Call it a culinary full circle. In 2000, Jean-Yves and Minna Benoit swapped life in France for the Canadian dining scene, opening first L’Emotion in West Vancouver, and then the convivial Le Mistral Bistro in Kitsilano. But when the damp Vancouver climate worsened the effects of a bike accident that Jean-Yves suffered in 2007, the couple returned to Provence.
In a nod to their former eatery, the Benoits opened Mistral Bistro Moderne in the town of L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue in southeastern France. Even with just 32 seats, including the terrace, the restaurant has already gained good reviews, its clean lines and modernity a pleasant contrast to the acres of brocantes that draw visitors to the town, which is France’s second largest antiques hub.
The approach to business is slower in France, with two-hour lunches the norm. Life is more casual, says Minna; she has not worn high heels in a year. But this does not spare her from hard work—the Benoits have not hired staff, they handle cooking and front-of-house duties between them.
Meat in France merits approval, “but getting good fish here is a problem,” says Minna. The Mediterranean is not as rich in seafood as it once was, and the Benoits miss that West Coast Pacific halibut. Still, the husband-and-wife team is thrilled with the local fresh vegetables, often harvested and sold the same day. “These are fridge-free vegetables,” Minna says.
The daily menu is simple. A couple of starters, a handful of mains, a few desserts, all built around what Jean-Yves finds in his daily trawls of neighbouring markets—Provence pulsates with edible abundance. The town of Cavaillon is only 10 clicks away, and its outrageously tasty melons sometimes show up at Mistral Bistro alongside fresh-picked strawberries and homemade star anise ice cream.
Another plus to Provençal living, according to Minna, is “so much cheese.” Jean-Yves showcases fresh, local chèvre in a starter dish with baby vegetables in vinaigrette. Next up, veal from the Limousin region and tiny potatoes, or a sauté d’agneau with basil jus. Regional ingredients invariably call for regional wines. Naturellement, Minna’s menu highlights the Luberon area. “The number one seller is Château la Canorgue,” she says, the château that featured in the 2006 Russell Crowe movie, A Good Year.
Mistral’s setting is hard to beat. Dubbed the “little Venice of Provence,” the medieval town of L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue is ringed by water and punctuated by watermills. The Benoits are mere metres from one, and just as close to the finds that make this Provençal town a beacon for antiques hunters. On weekends, the outdoor market draws thousands, shops are open daily and now, when visitors have had their fill of rustic furniture, vintage linens, and enamelware from a bygone age, modern cuisine is there to satisfy.