Friday, 10 August 2012

The pleasure of dining at a three-star restaurant in France

I take a journey to the Aveyron, in the center of France, to dine at Bras--the wonderful restaurant of Michel and Sebastien Bras.

Many years ago, before I moved to France, I read an article in the New York Times about Michel Bras. At that time, he was considered a remarkable chef who cultivated gardens and picked his own flowers and herbs every morning to use in his creations. His restaurant, Michel Bras, was only open 6 months a year as it is in a very out of the way place and would not attract visitors during the cold winter months. Nevertheless, he received two Michelin stars quite quickly and then, remarkably, a third about 13 years ago. Over the past 15 years, his son, Sebastien, has joined him in the kitchen and now they are both recognized as the executive chefs.

Michel, the father, continues to pick his herbs and flowers and they are used in all his dishes, but in one signature dish especially: Le gargouillou, which is a salad which combines these herbs and flowers along with warm and cold vegetables.

But I am getting ahead of myself.

To get there involves plane ride to Rodez, and an hour's drive to Laguiole . I arrived just at lunch time and asked to see Michel, the father. (I had seen a documentary about the restaurant and wanted to tell him how much I enjoyed it. I had also come to the restaurant for a second time to make sure that I could once again sample his wonderful food.) The Auvergne people are known for their accueuil (warm welcome). No, Michel was not there, they said, but did I want to meet Sebastien? To my surprise, I was immediately ushered into the kitchen just as the staff was gearing up for lunch:

What an honor to meet this creative and kind man.

Before I chose my menu, I took the apéritif in the front room, where I could peruse the menus. With my Laurent Perrier Ultra Brut champagne was served a number of amuse-bouches. My favorite was the oeuf coque avec ses mouillettes aux épices. This herb-seasoned soft boiled egg came with wonderful toast rectangles that one dips in the egg. It was sensational. There was also a lovely tarte aux cèpes.

Everyone chose La Balade as the menu dégustation, as this menu consists of many of the chefs' most exemplary dishes.

I started with the afore-mentioned gargouillou which is a brilliant and delicious take on a vegetable salad. To start my menu, I chose a 1/2 bottle of Puligny Montrachet J.M. Boillot 2006, a truly excellent choice.

Next came the Turbot with eggplant and a sauce of sweet peppers and anchovies,

followed by La tranche de foie de canard poêlée served with cherries, fennel and seasoned with fresh thyme. And lastly (with my white wine), were Les cèbes de Lezignac, les truffes de Coprégnac en tarte: a vegetable tart with summer truffles and spring onions.

A simple and delicious piece of selle d'agneau rôtie sur l'os followed, garnished with beefsteak tomato, bok choy, basil, chanterelles and figs.

I accompanied this with my second 1/2 bottle of wine, this time a red: Gevrey Chambertin Charlopin Parizot, vieilles vignes, 2004.

Next came one of my favorite dishes, and one that is always welcome on a table in the Auvergne region of France: L'aligot. This is a mashed potato dish with so much tomme d'Auvergne (a sharp cheese), butter and cream that it becomes elastic and sticks to the spoon. It is comfort food to the nth degree:

My server suggested that I accompany my cheese course with some of my white wine. Many wine connoisseurs also prefer whites to red with cheese and in this case, it was an excellent recommendation as the white wine was flavorful enough to stand up to the cheeses.

For desserts, there were many: Le biscuit tiède a la pulpe de rhubarbe with a strawberry sorbet and the sweet wine, Banyuls. The tart was dusted with citrus fruit bits. This was a lovely dessert.

There was also a cherry sorbet with a financier (an almond cake) flavored with olive oil and spices.

And then there was the ice cream tasting:

Verbena mousse, almond milk ice cream, peach sorbet, juniper berry ice cream, chocolate-basil sorbet.

The sweet plain cake, Le fouasse was served in a dramatic and creative way. It was toasted and flavored with honey and wrapped around a stand:

Unlike the cuisine of Thierry Marx, which is ultra-modern, this might be termed as Cuisine Française Classique. That is not to say that it is full of heavy cream sauces. In general, however, if well done, it does mean delicious. And this meal was, for me, one of the most delicious and beautiful meals I ever had the pleasure to savor.