It was not originally on the itinerary at all, but as the months drew closer to our going Charlie came to one of his famously resolute decisions and told Steve Greystone, “We’re going to add in Michel Bras. Norman can’t go to France without dining there!” With that he pulled out his map of France and like Rommel plotting his campaign of North Africa Charlie drew his heavy, dark marking pen along the routes to lead us to Laguiole and to the culinary home of the Michelin Guide three star chef’s restaurant.
Somewhere in the middle of our long drive I realized that we were not going to a hotel to change clothes so I was forced to do a quick change in the driveway. Luckily the restaurant is perched high on a hill and the driveway was below the sight lines of the guests as I jumped into appropriate clothing. As we approached the building the other members of our party signaled for me to hurry up in that we were being invited to say hello to Chef Bras in the kitchen.
The restaurant is designed in neat, precise lines of stone and glass cut into the hills. It is an architectural anomaly with the rough-cut surrounding environment but it works in a way that is nearly miraculous. I hurriedly joined the other guests as we were escorted into the kitchen through electric sliding glass doors. The kitchen was basically divided into a hot and cold side. Everything was sleek, modern and obviously cleaned and organized without pity. On the cold side prep a group of chefs worked in various modes of preparing desserts. Windows bathed them in natural light from behind. We could see a tub of large peaches being laboriously basted in their own poaching juices, slowly and lovingly. Our appetites began to rumble.
We directed our eyes to our left. A dozen chefs scurried furiously around the delicate, lithe; trim form of Chef Michel Bras. He appeared to be in his mid 50’s but works amidst his chefs with the vigor and intention of a 30-year-old. He was kind enough to come out and quickly greet us. Then we were escorted to our table of six overlooking the grassy, stony cliffs of the lands around us. Winds seemed to be a constant here in the area around Laguiole. On this sunny day in early September they provided a soft visual tease to the long grass that lay beyond our window and the unobscured land and sky-scape around us.
The oblong table shape allowed for all of us to easily see each other when we spoke. It was adorned with a row of small squashes collected from a nearby garden. Somewhat large dark gray rocks were set at each place. The rocks had an even slit carved into them and flatbreads of various flavors were inset within them. Beautiful, unique cutlery made by the world famous Laguiole knife factory, whose Phillipe Starcke designed building we passed just miles before arriving here at Michel Bras lay to the right in the “nine o’clock” position of each of our place settings.
We had the Chef’s tasting menu of course. No written menus were offered so all of the courses arrived without our knowledge of what they would be. They simply asked if anyone had any allergies etc. before Chef Bras determined our progression. All of the courses were announced in French. Since none of us were fluent in French it added to the mystery of the meal. We were in a sense forced to form our own conclusions as to what some things were with only our eyes and palates as guides.
The first little taste was a simple presentation of peeled, tiny, perfect heirloom tomatoes that you were told to first dip into a tiny bowl of mayonnaise and then some salt. Next came a savory tart made with local wild mushrooms. With these two dishes you begin to sense the difference between a chef like Ferran Adrià and Michel Bras. Michel’s food comes straight at you out of the countryside. It is hard to see where Michel’s hands connect with Nature’s. Such is the seamlessness of his vision. He is not going to play the illusionist. He shows his genius with a masterfully light touch. He has a surgical skill with seasoning and proper cooking times. The food is in perfect accord with the place that he calls home.
A deep scooped out Bernardaud bowl arrived. On the left rim lay a large finger shaped portion of perfectly cooked mackerel. A ridge of celery root purée was in the bowl. The lower right hand rim of the plate was dusted with a clean tasting citrus zest powder.
The “Ultimate Chef’s Salad” is how we collectively described the next dish. It was one of the most harmonious assemblages of vegetables, legumes, herbs and shoots. It was served tepid with a delicate vinaigrette. Now the world knows it as his amazing, “gargouillou”.
A decoratively colored glazed tile was presented. On the left was a four-inch long Breton lobster that was presented in its shell. To its right was a homemade cracker rectangle topped with an intense confit of sun-dried tomatoes. An aromatic molasses reduction glazed the crustacean.
The foie gras course was next. It was served hot with a puree of pumpkin, apple batons and cabbage strands. There was a jus that I detected some Spanish sherry wine vinegar in.
The next course was a mystery to us until the sommelier that had been helping us throughout the meal came back over. It looked a bit like a pale zucchini cylinder in the middle of the plate. Its flavor was somewhat like zucchini meets romaine. As it turns out it was “celtus”, which is also known as ‘stem lettuce’. The celtus was served with a very pale emulsion made with corn as well as a heady black truffle essence.
The meat entrée was a 2-bone rack of lamb with a stew of bulgur wheat. The presentation was very simple. With every main entrée course it seems the Chef has the service staff bring a dish native to the Auvergne region called aligot. Aligot is a humble peasant styled dish native to the region made from a cooked mixture of cantal cheese, potatoes and garlic. The waiter comes over with a large bowl of the steaming mixture. They deftly worked two spoons in elliptical motions and magically maneuvered the long, gooey strands into a neat mass on each plate. The rusticity of this dish indicated the chef’s self-assuredness in that it had no frills and no apologies for its simplicity.
I cannot overly emphasize how beautiful and delicate each plate was in the savory dishes. This line held through in faultless exactitude with the desserts! This is what you can expect in a true “three star”. There are no gaps anywhere. It is an Olympian performance in a gustatory gymnastic “all around” competition. Bras and his team never let up.
Cheeses local to the region were enjoyed with more wine.
Some of the dessert dishes included; A pumpkin liquid-center chocolate cake, which had an extraction of coffee on the plate; a “Guggenheim” shaped spiral with a mocha-caramel served with a sherry glass of coffee mixed with a prune eau-de-vie; and a “Popsicle” like concoction presented with three little pots of various sauces to dip them in.
After the meal the Chef greeted us again. He came to our table dressed in running clothes. He was shy and self-deprecating in a way. He thanked us for coming and then he was gone. As the sun began to fade Sergio guided us back into the kitchen. We slowly wandered around the quiet, clean and now empty place. It was a beautiful kitchen but it is the people who make this restaurant so perfect. People guided by the gentle genius of Laguiole; Michel Bras!