It was late on Sunday afternoon, and our “remote France 3-star weekend” was coming to an end. Since Friday, we (Andy, Mijune, and Jeff) had driven more than 1000km in France, and had had some extremely interesting dining experiences (Regis Marcon dinner, Michel Bras dinner and Auberge lunch ). Now, we were making our way to Toulouse airport for the flight home. Then, just as we could almost hear the flight announcer calling passengers to the departure lounge, one of our little group suddenly realised that the establishment of Michel Guérard – another very well-known 3-star chef – was a mere three hours away. We all looked at each other inquiringly. We were all aware that M. Guérard was already in his mid-80s, and that we might not be returning to this area any time soon. We would all regret it if the opportunity to experience the cuisine of such a distinguished chef was lost to us forever. So, although the idea was crazy, we made the collective decision to go for it, just as the turning for the airport approached. We drove straight past. One of us was already calling the restaurant.
This – calling the restaurant – was something we had to do repeatedly. Getting a table at such short notice proved to be challenging to say the least! We had to talk to every member of staff, including the manager, virtually begging them to give us a small table for four. Finally, after lots of calls, emails and discussions with the hotel manager (at one point we told them that we were coming, no matter what), they finally gave in. However, while the good news was that we had a table, the bad news was that it came with a pretty hefty price tag – apparently, the only way we could get a table was as part of a package which included two hotel rooms at €400 per room! But, as our rearranged flight was now booked for 6 a.m. meaning that we had to leave the hotel by 2:30 a.m. and the meal probably wouldn’t finish until midnight, we basically didn’t need rooms at all. Still, we were almost there now. And Chef Michel is famous, and old. We decided to bite the bullet!
At last, just as the sun had started to set, we arrived at the town of Eugénie-les-Bains. It’s a small, quiet town with a population of just over 500 and – one would think – only one attraction for tourists. This attraction was first established in 1974, when Chef Michel arrived – and it didn’t take him long to transform the small spa hotel owned by his wife’s family into a world-class Relais & Châteaux hotel. The restaurant was awarded Michelin 3-star status in 1977, and he has the second longest 3-star status ever, after Paul Bocuse of course who’s leading by another 12 years. These are the true giants of the Michelin Guide – it would be a real shame if I missed out on experiencing their talents for myself!
The hotel is simply gorgeous. Surrounded by a huge garden area, the dining room is very classy, and the menu has a tasting menu as well as a good a la carte selection. Being conscious of having limited time, we immediately ordered a mix of items from the tasting menu, plus a few courses to share from the la carte menu. But the meal got off to a very disappointing start – what was described be staff as the two signature appetisers were both a big let-down. What was labelled on the menu as “Surprise Exquise” Truffle Zephyr as a Cloud was simply a light aerated cream with a few slices of weakly fragranced black truffle on top, while the Soft Pillow of Morels and Wild Mushrooms was just a puddle of (rather watery) cream of mushroom soup. We left them pretty much untouched, as all we could taste was cream, cream and more cream. By contrast, however, the homemade foie gras was done to perfection. Served on warm toast and complemented with verjuice jelly, it made a nice, indulgent end to the first round of courses!
Now the seafood courses – both of which were excellently executed, and the twin highlights of my evening. The salmon was cooked in parchment paper, and retained all the juice from the fish. It made an extremely healthy and tasty course, all the better for being accompanied by a mix of home-grown vegetables (from their own garden). The lobster was roasted and lightly smoked, so that each slice had an almost caramelised feel with a delicate peach glazing on top. Sounds a bit odd, I know, but the flavours were beautifully balanced.
As for the main courses, the thin and crunchy pig trotter sandwich was certainly fun. And, while the guinea fowl was a bit boring in itself, serving it together with a stew of sweetbread and morel transformed it into a dish so delicious that we polished it off completely! Once again, though, disappointment lay the signature dish, Pigeon Meatpie. It was overly rich, with excessively powerful flavours, while the pastry was too thin and with no crunch. We struggled to finish it, even though we were sharing just one small pie!
Predictably, we were offered a great selection of cheeses. In fact, we had no complaints about any aspect of the deserts, which were all enjoyable without being too sweet, or overly rich. By this time, though, we were becoming more concerned about our journey than the meal, as we had less than 3 hours before we needed to set off on the long drive back to the airport. So, I suppose it’s only fair to admit that we were effectively treating this as a tickbox exercise, rather than an experience to enjoy for its own sake. But hey – travelling with a bunch of crazy foodies, on an intense trip full of spontaneity is a fun experience itself!
We had arrived expecting not so much a sophisticated meal, but a meal full of high-quality ingredients combined with impeccable cooking, all delivered in a fine dining setting. We got what we expected except for the few mentioned signature dishes, so overall, we did leave here in disappointment. In terms of service, the staff and the manager were all very considerate, providing us with detailed explanations of the food and tolerating our slightly chaotic way of sharing dishes. Hardly what they’re used to in such a posh place! Oh, and finally – Michel Guerard himself was onsite, even on a Sunday night, and he courteously comes out to greet every guest in person!