I'd wanted to go to Michel Bras for a long time. Years, really. But it wasn't exactly easy to get there. When I moved to Paris, things became easier, but not by much. The restaurant is a 10-hour train ride from Paris followed by an hour taxi. The ride back is a night train. Aside from all that, reservations are difficult. When I called in March, they were fully booked until May. But after weeks of persistence and a bit of luck, there was a last-minute cancellation. I was in. Given the distance to the restaurant, I decided to make a weekend out of it. I'd arrive Saturday afternoon and leave late Sunday night to catch the night train. This would enable me to order the entire menu and pace myself to better understand the cooking of Chef Bras. 36-hours of Bras would mean two dinners, a breakfast, and a lunch. I was more than ready.
Coming from Paris, the countryside feels strange and foreign. Bright green rolling hills and dark textured clouds make this place of nature feel like an alien world. Things move fast here, perhaps faster than Paris: a beautiful sunny day can turn dark and stormy in minutes. There is a powerful mix of light and dark, movement and still, quiet and noise which exemplifies the chaos that is nature: its essence can barely be tamed.
The all-glass dining room overlooks the countryside letting in the natural beauty but keeping out the harshness. It looks like a spaceship. From a calm climate-controlled room nature's fury seems all but turbulent. The wide expanse of earth and sky glow like an illuminated landscape. The only displayed art is that of the flora and fauna, far more impressive than oil and canvas.
The attitude of the staff here is calm and peaceful -- much like a visit to a day spa. The receptionists speak just above a whisper. For a fully occupied Relais & Châteaux, Michel Bras makes guests feel like the only occupants. The one seating per lunch and dinner further facilities a sense of serenity. Instead of rushing out the door to beat rush-hour traffic, a calm stroll from the guest room to the dining room takes all of two minutes. It also helps that there is really nothing to do in the local area, besides a requisite visit to the Laguiole Knife Factory. This really makes diners think about their surroundings and appreciate its glory.
I showered and got ready for a seven o'clock seating. At this point the sun was just starting to reach the horizon. It was spectacularly beautiful.
The oversized menus were surprisingly easy to read. To the left was a humble collection of dishes, to the right, an extended tasting. On the first night, I went with the tasting. The meal started with a glass of house champagne and a delicate oeuf en cocotte. The egg custard was served in shell with a hint of sherry vinegar for acidity. This was closer to Manresa's rendition than the original served at L'Arpège. The subtle swirl of acidity cut through the egg's monotony rendering a different flavor with each spoonful. The toasted multigrain bread sticks added a chewy crunch and absorbed the remaining yolk.
The orchestra of amuses bouches hit all the notes: sweet, savory, spicy, bitter, salty, and acidic. The bite-sized spoonfuls ensured that all the ingredients properly mixed at once to highlight the full spectrum of flavor. Each spoonful carried a blend of crisp fresh vegetables with raw lamb or sea bream. This was edible art.
Le Gargouillou - This Bras-originating dish has been borrowed and re-invented all across the world. A simple medley of garden vegetables and flowers, each individually blanched to its ideal time, assembled together as a Leviathan of flavor and beauty. This is evidence that when nature is left to speak for itself magical things can happen. This salad was as fun to look at as it was to eat. The Gargouillou gives new meaning to garden diversity. With over fifty ingredients -- some as scarce on the plate as a single leaf -- each bite was completely different.
A thin slice of cured meat was buried beneath a heap of flowers and leaves adding salt and depth. The fat from the meat somehow coats the vegetables and enhances their flavor making each component taste much more intense.
So many aspects of this dish were given careful consideration and thought: it is perfectly balanced. Crunchy but soft elements give the dish an overall consistency that overcomes clashes of flavor creating a coherence rather than a collection of individual ingredients. This salad is a true trip to the nearby meadow.
La dorade royale de saint Jean de Luz et les primeurs, relevés de boeuf séché et de grillons-noisette, ciboule de Saint Jacques et peucedanum - Sea bream with cured meat, spring vegetables, hazelnut, and scallop. This was a generous filet of fish which was surprisingly fresh given the restaurant's land-locked location far from the sea. The fresh peas were blanched for no longer than a few seconds ensuring that the starch was removed but the crunchiness preserved. This was a welcome addition to the smooth fish.
La tranche de foie gras de canard grillée, confit acide de fraises et cèbe de Lézignan rôtie, valériane phu et niac, citron, cumin, anis vert - A generous lobe of grilled foie gras with acidulated strawberries and spices. The liver was thick and creamy, its fattiness kept in check by the fruity -- but not sweet -- acidulated strawberries. This dish was served with no bread of any kind making the texture a bit wearisome, a thin slice of bread would have gone a long way to absorb all the oils.
The waiter explained that in keeping with local Aubrac tradition, the knife would not be replaced throughout the meal. Rather my knife was my tool and would be mine for the next few hours. I really liked this concept in theory, but in practice the knife got kind of gross. I found myself secretly cleaning it.
Les asperges blanches croûtées aux truffes de Comprégnac, pousses de pois et pois, de la peau de lait - Lightly cooked white asparagus encrusted in black truffle served with green peas in a cream sauce. Despite being late in the season, the grated truffles were amazingly fragrant and acted like breadcrumbs to absorb the creamy sauce. The salting was generous -- essential to bring out all the earthy nuances of the cream. This was one of the highlights of the night.
L'endive farcie au gras, huile rance comme une crème et un jus aux truffes de Comprégnac - An endive bulb served with a black truffle cream. The endive was thoroughly cooked to remove all bitterness rendering its flavor closer to lettuce. This also caused the multiple layers to merge into a single mash. This was my least favorite course of the night as I found its flavor one-dimensional and simply unappealing. The truffles were not detectable.
Le carré d'agneau Allaiton rôti sur os, sarrasin grillé dit kasha et côtes de moutarde, lait de coco et coriandre, le jus d'agneau - Roasted lamb and grilled buckwheat with large grains of mustard seed, coconut milk, jus, and cilantro. This was surprisingly good. The mustard offered a hint of spice without the sour acidity that often follows the vinegar. The hint of coconut milk and dash of cilantro brightened the jus making this a fantastic combination of east meets west. My palette got a bit tired, however, after the third bite. This was a really large portion. Too big, I think.
Stringy Mashed Potatoes - This local delicacy, a combination of pureed potatoes and cheese, stretched nearly a meter in the air from the fork to the plate. The cheese added density and made the gritty potatoes squeak with each bite. While dense the flavor was clean and not greasy. An additional splash of butter a la Joël Robuchon would have gone a long way, but I appreciated the dish's simplicity.
Les Fromages - A potpourri of local and imported cheeses including all the all-stars (Roquefort, Comte, Fourme d'Ambert) as well as some next-door delicacies no bigger than a silver dollar.
Le biscuit tiède de chocolat, rhum coulant, sorbet banane-caramélisée au beurre demi-sel - Though a contentious debate, it's quite probable that the chocolate coulant was invented here a long time ago by Chef Bras. A wedge of frozen chocolate is centered in what appear to be chocolate batter "muffin trays" before baking. When the batter cooks the interior simply melts. The shell is very dry: more like a cookie than a moist cake, which is Bras's intention. The texture crumbles and fractures due to its frailness. The inside is piping hot as its trip from the oven to the plate is less than a minute. The flavor is of deep and rich chocolate with the sweetness coming from the salted caramalized-banana sorbet adorning the top. Only when the ice cream and liquid core mix with the dry crust does the texture become balanced. This was wonderful and very different from the chocolate coulants imitated elsewhere. Somehow here, the dessert was light and delicate.
Une gaufrette de pomme de terre, crème à la pomme de terre, pignon et safran - A delicate potato wafer with potato cream and saffron. The flavor was sweet and earthy, but tasted a bit too much like mashed potatoes with sugar for me to enjoy past the second bite. Interesting concept, not so interesting flavor.
Petits Fours - A granted slate topped with pot de creme, hazelnut-infused dark and milk chocolate squares, and custard. By this point in the meal I was stuffed.
I finished my first meal here satisfied but lukewarm with content. Many of the dishes were beautiful and conceptually simple but their flavors ordinary and uninteresting. There was no bill presented; rather, everything is settled at check out. Waiting for me was the key to my room which had been turned down. Needless to say, I fell asleep pretty quickly.
I am so glad that I decided to spend the night as the next morning I awoke in what seemed to be a completely different restaurant. It turns out that Chef Bras was not in the kitchen during my first night. He was, however, in the kitchen for my second lunch and dinner. And his precision and keen eye for extracting nature's best flavors showed.
Shortly after waking up I walked outside my room and admired the bed of wildflowers carpeting the rolling hills all the way into the horizon. It really doesn't do justice to eat dinner here: the true natural beauty can only be seen during daylight. I stopped by the dining room for a morning snack before heading out.
Morning Pastry Basket - A basket of fresh baked French pastries including a croissant, pain au chocolat, and miniature baguette. By the time I crawled down to breakfast with my food hangover from the night before, the pastries had already cooled. But guests who awoke bright and early, just a few hours after dinner had ended, enjoyed warm pastries. The pastries were served with local confitures (apricot and raspberry) as well as honey.
Local "pancake" - A savory pancake dusted with sliced scallion and salt. The pancake was served at room temperature causing the absorbed cooking oil to coat the surface. Considering I was eating lunch in just under two hours, I asked for a second croissant and baguette took a few small bites and went outside to further explore the surroundings and build up an appetite before lunch.
The day was absolutely gorgeous: A cool 65 degrees, light wind, and bright sun. The sounds of wild birds and wind brushing against the greenery made the experience tranquil, the sea of wild flowers and high contrast clouds made it surreal. It was at this moment that I understood the source of chef Bras's inspiration: his color palate comes from a walk through these hills, his use of light and dark from the contrast between the earth and sky.
Lunch started with Le Gargouillou, and while the ingredients were nearly identical to the evening before, its flavor tasted completely different. This time it tasted sweeter, fresher, and less salty. It is truly amazing the sheer diversity of flavors and textures that compose these greens. I was tempted to ask for a second round. This was an unbelievable portrait of nature at its best.
Les asperges vertes poêlées dans une beurre au curry; coriandre, ail des ours et du lassi épicé - Green asparagus with a curry butter, cilantro, wild garlic, and herbes. The hint of curry added a tannic element to the butter making it creamier and richer but with more structure. The asparagus were gently salted and very lightly cooked preserving their crunch. This was an excellent segue-way from the Gargouillou onto more substantive plates.
Tellement gouteux de jeunes navets et les premiers champignons, pousses de pois, pois et cresson alénois - Young turnips, first mushrooms of the spring, sweet peas and watercress. Oh my god this was delicious! The buttery cream sauce melded with the textured mushrooms filling every pocket and dimple on its rough surface. Its flavor was earthy and creamy, yet generously salted and fresh. The watercress leaves added a refreshing crunch and the sweet peas were some of the most flavorful and intense I've ever tasted. This was unbelievable.
La pomme de terre roulée à l'anchois, côtes et feuilles de moutarde, jus au pain - Potato rolled with anchovy, mustard leaves and garnished with a light butter sauce. The texture of the potato was light, its matryoshka-doll layers really helped absorption of the light sauce. Somehow Bras took an ingredient, deconstructed it, and made it better. The thin strips of anchovy added salt and created hints of crunch.
The ten or so of layers of the potato became crystal clear when cut in half.
Chou-rave cuit en cocotte, doré à l'orange, baignées d'un lait d'orge torréfié - Kohlrabi "casserole", golden orange, bathed in a roasted barley milk. This dish was bright and clean, the barley milk thin and light. What I liked most about this dish was the raw and unrefined flavor of the turnip garnished with the polished, earthy barley milk. The milk somehow made the turnip taste sweet without adding extra sugar.
Une crème de laitue à la livèche, copeaux de poutargue et de ventrèche - thin slices of bottarga and cured meat shaved atop a thick lettuce cream. The lean bottarga was pleasantly salty but not fishy and complimented the fatty slices of pork belly. There was a distinct vegetal bitterness that came from the cooked lettuce, much like endive.
La pièce de'Boeuf Aubrac - pure race - poêlée, une pomme de terre farcie du jus aux truffes de Comprégnac - A gorgeous medallion of local Aubrac beef, lightly pan seared and served with a truffled potato sandwich and sugar snap peas. The meat was rare, tender, and lean. The color was a brilliant magenta which contrasted sharply against the bright white salt crystals. The crisped potato sandwiched turnip, and local greens. The potato stood upright keeping it from becoming soggy in the truffle butter sauce, a very clever solution to a common problem. This course was fantastic.
In all the lunch meal was much more exciting and innovative than dinner the night before. Though each dish still had a solid foundation in local meats and produce, things felt more refined and focused. The flavors were much more vivid, as were the colors. It was clear that chef Bras was in the kitchen, and he and his team were working at their peak.
I finished lunch around four in the afternoon and had a bit of time before my night train to Paris at midnight. I headed back to the room and packed up my bags in time for check out. I spent some time in the cocktail room with my laptop, the staff was more than gracious with accommodating me until my train left later in the evening. At around seven, the kind woman at the front desk asked if I would like something to eat. The truth is I didn't, I was stuffed to the brim. But I would have been stupid to refuse an additional food offering. They had already set up a makeshift table for me downstairs by the window (and technically the bathroom, but it was a fair distance away). I ordered a glass of wine and a last and final Gargouillou.
Once again the Gargouillou tasted different. This time it was saltier and more meaty with barely any apparent sweetness. I'm pretty sure there is no bad combination that can come from this dish. Like a kaleidoscope, only the colors and perspective of the salad changes, not the satisfaction.
I didn't intend on ordering dessert, but the waiter was very persuasive.
Pineapple and Vaniilla Custard - A cone of layered pineapple giving shelter to a light vanilla and maple mousse. I didn't really want dessert but the waiter was very persuasive. This was very sweet but surprisingly tasty. The maple tempered the pineapple's acidity creating a more rounded flavor.
Take-home almond cookies - These were the hardest yet thinnest cookies I've ever had. Each bite unleashed a pile of small razors that became dangerous to chew. I guess it was worth it. The cookies were sweet but not overpowering. The occasionally crispy bite gave way to a soft pocket of whole almond and hazelnut creating an interesting diversity of texture. These cookies lasted for an amazing period of a week without any noticeable degradation in texture of flavor. They were already hard to begin with.
I didn't sleep much during the ride home. It was partly because of the bumpy ride and noisy strangers in my sleeping cabin, but mostly because I was still digesting my experience (literally). I'd eaten the entire menu!
I'm pretty sure this is one of the most memorably food experiences I've ever had. While there was no particular dish that stood out as once-in-a-lifetime delicious there were quite a few that were revolutionary for their time twenty years ago. They didn't seem fresh and innovative to me because I had been experiencing copies of chef Bras' work for my entire life without realizing it. To me, this was more about understanding the source of so many dishes such as the chocolate coulant and the medley garden salad of fifty ingredients that I had grown to love. This is an essential culinary trip for anybody who loves food.
The gorgeous surroundings, chivalrous staff, and overall zen-like atmosphere of the property make this a sensational two-day trip from Paris. This is really the Blue Hill at Stone Barns of France, except this came first. I hope I have the opportunity to return again, preferably sometime soon.