Relais Bernard Loiseau (formerly Cote d'Or)

2 Rue Argentine, Saulieu, Saulieu, 21210, France

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Over fifty years ago, a restaurateur called Claude Verger owned a fashionable Paris restaurant called La Barriere de Clichy, and in 1972 hired as its head chef a 22-year-old chef, Bernard Loiseau. Verger had met Mr Loiseau when the latter was working as a young apprentice chef at Troisgros. When Verger opened another Paris restaurant in 1974 called La Barriere Poquelin he put Bernard Loiseau in as its head chef.  A year later Verger bought a restaurant property out in the countryside in the little town of Saulieu, and installed Bernard Loiseau as head chef there. The restaurant, called Cote d’Or, had considerable culinary history. Alexandre Dumaine had run it since 1931 and kept three Michelin stars from 1935 to 1964 before retiring. 

Under Loiseau the restaurant quickly regained its strong culinary reputation, and in 1977 gained its first Michelin star. In 1982 a second followed, and in 1991 the ultimate third star was awarded. Mr Loiseau himself bought the property, at that time still called Cote d’Or, outright in 1982. He established three further additional restaurants in addition to the flagship property, and as a high profile chef even designed a line of soups for Unilever. In 1995 President Francois Mitterand awarded him the Legion d'Honneur medal, only the second chef (after Paul Bocuse in 1975) to be recognised in this way. However in February 2003 Bernard Loiseau tragically committed suicide, at the age of 52. There was a great deal of media coverage of this events and the possible reasons for it, much of which appears ill-informed and highly speculative based on what I have read. Certainly at no point did he lose the third Michelin star of the restaurant (which indeed has been retained to this day), and Mr Loiseau’s personal life at that point appears to have been troubled in a number of ways. The restaurant has continued successfully after the tragedy, with the former chef de cuisine Patrick Bertron now leading the kitchen. Mr Bertron has worked constantly here since the early days in 1982, when he started as a lowly commis chef. 

The property is set in the heart of the sleepy commune of Saulieu, a town with its origins in Roman times, situated 72 km (45 miles) north west of Beaune in Burgundy. The dining room is at the back of the building, in a conservatory looking out over an attractive garden. There were three different tasting menus available, at €155 (£112), €180 and €225 a head, with a cheaper lunch-only menu at €70. There was also an à la carte menu, with starters ranging from €52 to €85, fish dishes from €65 to €95, main course meat dishes from €70 to €120 and desserts €25 to €32. The wine list had a few modest labels such as Muscadet Clos Les Montys 2008 at €42 for a bottle that can be found in the high street for €15 and Bongran Vire Classe 2008 at €88 compared to a shop price of €36, but rapidly climbed in price with bottles such as Bernard Moreau Chassagne Montrachet Chenevottes 2010 at a hefty €215 compared to a shop price of €66, Serafin Les Bauds Chambolle-Musigny 1999 at €420 for a wine that retails at €148, and prestige labels like Romanee-Conti La Tache Monopole 2007 at €3,000 compared to a current market price of €2,248.

The meal began with a selection of nibbles. Gougeres were made using Emmenthal and were light, with plenty of cheese flavour coming through the choux pastry (18/20). Leek "royale" with watercress mousse was pleasant, as was a foie gras and apricot biscuit, which was served alongside a fish croquette. These were fine but not particularly memorable (17/20). Better was confit tomato using three different types of tomatoes, topped with a Comte cheese mousse and garnished with a crisp sliver of top quality bacon. The tomatoes had excellent flavour and went well with the cheese, while the bacon added an extra smoky note (19/20).

A classic dish of the restaurant, from years gone by, is its frogs' legs in parsley sauce. These, sourced today from The Netherlands, were were very salty indeed, even to my taste, and the parsley sauce was strong, with almost a metallic note; moreover the legs themselves were arguably a bit flabby; we had a better version of this dish at a simple restaurant in Beaune the next day (barely 14/20). Far better were girolles encased in a bread shell laced with butter, with duxelles of bacon and espuma of mushrooms. The girolles were lovely, the hint of bacon fat going very well with the earthiness of the mushrooms (18/20).

Fillet of turbot was roasted, served with girolles and a mushroom sauce. This was a relatively simple but most enjoyable dish, the turbot precisely cooked and the girolles bringing their scent of the forest to complement the fish (18/20). Local chicken was laced with a little black truffle and served with roast foie gras, a sauce of the cooking juices and truffle mash. The liver was good, as was the sauce, but the chicken was rather disappointing, being a touch stringy in places. Its flavour was not a patch on, for example, the superb Landes chicken served at Pres des Eugenie. The truffles and foie gras brought an air of luxury to the dish, but ultimately the main element here was rather ordinary (16/20 at best). 

Better in term of flavour were sweetbreads in a sauce of veal reduction, cooked accurately and having suitably silky texture, but they were served just with yet more truffle mash. This dish was crying out for something green, anything to relieve the considerable richness of the meat, not have it reinforced by a rich potato component and a further rich sauce. Objectively the sweetbreads and sauce were very good, but this seemed to me a rather poorly designed dish (17/20 for execution, but much less as an overall dish).

A trio of mignardise comprised passion fruit and coconut on a white chocolate base, a macaron of lemon, mint and curry and a miniature apple tart tatin. These showed considerable skill, the macaron having lovely texture, the coconut and passion fruit providing freshness, the little tart a jewel of glorious flavour. These little dishes were dearly the product of an impressive pastry section (19/20).

We tried two desserts. A pretty dish of rhubarb and ginger had several elements. Rhubarb compote was flavoured with baked ginger, creamy Tasmanian pepper and hibiscus vinegar. A soft biscuit with rhubarb was topped with a beautiful blown sugar bubble filled with ginger and rhubarb puree, made with the cooking juices of poached rhubarb sorbet and Tasmanian pepper. On the side was a Tasmanian pepper shortbread diamond topped with a cylindrical Tasmanian pepper tuile, with confit strawberries and fresh strawberries. Finally there was rhubarb poached in light syrup with ginger, some wild strawberries and a strawberry coulis. This was very impressive, the rhubarb having excellent acidity without being overly sharp, nicely balancing the sugar, the ginger working beautifully with the fruit. This was a top of the range dessert (20/20).

Wild gariguette strawberries were layered with a delicate biscuit (made without butter so as not to distract from the fruit), creme brûlée with liquorice and two layers of white chocolate, all topped with cotton candy flavoured with liquorice. Finally, a mint and strawberry coulis was poured over the dish. This was a superb and original dish, the seasonal fruit having terrific flavour, the liquorice very subtle, and the textural contrasts of the biscuit and the ultra-light cotton candy adding a pleasing level of sophistication to the dish. This was a fine example of high-end French desserts (20/20). The Corsican pastry chef Pierre Emmanuelle Fritsch only moved here six months ago but clearly has great talent.

Service was excellent, our waitress having previously worked at, amongst other places, La Trompette in London. The bill, admittedly with some excellent white Burgundy, came to €457 (£332) each, though if you ordered more modestly and drank simple wine then a typical cost per head would be more like £180. Overall this was a somewhat erratic meal, the cooking of a generally high standard but with a few things to take issue with, but then finishing on a very high note with stunning desserts.



Further reviews: 01st Oct 2004

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