French Restaurant in Laguiole, France: Michel Bras

Review
 
Michel Bras HeartHeartHeart
Restaurant
Laguiole
Location: 44.655306,2.873982
Open: April - October, closed Monday
Price: Expensive
Score (/20): 17.5

Reviewed By

Sue Dyson and Roger McShane
Phone Number: +33 5 65 51 18 20
Address: route de l'Aubrac
Laguiole, 12210
Country: France
Food Style: French

There are many reasons to visit Michel Bras. The first is to experience the food he prepares that is deeply rooted in the countryside of his birth between the rural villages of Laguoile and Aubrac. The second is because it is one of the few rural restaurants to have gained and maintained three Michelin stars. The third is to admire the architecture of the buildings that are at the same time dramatic yet comforting. The fourth is to understand why some of our favourite chefs from northern Spain credit Michel Bras with being the inspiration for the direction they have taken in carving out the new direction for the Basque cuisine centred on San Sebastian. The fifth, and one of the more interesting, is that this restaurant is not part of some vast empire comprising many restaurants in many different parts of the world (although it is a significant enterprise in its own right). The food that is turned out of the kitchen is directly under the supervision of Michel and Sebastien Bras.
As a footnote, these empires we refer to only seem to provide a satisfying experience if an equally talented chef can be found to work in the kitchen at all times - such as Ducasse has with Franck Cerrutti at Louis XV in Monaco.
You should approach Michel Bras from the south. That way your sense of what to expect can be heightened by crossing the Viaduc de Millau. This stunning example of modern engineering (and architecture) crosses the valley high above the village of Millau. The soaring pylons anchor the superstructure that allow the freeway to be suspended at this dizzying height.
Once you have marvelled at this structure you head on to route de l'Aubrac and wind your way towards the restaurant which juts out of the mountainside in such a way as to dominate the valley while appearing to be part of it. As you approach more closely it seems right.
The restaurant has two rows of tables set to maximise the view through the floor to ceiling windows. Large comfortable chairs that somehow have a rural feel invite you to sit and relax. Pretty vases of flowers rather than dramatic floral statements adorn the tables. The tables are set with pure white Bernardaud crockery and the famous Laguiole cutlery made to Michel Bras' own specifications. Knife, fork and spoon are balanced on a purpose designed stand. You keep your knife throughout the entire meal according to local tradition.
Waiters glide to and fro with a sense of purpose and efficiency. They exude an atmosphere of calm, never seeming stressed or harried in performing their tasks.
Three menus are available. We chose the Legumes & Nature not because we wanted to avoid protein but to ensure that we chose dishes that fully represented the style of food that Michel Bras is most comfortable with. We felt that this menu most closely represents the heart and soul of the region and of Michel Bras.
We wanted to order a wine that would work well with the vegetable dishes that were promised, especially the Gargouillou that we had heard great things about and we were eager to compare with Andoni Aduriz's fabulous vegetable dish at Mugaritz cooked in a similar way (each vegetable cooked separately and then linked by a binding broth based on Emmental cheese) and which was designed as an homage to Michel Bras.
A quick perusal of the extensive wine list revealed two gems. There was a Vatan Sancerre and a Cotat from the same appellation. These are both wines we find hard to source (especially the Vatan) so we asked the sommelier whether he thought the Vatan would work with the dishes to come. He seemed genuinely pleased that we had suggested this wine even though it was nowhere near the top end of the range of wines on offer. He agreed enthusiastically and proceeded to open one of the bottles with the ‘homely' look and feel. It was stunning. None of the residual sweetness that we find in the similarly-rated Cotat wines and many others from the Loire that proclaim that they are dry. This was made with rapier-like precision. It exhibited all of best characteristics of the Sauvignon Blanc grape as expressed in the terroir of Sancerre. None of those aberrant tropical fruit aromas. Simply precise and perfect flavour and aroma and long, long persistence on the back of the palate. Soft, caressing and perfect. We were entranced.
And the food started arriving. First was an Arpege-like egg dish with a simple bantam egg shell filled with the yolk accompanied by a long thin bread 'soldier' for dipping into the yolk. The egg was accompanied by a small piece of the most incredibly fine mushroom tart. We were off to a good start!
Bread was served, and very good bread it was too. It had texture and flavour - just like good bread should be.
Next we were presented with three 'spoons' exhibiting highly-coloured food items. There was one with squid and red pepper with a small piece of perfectly cooked, tiny squash. The second was burghul infused with lemon accompanied by a tiny piece of cauliflower and the third was pureed pumpkin with a vibrant green chive dressing. They were all wonderful with their adornment of tiny edible flowers. The only ingredient that didn't sing was the non-local squid.
Next came a beautiful artwork of red peppers supported by a shellfish emulsion and locals herbs and vegetable leaves. A scattering of hazelnut provided texture.
And next came the Gargouillou. Here were dozens of vegetables and herbs that had each been either cooked or placed separately. The separate cooking is also done by Andoni at Mugaritz but this should come as no surprise. Considering the proximity to the Mediterranean dishes such as Ratatouille should provide an exemplar here. Fifty years ago, Richard Olney was insisting that a ratatouille could only be successful if each of the key vegetables were cooked in separate pans.
And so here is a dish where this requirement is taken to the extreme. Our waiter told us that there were over forty herbs and vegetables in the dish that day! They were then drawn together by four deeply--coloured slashes of herb purees across the plate and a binding ham-based emulsion that drew the elements together playing a similar role to Andoni's Emmental broth.
The next dish departed slightly from the vegetarian theme with a subtle linking of herbs, vegetables and oysters. A central plate of deep-green, foamy lettuce soup with a large meaty submerged oyster was accompanied with a tiny side plate of herbs including a flower and leaf of white borage which we were urged to eat first. This had a flavour strongly reminiscent of oyster! It was like an opening note in a symphony. The lettuce soup played with the oyster flavour and developed into an harmonious combination of flavours that were subtle, refined and precise.
The next dish was a stunner and one of the best of the meal. Three large florets of cauliflower were presented upside down in a bowl of tasty, comforting almond milk. The florets were picked up and dipped into crushed, toasted almonds to provide texture as a counterpoint to their milky soup.
The next dish dipped its toes into meat flavours with a small slice of very good ham and a froth a ham essence livening a chicory leaf and some well-cooked sugar peas.
This was followed by a beautiful, strongly-flavoured dish of sweet onions with a black truffle crust and a painted smear of yellow sauce across the plate.
Although it was not on the menu a surprise dish of the famous Aligot appeared next. This is one of the greatest vegetable dishes we have ever been served. A dish to rival Robuchon's mashed potatoes. Here the local specialty sees potatoes mashed and then combined with the local cheese. The cheese imparts an elastic texture that allows it to be stretched into long sheets for serving and eating. The dish is amazing.
The first dessert was perfect and reminded us of why Michel Bras' signature dishes are so revered. A cylindrical 'biscuit' filled with strawberry liquid cascaded onto the plate once the dam was breached to mingle with the acacia flower ice cream. This worked perfectly with the suggested Domaine des Chenes Muscat de Rivesaltes Vin Doux Naturel.
We must say that the following desserts and mignardise fell short of the standard of the rest of the meal. They appeared to be designed for visual interest rather than flavour and texture. Thus the ice cream balls looked pretty in their ball boxes but had to be kept at too low a temperature to ensure they did not melt – hence they were too cold and too solid to be appealing to the palate.
However the last criticism is only a minor blip in an overall beautiful experience. There are very few three Michelin star restaurants we have been to that provide the type of comforting and comfortable environment joined with stunning food and caring service. We will go back here as often as possible to repeat the enjoyment of the experience.
The restaurant is normally open from April to October but closed each Monday. Lunch is available only from Thursday to Sunday except in July and August when it is also available on Tuesday and Wednesday.
Michel Bras has published a number of books which you can order by clicking on the Amazon links below.
 
     
   
     


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