Sunday, May 6, 2012

Avignon, City of Popes and l'Essentiel Restaurant

California friends John and Lorelei arrived at Avignon TGV train station before noon, giving us time to make it to Restaurant l'Essentiel in Avignon for déjeuner (lunch). Long time friends and frequent diners at our Bistro Des Copains, we wanted to make sure their first meal in Provence was a good experience.

Besides, a visit to Avignon is always a good way to start a séjour (visit) to Provence. For any of you who don't know, Avignon sits inside its ramparts on the left bank of the Rhône river a few kilometers above where the Rhône meets up with the Durance river about 40 kms southwest from our house in Sablet.

Although we go to Avignon most often to shop and hang out on Place de l'Horloge, a long square in front of the Hôtel de Ville, with terrace cafés along both sides and a "Belle Epoque" carousel at the top end, Avignon is best known for the Palace of the Popes and the Bridge of Avignon.

Avignon is also well known for its Festival d'Avignon, the annual festival of dance, music and theater founded in 1947. There are really two festivals that take place: the more formal "Festival In", which presents plays inside the Palace of the Popes and the more bohemian "Festival Off", known for its presentation of largely undiscovered plays and street performances. This year's festival will take place from July 7 to July 28.

Across the Rhône river, the Palais des Papes (Palace of the Popes) sits next to the Notre Dame des Doms Cathedral. The palace was begun in 1316 by Pope John XXII and continued by succeeding popes through the 14th century, until 1370 when it was finished.

Many of you know the French children's song, "Sur le pont d'Avignon" (On the bridge of Avignon), which describes folk dancing. The bridge of the song is the Saint Bénézet bridge over the Rhône River of which only four arches remain. The bridge was initially built between 1171 and 1185 with an original length of 900 m (2950 ft) but it collapsed during floods and had to be rebuilt several times.

Notre Dame des Doms Cathedral is a Romanesque building, mainly built during the 12th century, the most prominent feature of the cathedral is the gilded statue of the Virgin which surmounts the western tower. The mausoleum of Pope John XXII is one of the most beautiful works within the cathedral, it is said to be a great example of 14th century Gothic carving.

One of the many narrow streets you can explore; this one leads to an arched gateway through the rampart walls. The ramparts were built by the popes in the 14th century to encircle Avignon. The walls are very thick and topped by slot shaped openings, flanked at intervals by thirty-nine massive towers and pierced by several gateways, three of which date from the fourteenth century.

Restaurant l'Essentiel is located a short distance from the Pope's Palace and Place de l'Horloge underneath Saint-Agricol's church. The Gothic church was built by Pope John XXII on the site of a very old church. The name of the church comes from a seventh-century bishop who is one of the patron saints of Avignon.

As those of you who have read my blog for a long time know, I like to go to restaurant's that have either been well reviewed by Michelin or Gault or have good ratings from diners on sites like Yelp and Zagat. Deciding where to eat is something I don't like to leave to chance.

We almost always have very good meals at restaurants in Provence that have been awarded a Bib Gourmand by Michelin and included in the guide to Les Meilleures Adresses à Petit Prix, meaning you can eat well for a good price. Restaurant l'Essentiel is the only restaurant in Avignon that is so designated.

Restaurant l'Essentiel is owned by chef Laurent Chouviat who is from Limousin and learned his craft with Alain Senderens at Lucas-Carton in Paris, Alain Ducasse at Louis XV in Monte Carlo and Jean Bardet in Tour. His wife runs the front of the house.

We were seated in the pretty dining room, the restaurant also has an inner courtyard for dinning al fresco on warm days. Almost as soon as we sat down, we were brought a platter of amuse bouche with olives and cheese biscuits to get our taste buds going while we contemplated the choices on the three-course menu for 29,00 Euros.

Our friends John and Lorelei.

To accompany our meal, we followed the suggestion of the owner's wife and chose a bottle of the 2008 Domaine des Tours, Vin de Pays Vaucluse, a very nice blend of grenache, counoise, syrah, cinsault, merlot, and dious, the latter a varietal I had never heard of before. Domaine des Tours is owned by the same people who own Château Rayas of Chateauneuf-du-Pape fame.

By the way, the glass below is not a wine glass but rather a wine decanter; I have never seen one like that before.

For our entrée (starter/appetizer), we all chose the Velouté de Butternut "Ile Flottante" Truffe-Châtaigne, Poireaux et Lentins de Chêne (Butternut squash soup) which was poured from a pitcher over the Ile Flottante topped by truffled chestnut slices in each bowl.

For our plats (main course), several chose Suprême de Volaille aux Pleurotes, Sauce Suprême, Pommes de Terre Écrasées à l'Huile d'Olive (chicken breast sauteed in butter and served with a cream sauce generously loaded with oyster mushrooms, perched on olive oil crushed potatoes).

The rest chose Filet de Daurade, Juste Raidi, Fini dans une nage, Gingembre - Feuille de Citronnier, Salade de Jeuness Poussses et Artichauts (fillet of Sea Bream, just stiffened, finished in a ginger citrus sauce and served with a salad of baby greens and artichokes).

Finally for dessert, we all chose Biscuit Coulant au Chocolat Noit, Un Sorbet à la Mandarine (molten chocolate cake with mandarin sorbet).

This was a very good meal. If you are visiting Avignon and looking for a place to eat, I suggest you try Restaurant l'Essentiel. The restaurant is open daily for lunch and dinner except Sunday and Wednesday.

Restaurant l'Essentiel
2, rue Petite Fusterie
84000 Avignon
Tél: 04 90 85 87 12


  1. I see more and more of the smear decorating techniques on plates in restaurants. When it's a butter smear, I can use my bread to soak it up. But when it's a chocolate smear, are you allowed to lick your plate? :)

  2. But wouldn't it be fun if that decanter was actually a glass??!! hee hee.
    I'm putting Restaurant l'Essential on my must try list.
    Have you ever eaten at Fou de FaFa in Avignon? If you haven't, you should, but make sure to book first :)

  3. I love Avignon and I can't believe I haven't made it back there since moving here. Shame on me. The food looks wonderful and I don't blame you about wanting to go to a restaurant that has been "approved". Dude took a chance once and he had the worst "gastro" ever. Doesn't make for an excellent rest of the night!
    Oh-and I'll take two of those desserts please :)

  4. Meredith - You are so right about smears being the current fad for decorating plates. What will be the next fad?

    Sara - Thanks for the heads up on Fou de FaFa. We will definitely check it out.

    Ashley - Avignon on a nice day is a fabulous place to visit. It seems to us we have barely scratched the surface.

  5. I still haven't been to Avignon and honestly can't wait to visit... have heard so many great things and this post will be a helpful guide. Plus, I just love restaurant recommendations, thanks for your tips about Restaurant l'Essentiel - merci!

  6. Hi Michel- I just nominated you for the Sunshine Award

  7. V Avignonu se mě moc líbilo,ráda jsem si při vašich fotkách zavzpomínala.Bohužel jsme žádnou restauraci nenavštívili...ale kávu v kavárně jsme stihli.Ale třeba někdy příště....hezký den!!!

  8. I love pictures of restaurant food! Thank you for sharing them...and the address. That blue sky in Avignon says it all. I'm sure you had a lovely time with your friends.

  9. Tuula - You really need to go visit Avignon. A wonderful city to explore and Place de l'Horloge is a great place to hang out not to mention you can get a great meal at l'Essentiel Restaurant.

    Ashley - Thank you for the nomination; that is very sweet. I will work on an appropriate post in response.

    Aidan - You are most welcome! There is no better way to enjoy Avignon or anywhere in Provence or the South of France for that matter under sunshine and brilliant blue skys.

  10. Very nice site, thank you for sharing. I really hope I could go to Avignon soon. :)


  11. Visiting Provence with my husband for the first time this July...and I am reading all of your wonderful and informative blog posts. Thank you for sharing and educating me about this region! We arrive in Avignon and I am making a reservation at Le Essential. Have many others bookmarked as well.
    Patricia CT

  12. Patricia - Thanks for stopping in to visit my blog and for leaving a comment. I appreciate this very much. If you are going to be in Avignon for several days make sure you try out La Fourchette as well. We were just there and I will be posting about that very soon.