Laguiole is a pristine town nestled in the Aveyron region of southern France. Gently swooped tile roofs perch atop light stone buildings and flower boxes are brimming with crimson and yellow. The silhouettes of these pastoral buildings unfold into the rolling green hills of the Midi-Pyrenees where wildflowers speckle everything in sight. In this storybook town of just over 1,200 inhabitants, an unexpected specialty lurks behind the polished storefronts. Laguiole is quite possibly the cutlery capital of Western Europe with a whopping 24 coutelleries (knife shops) crammed into the city. Artisans proudly display their knives underneath glass top display cases, likening the product more to jewelry than something fit for cutting a hunk of meat. But functionality is certainly not lost to aesthetics. These knives can slice and dice, making even a sinewy piece of venison turn into a submissive piece of melted butter. After an afternoon of trying to devise a plan for how our precious knife would not be confiscated from our carry-on bags upon reentry to the States, we finally decided that our bank accounts would thank us for these national security measures. These knives can range above one thousand Euros each (for the mesmerizingly swirly slabs of Damascus steel). So, we rummaged through the basket of seconds, debated buying a fork just for the sake of it, and left empty handed to prepare for that evening’s meal.
Just outside the town, Michel Bras juts its architecturally anachronistic head above the paint palate assortment of green hues and makes a stunning appearance in all its modern-art-museum-ish glory. Currently ranked the best restaurant in France, Michel Bras had a big reputation to live up to. First we were lead into the glass-walled lounge area where a few other couples sipped cocktails and tried to fathom the almost 360-degree view of absolute beauty. From my smooth, beige leather chair I felt like I was at the helm of a massive space ship. My gourmand crew members had chosen this quaint spot to rest for the night, we abducted a few unsuspecting dairy cows and some local herbs and flowers and now it was time to eat. I’ll admit it is quite lucky my gastronomic fantasy planet is home to the best chefs and sommeliers in France.
Back to the real world, the menus were brought over and it was an easy choice for the longest “menu découverte et nature.” We made our way down a black tiled hallway, across a marble footbridge that spanned a small moat and into a long vaulted dining room. Once again we were faced with a stunning panoramic view of the countryside (which would only get better as the clouds settled and the sun set). The soft gray table clothes were expertly elastic at the bottom which made for ample leg room. In front of me gleamed a special Michel Bras edition Laguiole cutlery set with a holder that had little notches carved out for each tine of the fork and the curve of the spoon to rest in.
First, a series of short handled spoonfuls: zucchini, fish & peas, cauliflower & ham & mustard. These little shovels were perfect for a single bite and looked beautiful alternated on the plate. Each bite was distinct and incredibly flavorful – a good sign of things to come.
I would guess this plate had at least 50 ingredients – but here is what I recognized: asparagus, carrots, peas, lentils, white beans, cabbage, scallion (bulb & green), 10 (+?) herbs, flowers, green beans, zucchini, sorrel, arugula + other greens and an assortment of spices adorning the edges of the plate. They called the dish “warm young vegetables,” which it was, but that conjures up images of steamed broccoli at preschool, so I think something like “magnificent array of the fresh and colorful bounty of nature” might be more appropriate. It was impossible to construct the same bite twice, but each one was equally enticing.
Anything I may have forgotten about this dish can be blamed completely on the setting sun – the largest glowing molten sphere I have ever seen. It slipped below the mountains and sent brilliant hues of red and pink ricocheting off the prism of clouds (this picture does not even come close to doing it justice). I wish I could have taken my shiny Laguiole spoon and scooped off a mouthful – I bet it would have tasted like sorbet from heaven.
St. Pierre fish (aka John Dory), crunchy piece of skin, purple garlic flowers, sorrel, peas and partly salted butter. The skin piece was like a salty sweet graham cracker that melted in my mouth. The peas were fresh and the garlic flowers were a double bonus of garlic flavor and pretty purple flowers. The fish itself was very smooth but I think the crunchy skin was the highlight of the dish. At this point we made the amateur mistake of setting our knives on the plate to be cleared with the rest of the silverware. Our server kindly informed us that custom in Laguoile is to keep the same knife for the whole meal but they would change the other utensils. From then on we dutifully returned the knife to its nook on the holder before the plates were cleared.
Foie gras, preserves, star anise, roasted onion bulb. This generous foie portion was possibly the most simple preparation I had on the whole trip. It was not complicated with brulées or brioche (or even barbeque) it was just its pure silky smooth self with the option of some sweet preserves or anise. Although I ate the onion piece and it was very sweet, it seemed a little bit unnecessary on the plate. I was surprised how much I liked the star anise, in small quantities sprinkled over each bite.
“Galette” Zucchini, sweet onion, red pepper, black truffle sauce. Matt accurately labeled the top piece a “vegetable churro” which was good, but not quite as refined as some of the other flavors they had presented so far. What completely saved the dish was the incredible black truffle sauce, which I wanted a much greater quantity of. Also surprisingly, when combining all the ingredients into one bite, the addition of some of the green leaf made a huge difference and pulled all the flavors together into a cohesive dish.
Allaiton lamb roasted on the bone, artichokes & bulgar with coriander, flowers and garlic. The lamb was supremely tender and the sauce was wonderful. The artichokes were a little bit bland, but the bulgar was surprisingly delicious. Bulgar screams healthy and not very tasty whole wheat, but it was not the same dense texture that I have previously known it to have. Once again I love the use of the ornamental flowers (yellow) and the garlic flowers (purple) for a splash of color on the plate.
To accompany this came a gloriously whipped potato mixture that makes my dog-eared recipe page in the Dean & Deluca cookbook look like a meager survivor of the potato famine, barely scraping together enough garlic to get by.
Called aligot, this local specialty is potatoes whipped with Laguoile cheese and then hand-churned table side. Our server gracefully stretched and winded the potatoes around two spoons and made the starchy substance look like gooey taffy. Then, when ready she slipped the blob off onto a plate and she had barely moved to Matt’s side of the table when I dove into the doughy goo. It was fantastic.
Just as I thought my senses were about to hit overload, a cheese cart the size of our Smart Car appeared next to me. I can hands down say this was the best cheese course I have ever had. Our server was kind enough to write down the names of my cheeses (which helped save me from looking totally ignorant and asking to have the name repeated 5 times)
Ecir en Aubrac, Bleu de St. Fleur, Pave de L’Aveyron, Laguiole Jeune. I can almost still feel the sting of the blue on the roof of my mouth and the full creamy taste of the Rocamadour. The cheeses were accompanied by a chutney that I am sure was quite good, but I was in a state of total dairy bliss.
The first dessert was invented by Bras in 1981 – A warm chocolate biscuit “coulant” (aka molten chocolate cake) with rum, sorbet of bananas caramelized in semi-salted butter. The Epcot center of sorbet balanced expertly on top of a moist, oozing chocolate cake. The inside still had the slight tang of the rum and once the ice cream melted all over (which it took a while to do even though the cake was quite warm) it became a succession of delicious spoonfuls that I raised to my mouth in praise of the chocolate gods.
Candied cherries with Aveyron thyme, mix of dry fruits, cinnamon, anise, semolina and honey – a deconstructed cherry pie of sorts, the semolina/honey crust provided a nice coating for the concentrated sweet & tart cherries. In the background of the photo – a crystallized Balsam herb leaf with yogurt ice cream and tastes of strong cacao. The balsam leaf had a pleasant balsamic (hence the name) aroma and the ice cream was light with all the tang of a good fresh yogurt.
sorbet dessert 3
Looking back over my pictures I noticed that the color profile of the dishes is very similar – fresh greens, neutral browns/beiges, and a few splashes of yellow or red. And then, when I look at scenic pictures of Laguoile I notice the same thing – clean beige buildings, lush green fields, a few dabs of yellow. Whether or not this was intentional, I think this shows how connected Michel Bras is to his surroundings. As the most revered chef in France, he has made a deliberate choice to stay in Laguoile and not pack up his enterprise to the culinary madhouse of Paris. These flavor and color combinations may seem second nature to Chef, but they were very aesthetically pleasing; the meal had the same calm aura as the surrounding town. His simple ingredients do not mean they are unsophisticated, in fact it seems a much more difficult venture to capture the essence of an indescribable beauty than it is to throw esoteric flavor combinations into the latest culinary gadget.
In a Food and Wine article about Bras’s appearance as guest chef at a dinner in New York, Tom Cholicchio asked him, “How do you have the guts to do something so simple?”
“I owe it to my region,” Bras replied. “The day I can’t work with vegetables anymore,” he added, “is the day I no longer step into the kitchen.”