It’s Day Two of our (Andy, Mijune, and Jeff) Michelin 3-star weekend in France. And it brings a revisit to one of the very first fine dining restaurants I experienced in the country. It had been love at first sight – so much so, in fact, that I later made a trip to its sister restaurant in Hokkaido, Japan. Here in France, the place is situated in a pretty remote location – the outskirts of Laguoile, a small town of about a thousand people, and famous for its knife-making over hundreds of years. This aspect of its history is so celebrated within the town that it has a dedicated knife shop and museum. As we were very punctual on this occasion, we decided to visit the museum before continuing on to the restaurant. It was very interesting!
The restaurant is special in many ways. Its design, for example. It’s a striking white building, located on a hilltop, so that it appears on the horizon as you approach. Every time I see this astonishing structure, I can’t help but wonder who could possibly came up with an idea that’s essentially: “I know, let’s build a massive place on this hilltop and use it as a restaurant with a few hotel rooms.” But there’s no doubt that it works. Its a unique site, with a lounge that offers a spectacularly panoramic view of the picturesque countryside. And that’s where they served us the amuse bouche, including their signature “egg soldier” – which was a truly heavenly treat!
Opened in 1992, the restaurant is now in its 25th year, having held the acclaimed Michelin 3-star for 18 years. Michel Bras is often listed as one of the most influential chefs in the world, for several reasons. There is, for example, the fact that his signature vegetable dish “gargouillou” was ground-breaking, bringing a whole new level to the possibilities of vegetables. So much so, in fact, that the New York Times devoted a whole article to it. And then there’s his invention of “chocolate coulant” – a simply divine dish, often considered as one of the best desserts in the world. I’ve seen replicas of his dishes in lots of fine dining restaurants all over the world, in one form or another – though many diners probably don’t realise that the inspiration came from Michel Bras.
Today, the kitchen is led by Michel’s son Sébastien. And his philosophy is the same – to reflect the seasons by making use of regional ingredients. I know this sounds like a cliché nowadays, as most chefs claim that they source vegetables from their own garden or forage around their local area – but Michel Bras was ahead of them all. He was doing it 30 years ago.
Actually, this is my fourth experience of “gargouillou”. It may be a simple-looking vegetable dish, but it’s actually a complex collection of vegetables, herbs, grains, leaves and flowers. Depending on the season, the number of ingredients on the plate varies from 50-80. Each item has been cooked and seasoned separately, to bring out the best flavour from each ingredient. I’ve had a ton of similar courses around the world, but nowhere as tasty as this. I always say to myself at the end of this sophisticated “salad” – “Perhaps it’s not so bad to be a vegetarian after all!” It’s worth noting that there’s actually a piece of ham hidden within the vegetables – but it can easily be omitted for vegetarian diners.
Now to the meat. Instead of the regular cut of local Aubrac beef in the tasting menu, we ordered the “round eye” cut from the a la carte menu, which came with beetroot sauce. We all loved this, as the beef was tender and packed with flavours. With this course, they always serve aligot on the side – a brilliant mix of potato and local cheese, which results in an incredible elasticity. It’s a traditional food of this region.
Onto the dessert. Every year, they do a different version of the coulant, though you can ask for the classic chocolate version dating back to 1981. It’s a dessert made with biscuit shell with a warm runny centre! This year, it was a cranberry and elderflower coulant, served with lemongrass ice cream. We also requested the classic chocolate version, which turned out to be our favourite. I guess that’s why it’s known as the classic!
Once again, I was more than satisfied with the meal. Although some of the new courses weren’t that exciting, the classics were enough to make a special trip for. That’s more than enough to entice me back here again. Also, the service was friendly and smooth – Véronique, the wife of Sébastien, made multiple visits to every table. From the impressive location to the iconic dishes, I can honestly say that – after all these years, and after visiting to almost 100 Michelin 3-star restaurants – Bras still remains one of my most memorable eating experiences of my life.