The Camargue, a startlingly luminous and untamed swath of countryside in Provence's deep southwest, has always been remarkable for its roaming herds of black bulls, gypsy caravans, flocks of pink flamingos in the marshes, and muscular white horses mounted by brightly clad cowboys. What hasn't been remarkable, apart from its famous red rice and a ragout of bull meat called boeuf guardian, is its cuisine. But Le Mas de la Chassagnette is changing all that. Since opening its doors a year ago, La Chassagnette has been discovered by more than just local gourmands and passersby who wonder what's behind the sign bearing a trowel and a gardening fork. La Chassagnette has become a reason in itself to drive down the D36 from Arles toward Le Sambuc. Now, reservations are a must for both lunch and dinner.
The intriguing menu lists no dishes; instead three poetic lines composed by the Michelin-starred chef Jean-Luc Rabanel describe a philosophy of cuisine inspired solely by the restaurant's superb organic garden and the local Provençal markets. Set on a farm that extends over 320 acres and produces rice, lentils, and hard wheat, La Chassagnette is the dream of Maja Hoffmann, a member of the Swiss pharmaceutical (Hoffmann-LaRoche) family, and her American husband, Stanley Buchthal, who bought the property and the nearby Renaissance Château l'Armelière several years ago. Active in protecting the environment and advancing the patrimony of the Camargue, the couple initially wanted to create only an organic garden, but as the potager grew to almost 2,000 square feet, so did the idea of a restaurant dedicated to celebrating its gorgeous natural fruits and vegetables. Enlisting local designers, Hoffmann and Buchthal transformed an abandoned 19th-century sheepfold into a bar and dining room, complete with wall coverings made of dried bay leaves under chicken wire, sturdy wood-slab tables, a central rotisserie, and a cathedral ceiling lined in rattan.
Dinner menus, which change daily, offer a choice of ten appetizers, two main courses—usually a line-caught fish or roast chicken and rotisserie lamb or beef—and two desserts. Recent dishes include a delicate tempura of zucchini blossoms plucked from the garden; a tomato gazpacho capped with a cloud of tuna mousse; a tender guinea hen roasted in a crust of sea salt; and a succulent cod steak spiced with finely ground Espelette peppers served on a bed of puréed salt cod and potato. Desserts such as a pineapple clafoutis and ginger-sautéed cherries topped with homemade almond ice cream are luscious finales. Most of the vegetables, herbs, and berries—artichokes, lettuces, lemon thyme, borage, eggplants, melons, raspberries—come from La Chassagnette's flower-bordered garden flanking the restaurant and watched over by a dapper scarecrow named Monsieur Jean. Embellished with trellises, fountains, and a pergola, the garden is a work of art, and a tantalizing place to stroll before you take your apéritifs.
Dinner, $90. At 76 Route du Sambuc, Arles; 33-49-09-72-66-96.
Restaurant prices reflect a three-course dinner for two, excluding beverages and gratuity.