Perhaps we were just lucky, possibly there had been a cancellation or non-arrival…or maybe it had been the expensive bottle of wine we ordered…whatever the reason, before we had finished our lunch, we were assured that a table would be ready for us at dinner.
For our second meal, we took the second extended tasting menu – légumes & nature – which obviously focused on vegetables, whilst supplementing to it and changing dishes we had tried already. I will not dwell on repeated items that have been described elsewhere.
Amuse Bouche: coques-mouillettes.
Entrée 1: le temps de l’été; la lotte juste raidie sur une vinaigrette noire; côtes de blettes, des chicorées…; peucedanum (cadeau). An immaculate ivory morsel of Mediterranean monkfish, merely poached in black olive oil, sat in the plate’s centre fringed with ribbons of grilled red pepper and surrounded by a small pool of the ebony vinaigrette; a blanched rib of chard checked the dressing on one side whilst alabaster and blue borage blossoms, chicory and peucedanum were sprinkled overtop. One of Bras’ proudest creations is his ombre & lumière, shadow & light – this is not that dish, but there exists the same play between black and white here. The pearly piece of fish, served cool (quite fittingly it seemed, set as it was in the dark liquid – the shade), was meaty, pleasantly fibrous and suggestively sweet; it contrasted well against the bittersweet black olive. The accompanying components each added something definite. Fleshy pepper had strong veggy-sweet smokiness; crackly chicory, citric tanginess; peucedanum, touch of pungency; and the borage’s refreshing savour matched the moist, cucumber-like blette.
Entrée 2: aujourd’hui « classique »; le gargouillou de jeunes légumes; graines & herbes, lait de poule à la cistre. This was the only dish tried twice.
Notice the stark difference in contents and composition from the version eaten just hours earlier (on the left). The impact was the same – thorough fixation.
Entrée 3: mûrie, comme il se doit; une bonne tomate dite steack à l’olive, des fleurs & des basilics; une touche de poutargue. Half a skinned cross-section of steack tomato, resting in olive oil and in between a bundle of shaved fennel and dried bottarga, was jestingly held straight with sprigs of baby chive; embedded via an incision along the fruit’s top was a flowery bouquet of red and regular basils, tajete, bergamot and violet. Pleasingly light local olive oil from Clermont-l’Hérault, which also featured as a mousse, was complemented by the citrus-tinged flora and crispy fennel. Basil naturally works well with tomato, but although this one was certainly succulent, it was actually quite dull, lacking any real flavour. The bottarga too offered really only crunchy texture and little else.
Entrée 4: tout le printemps; un jeune navet, des pousses de pois, des pois avec les champignons de saison; oseille & cresson alénois. Sautéed morels and both yellow and green peas were laid about and over a small baby turnip that stood in the various vegetables’ emulsified cooking juices alongside wilted water spinach, cress, pea sprouts and sorrel leaf. The morels, clumped together by the creaminess of the sauce, might admittedly not have looked especially appetising, but their taste and immediate aroma were excellent. The tender turnip beneath shared a strong nutty note with the mushrooms, as it did a sweet one with the green peas. Jaune pois from Planèze were earthier whilst the water spinach, mild and sorrel, nicely lemony.
Entrée 5: la saison des curcubitacées; une courgette fleur grillée et le pâtisson farci; amandes, anchois et huile moussée à la reine-des-près. Celebrating the cucurbitaceous season, an anchovy-chard-stuffed patty pan, topped with grilled, unripe courgette flower, came with the almost-whole actual fruit in an airy reine-des-près foam; peeled almonds and a short streak of orange powder were placed upon the plate’s lip while rau răm had been strewn over most the elements. As it was at lunch, the meadowsweet and almond’s affinity was made advantage of. The juicy, fresh courgette was accompanied by its delicate, unique-tasting blossom; the pâtisson had bite and a filling that was firmly salty yet not overpowering. The orange dust was intensely sugary, but interestingly so. Rau răm or Vietnamese coriander contributed an uplifted lemon scent as well as slightly spice.
Entrée 6: dans l’esprit d’un farçi, le poivron doux sweet-banana; sur une vinaigrette au jus de viande; huile de navette en crème, touche d’ail frais. Three bright green banana peppers, abutting the brim of the bowl and partially blanketed with mustard leaf and a mélange of anise herbs, were set in a thin bath of rapeseed oil laced with jus de veau, wherein a roulé de pomme de terre aux anchois was also found whilst a filet of the same fish rested on the rim. The first sensation was the smell of the warm coil of potato – crisply-coated, moist within, the anchovies’ flavour had infused throughout and this was quite an indulgent taster. Garlic-tinted rapeseed oil was flavourful yet smooth and subtle, allowing the sweetness of the supple peppers to come through. The sistre, dill, rocket and chervil had their own peppery-sweetness. A minor complaint was that the fishy strip adjacent had not been sufficiently deboned.
Plat Principal 1: d’eau de source; l’omble-chevalier juste raidi à la carotte & la badiane; côte & feuilles de kailan, lait de noisette. Flash-fried freshwater char, coated in carrot and star anise, was served atop kalian, with girolles in hazelnut milk and encircled by mustard and garlic flowers. The fish had nice firmness and fine flake; the liquorice-like badiane and carrot went well with its mild richness and gentle caramelisation. Kailan or Chinese broccoli had mellow, near-sweet leaves whilst the mushrooms and creamy hazelnut froth were a natural combination.
Plat Principal 2: chez nous, on l’appelle l’oreille; la pièce de Boeuf Aubrac – pure race – poêlée, une pomme de terre farcie, du jus aux truffes de Comprégnac. A (presumably) tenderloin cut of Aubrac beef, briefly pan-fried, had been butterflied to reveal a beautiful, rosy cerise centre. Sprinkled with fleur de sel, the filet skirted a dark, mottled mere of Comprégnac truffle jus as did some haricots verts and another roulé de pomme de terre, this time lined with the very thin brisket of beef. Once more, the latter is was very tasty and satisfying, its meaty middle having almost melted. The truffle sauce was earthy and just a little sweet whilst the greens, besides being a pretty touch, tendered crunch. The steak, whose cross-slicing left it resembling a pair of ears, was especially tender and had a certain charred-ness to its savour.
Dessert 1: sur une interprétation du coulant, originel de 81; le biscuit tiède de chocolat au riz coulant; riz grillé, crème glacée au thé vert Matcha. Dinner’s coulant came inspired by Japan. The chocolate fondant, filled with milky rice cream, sat inset in a rectangular pancake of grilled rice and set with a scoop of green tea ice cream.
Once more, the execution was impeccable with the soft shell holding smoothly flowing contents. The herbally bitter matcha had a soothing effect on the richness of the rest whilst the orange sugar added a trace of sweet fruitiness. The rice ‘fritter’ was a delicious touch with its crisp crust encasing grains of creamy rice.
Dessert 2: comme là-bas, c’est le temps; qui se mêlent de fruits sec, de canelle, d’anis, de semoule, de miel…
Dessert 3: à grignoter, une gaufrette de pomme de terre; crème à la pomme de terre, pignon & safran. Multiple leaves of potato had been baked together into a single, coarse undulating layer; two of these brittle wafers sandwiched potato mousse spiked with pine nuts and saffron. This unconventional millefeuille had unexpected texture (given the firmer pastry) and a flavour more savoury than sweet; well-measured saffron added honey aroma.
Mignardises: canailleries; billes chocolatées (chocolat noir réglisse; chocolat blanc sureau), billes glacées (fruits prunes rose; fruit abricots gingembre); canard… crunch.
We drank a 1995 Meursault ‘les Rougeots’, JF Coche-Dury and 1997 Hermitage, JL Chave alongside the meal.
The ambience was once more superb and delightful. Dinner began with a beautiful lightshow of blended blue and rosy hues as the sun set and ended with the starry-lit stillness of an Aubrac night. The crowd was a little dressier this time and more international too with foreign voices oft overheard. The welcome we received was very warm and we were able to speak at a little length with Véronique Bras, who was even sweeter and friendlier than before. Furthermore, our young serveuse’s knowledge of what she was serving was also rather outstanding.
What was especially noticeable about these plates was the effortless way in which they followed each other and again their aesthetic strength. Each was of an excellent standard – easy to eat, full of flavour and well-constructed. The lotte juste raidie, gargouillou and jeune navet were perhaps the tastiest of the selection whilst desserts were better on the whole than at lunch with this Oriental coulant decidedly more pleasing than the Caribbean one prior. In spite of all this though, there was one course that did not do justice to the others: the bonne tomate dite steack. The tomato itself was simply dull and lifeless; this was without doubt the worst dish of the day and the only stain in two otherwise spotlessly executed meals.
It seems as if a comparison between the regular and vegetable menus is inevitable and necessary. Personally, even if Bras maybe best known for his vegetables, it was his meat preparations that remain most memorable – along with the gargouillou. The chef himself has said, ‘it hurts me when people say I am a cook of plants’, labelling that image a ‘caricature; it’s only part of what we do’. Nonetheless, the more legume-orientated recipes were still very satisfying and Bras’ ability to raise these (mostly) common greens to such a level was worthy of note.
On a larger scale, some of the strongest elements that determined Bras’ style during the first carte were of course still evident. There was the effective, colourful presentation that caught the eye with its lush greens and welcoming yellows so evocative of spring and the countryside outside. The same influence of memoria gustative that speaks so sympathetically to the modern Spanish chefs and Bras’ use of his surroundings as his muse were seen reiterated in the menu’s mainstays – coques-mouillettes, gargouillou and biscuit tiède de chocolat – whilst reinforced by the immediately local Aubrac boeuf and very personal monkfish creation. However, both of these themes have already been addressed.
What was new now, which was certainly not felt as keenly before, was the prevalence of foreign products. This whole meal was marbled with hints of the Far East, including such exotic smatterings as rau răm, poivron doux sweet-banana, badiane, kalian and thé vert Matcha. Even though Bras boasts that ‘Aubrac runs in our blood. We were born on the plateau, we spent our happy childhoods here, now we work here. [It] provides us with our inspiration, our reason for living,’ he also readily admits that ‘if we ate only what comes from the Aubrac, we’d have nothing but potatoes, pork and cabbage’. The chef has travelled the world – maybe lately increasing so – but wherever he has been, he has been reminded of his own home: ‘the stone walls of puech brûlat [recall] the architecture of the Andes. The streaks of light across the paddy fields in Indonesia bring back memories of the rows of mown hay in our meadows. In Afghanistan, chiryakh [or in the East, yuba] I liken to our own milk skin. The bentô-ya, from the land of the rising sun, fulfils the same function as our own picnic baskets.’ Bearing this in mind, it becomes easier to understand the unexpected inclusion of these ingredients.
After serious contemplation, I would go as far as to say that none of the dishes today wowed me. Probably not even the gargouillou if judged on deliciousness alone (although it was immensely remarkable, unforgettable and in no way disappointing). Although, on the other hand, all the cooking proved almost absolutely flawless and, most importantly, tasty.
Yet as I have said before, the Bras experience extends beyond what is upon the plate. There is personality and a sense of place. The cuisine, its concepts, the courses, everything down to the very design of the restaurant is a reflection of Michel Bras.
It was as if whilst eating here, I was sure of exactly where I was and I knew that I could not be enjoying this cuisine anywhere else in the world…and that did wow me.
Route de l’Aubrac, 12 210 Laguiole, France
tel: +33 (0)5 65 51 18 20