his own kimchi, although it won’t taste like authentic Korean kimchi due to a commitment to locally sourced ingredients. The garum, a fish-based sauce reputedly to have been invented by the Phoenicians, is even made by Pietravalle himself.
After my oyster sequence, Pietravalle served caviar with garum and buckwheat, beetroot with smoked yogurt, wild crevettes, and "murex, pêche de la Pomette", demonstrating exceptional culinary dexterity. Murex, it turns out, is a sea snail that lives in a conch-like shell, and La Pomette? That's just a fisherman's friend's boat that caught it.
As for the coffee grind pigeon, I must admit that I had never encountered it before, but as with everything I sampled, it was no doubt delicious.
This lavishly embroidered riff on the enlightenment can induce a serious attack of Les Liaisons Dangereuses at any moment in La Mirande.
Cardinals once entertained popes in the Cardinalice Room, which sits at the center of this atmospheric film set of a property, where the coffered ceiling is reminiscent of a Renaissance. In the cooler months, fires roar contentedly away in an evocation of 18th century splendor as a 17th century tapestry hangs from the walls. Perhaps this is the perfect canvas for the disruptive skills of a very 21st century chef.
Napoleon III Room, named for the frequent visits the emperor made to the property during the late 19th century, is directly off the Cardinalice Room. An exceptionally luxurious private dining space, it is particularly coveted among period drama lovers. It can seat up to twelve people and is lavishly decorated in sumptuous detail.
The climate crisis is making summers in Avignon increasingly similar to summers in Algeria, and La Mirande's gorgeous terraced garden, which Barack Obama was ushered into for his Father's Day lunch in 2019, exerts an increasing allure as summers in Avignon become increasingly like summers in Algeria. From inside the garden, the view of the Palais de Papes remains unmolested and magnificent as the world beyond succumbs to the overcrowding of overtourism.
Embraced in a verdant bucolic charm, La Mirande's terrace remains oblivious to the frantic activity unfolding outside. Among ancient chestnut trees and potted lemons, this oasis offers a subtle scent of honeysuckle and jasmine, and is a true sanctuary of understated style and sophistication. The exceptional cuisine of Florent Pietravalle makes it one of the most alluring alfresco dining destinations in Provence.