Laguiole, France/ July 16, 2009/ lunch
Winederlust Rating (details below): 9.125 out of 10 / Winederlust Worthy: Yes
Though you don’t hear a lot about Michel Bras in the U.S. (or, at least, I hadn’t), he’s really one of the founding fathers of the movement to eat only what you can grow and/or gather from the land around you. While Jay and I were driving the four hours it took us along steep, windy country roads to reach his restaurant, Bras, in Laguiole (pronounced “lah-yol”) in the Aubrac region of France (really, the middle of nowhere, east of the Dordogne and west of the Northern Rhone), I remarked that we were really making a foodie pilgrimage, and that the trip had better be worth the effort it took to tear ourselves away from Provence, where we could have been lounging all day by the pool.
Well, luckily, it was.
The restaurant itself was much more modern-looking than the others we’d been to so far, with liberal use of metal and glass, and huge windows that took full advantage of the amazing views.
View of the Aubrac hills.
Because both our bellies and our palates were growing weary of the daily helpings of foie gras and pigeon – which again were included on two of the tasting menu offerings at Bras – we opted for the vegetarian tasting menu (also the first we’d seen in France) called “Legumes et Nature,” for which many of the ingredients were grown or gathered from the land around the restaurant. We paired our menu with a bottle of wine from the region, a 2005 Mas Laval Languedoc. A mix of mainly grenache and syrah with a touch of cab franc, the wine was big, fruity, and smooth, and ended up nicely balancing with most of our vegetable dishes.
We started with three beautifully presented amuse-bouches – what tasted like salt cod and dill with green beans, quinoa with citrus, and chopped mushrooms.
Next we were brought the most amazing salad EVER – the “gargouillou” of young vegetables, Bras’ signature dish, literally 60 types of herbs, vegetables, and greens, each individually prepared every day. The name “gargouillou” usually refers to a traditional dish of potatoes and ham, but Bras adapted this one to include all of the seasonal flavors of his native land of Aubrac. This was one of our favorite dishes of the entire gastronomic trip so far (possibly because my body was SO craving vegetables at this point, but I think also because not only was it a work of art, it was also delicious, full of different flavors with each bite). It was almost too pretty too eat.
And it was still pretty once it was eaten.
Our next dish was a beefsteak tomato flavored with fruits and flowers, basically a fresh, sweet heart of the tomato surrounded by fresh basil, sprouts, and four kinds of edible flowers, served with an olive oil and vinegar sauce and pickled fennel. Even though I don’t normally like tomatoes, I did like this one. It had a nice, tangy summery flavor and, again, was beautifully presented. (Jay's also had an ant – a dead one – in it, which maybe is par for the course when the food comes straight from the earth around you? Not sure if it's par at a three-star restaurant, though – you'd think if they pay so much attention to all the elements on the plate, they'd notice the bugs as well. There was also a small lettuce-loving bug, alive, in my gargouillou, but I enjoyed it anyhow.)
Beefsteak Tomato Flavored with Fruits and Flowers.
Next came morel mushrooms with celtuce (lettuce with Chinese origins that has the texture of celery with a slightly sweet jicama-like flavor; Jay and I actually first had it last month at Blue Hill at Stone Barns, where apparently the chef wanted to start growing it after first trying it at a restaurant in France...and I’m betting that Bras was the one!) and what we think were warm hearts of palm. My one quibble with this dish was with the sauce, an extremely French cream and butter concoction that did work well with the other flavors, but was also terribly heavy.
Morel Mushrooms with Celtuce.
The next dish was a mixture of baby vegetables, including artichokes (which were a little too bitter), cabbage, almonds, and a little sprig of flowers in a light sauce. While good, both Jay and I agreed that this was the least impressive dish of the night.
Next we were served extremely fresh green beans with a warm butter and cream sauce and what first appeared to be graham cracker crumbs, but which we think were salted and rather sweet bread crumbs. We had to make sure to get spoonfuls of each element – a bean with the sauce with the crumbs – to make the dish work, and even then it was a bit too sweet and rich for my taste. Jay thought it was like a deconstructed green bean casserole that his mom used to make (not what I think they were going for, somehow).
Next came a “panini” of onion, red pepper, baby zucchini, and other veggies served on a truffle broth – very good and well-balanced.
Panini of Vegetables.
The strangest moment of the evening came when our server brought over a big bowl of cheesy and buttery whipped potatoes and spooned large portions out into our bowls. It looked like unappetizing bread dough. I guess you had to eat it right away before it congealed, but it was very, very rich and difficult to eat more than a few bites, even for Jay, who loves potatoes, cheese, AND butter! It turns out the dish is traditional within the region and is called aligot, and it's made of tomme cheese, produced in the French Alps.
We were totally stuffed, so were very glad that this tasting menu did not come with the cheese course as our others had (and which the non-vegetarian tasting menus at Bras did). The first dessert was one of the best of the trip so far, a shortcake filled with warm apricot sauce that oozed out when we cut it with our fork and fresh apricot and almond ice cream on the side. Yum!
Shortcake with Warm Apricot Sauce.
Finally we were brought a dish of mixed fresh fruit with a celery sorbet and gelee, a nice light way to end the meal (before the inevitable petits fours still to come).
Mixed Fresh Fruit with Celery Sorbet and Gelee.
After the fruit, we were asked whether we wanted to take our cafe at the table or in the salon. We opted for the salon since it had wraparound windows where we could see the view better. Along with Jay's cafe, we were brought the petits fours: two strange cubes of intense sweetness that we didn't like one bit, and two pots de creme, one flavored with chocolate and one with coffee. They were fine, nothing exceptional.
Overall, dining at Bras was one of the highlights so far on the trip. Of course, part of it was that it was very different from anything else we had experienced in France – much lighter and fresher fare, though still retaining some of the more traditional French sauces and flavors. We would rate it very highly and would definitely want to come back to try it again someday (maybe for dinner, when we'd definitely stay at the attached very cool-looking hotel).
Though this was one of the only restaurants besides Fat Duck where we didn't meet the actual chef, we learned after dining here that nowadays the cooking duties are shared by Michel's son and kitchen heir, Sebastien, and the front of house is managed by Sebastien's wife, Veronique (whom we did meet), so it's truly a family affair. Their love of the land and the passion that goes into their cooking certainly shines through. - by Liz Humphreys, Winederlust Eater in Chief
Winederlust Rating Details (out of 10):
Food: 9.0 (preparation, presentation & taste)
Wine: 9.0 (selection, recommendations, pairings & taste)
Service: 9.0 (helpfulness, attentiveness, knowledge & pacing)
Place: 9.5 (location, view, decor & vibe)
Price Range: $$$$ (Incredibly Expensive)
Bras / Route de l'Aubrac, Laguiole, France 12210 [map]
Direct Line: (33) 05 65 51 18 20
Email: firstname.lastname@example.org (email as far in advance as possible for reservations)