Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Seventh Heaven

How is it that we find a great restaurant in a small town on a remote plateau in southern France? Like so many great chefs, Michel Bras learned his craft from his mother, at the family’s inn in Laguiole. Aside from that, he’s self-taught. But he’s taken the local cuisine to a different level, while remaining true to the produce of Aubrac.

The restaurant perches on the top of a hill about 5 kilometres east of Laguiole. It’s a modern design, reminiscent of a glass spaceship stuck into the hill. As we enter, we go first into the lounge for an aperitif. The lounge has floor-to-ceiling windows on each side, allowing a panoramic view across the countryside. These floor-to-ceiling windows extend along the entire length of the west side of the restaurant. We sit on the west (and best) side to watch the sun go down behind the hilltops.

In the lounge, with our sparkling aperitif and an amuse-gueule, we select our appetizer, main course, and wines. For the food, we go with specialities from the Aubrac region. The wine list is a brick, page after page of wines from every region in France and around the world (alas, no Canadian wine…not even icewine). It’s fascinating yet intimidating, even to a sommelier. But I already know what I want: wines from either Languedoc-Roussillon or the southwest of France that will match our food choices. The restaurant sommelier and I go over some options and I make the choice. (I’ll tell you more about the sommelier, Sergio Calderon, in my next post.)

Finishing our aperitif, we move into the restaurant. It’s a stunning design, decorated with slate and basalt from the plateau. A stream runs along an interior corridor for the length of the restaurant. The wine cellar and kitchen are on one side of the corridor; on the other side are bridges that cross from the corridor into the dining room. The décor is striking, yet nothing that takes your attention away from the main event on the table.

At this point, you have to go to the photo highlights to see the food dishes:  http://www.facebook.com/album.php?aid=9560&id=100000148392134&l=f1da3a1175

For appetizer, Michèle chose tarte fine au cèpes (cèpes mushrooms on pastry) and I chose the Ris D’Agneau (lamb sweetbreads). I’ve had veal sweetbreads many times, but lamb sweetbreads are a first for me. The texture and taste are similar, but the lamb sweetbreads are larger. Michèle’s dish is fantastic; it’s the season for cèpes, and they’re nutty and meaty. For wine, we have a white by-the-glass: Magdalena Roussanne from Perpignan in Roussillon. It has a deep-straw colour, full-bodied with aromas of pear, honey, spices and a bit floral. It’s a great match with both.

For the main course, Michèle has a piece of Aubrac beef, pan seared, with truffle juice. I’ve chosen wood-roasted rack of lamb. Both are knockouts. The wine is from a producer I’ve wanted to try: Mas Jullien 2001, Coteaux de Languedoc. Many consider Mas Jullien to be THE best producer in Languedoc. The wine is a blend of Syrah, Mourvedre, Carignan, Grenache, and Cinsault. It has aromas of black fruit and a bit of prune, with dried herbs (rosemary), spice, liquorice, and a bit of coffee. The tannins are soft and well-integrated. It’s an ideal match with the lamb and the beef.

For dessert, Michèle takes the potato waffle, with a hazelnut cream and caramel filling. I go with the Pear William, with pistachios, clover ice cream, and tongues of chocolate. Decadent.

The service is perfection: always there when you want them and otherwise invisible.

It’s no wonder that many critics consider Bras to be one of the best restaurants in the world. I agree.

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