Flocons de Sel was the only restaurant to be promoted to three Michelin stars in the 2012 Michelin France guide. It is 4km south west of Megeve, a pretty little town of 4,000 people in the French Alps. Megeve is a ski resort not far from Mont Blanc, 87km (54 miles) from Geneva airport. Flocons de Sel originally opened in the centre of Megeve in 2004 before moving to its new location in 2008. The original location is now a bistro owned by the restaurant.
Emmanuel Renaut is the owner and head chef, a man who worked for seven years in the kitchen of the supremely talented Marc Veyrat, who held three stars for his restaurant Veryier du Lac in Annecy. Prior to that, Mr Renaut trained at Les Ambassadeurs at the Crillon hotel in Paris. He is a "MOF", holder of the prestigious Meilleur Ouvrier de France (Craftsman of France).
The restaurant has eight rooms and an apartment attached, nestled on a hillside with striking views over the surrounding mountains, woodland and valleys. In what would seem like a cliché if it appeared in a film, a small herd of cattle wandered by as I looked out from my balcony, their cowbells clanging in the distance. It is certainly a striking natural setting, The tasting menu was priced at €164 (£130), and there was an à la carte selection too. Other menus were available at lunch, including a three course option for just €47, and a six course lunch for €85. The wine list arrived in a heavy book, and had plenty of depth in the classic wines of France. Examples were Chateau Gazin 2006 at €90 for a wine that you can find in a shop for around €65, Trimbach Riesling Cuvee Frederick Emile 2005 at €150 for a wine that retails at €47 up to grander selections such as Petrus 1988 at €2,950 for a wine that you can find for €1,932. I drank Domaine Weinbach Cuvée Theo Riesling at €69, a wine that can be found in a shop for around €24.
A series of nibbles was served on the terrace as I glanced through the wine list. Black rice tartlet that was stuffed with garden salad had pleasing acidity, a savoury biscuit was topped with a sliver of dace from Lake Geneva, and toast with whipped cream was flavoured with garden flowers. These were an agreeable beginning to the meal, though I was less taken with a fritter that had a liquid centre of milk flavoured with wood; this indeed tasted of wood with a smoky hint, which to me seemed just odd. A little piece of brioche toast was topped with edible local flowers, which was pretty though hardly exciting to eat. Finally there was a little dish of diced Noire de Crimee tomatoes flavoured with marigolds and hyssop topped with a disc of ice flavoured with tomato skin, which was interesting technically but ultimately just tasted of some pleasant, though not dazzling, tomatoes. Overall perhaps 17/20 for the nibbles, if I exclude the wood-flavoured milk. Bread was made from scratch, a little loaf with excellent crust and good texture (18/20).
Polenta with black truffles with ceps and juniper berries was the first formal course of the meal. After the light nibbles this was a richer dish, though the berries gave some balance. Polenta is a difficult thing to make interesting, but here it was good, the ceps and the truffles bringing enough flavour to the dish (18/20). Next were local mushrooms served cold and topped with herbs. These certainly had pleasant flavour, but I wondered whether this would have come out better if the dish had been served hot (16/20). Next was a broth flavoured with elderflower containing peas and local Rapunzel roots; the texture of the peas was just soggy, and elderflower is quite a strong flavour - I did not think this dish worked at all.
Much better was beetroot that had been roasted, served with beetroot sauce flavoured subtly with Beaufort cheese. Although this seemed more a winter than a summer dish, the beetroots themselves had good flavour and the sauce was comforting (17/20). I much preferred this to little piece of langoustine served in a broth flavoured with a local bitter herb. I love langoustine, but here the texture was, naturally enough, soggy due to the broth, the subtle taste of the langoustine overpowered by the slightly bitter broth. For me this was a recipe that should be put back in the kitchen drawer, a waste of good langoustine.
Dace from Lake Geneva came with a powder of green tea, carrot mash and a fish jus. The fish was served lukewarm, presumably deliberately, and although the carrot mash worked well I did not find the green tea a harmonious accompaniment to the dace (15/20). Next was a dish of monkfish and pike "biscuits" with an onion and mushroom emulsion and a seafood jus; this was much more successful, the local fish having very good flavour, the crispness of texture an interesting technical touch, the rich fish jus carefully seasoned (18/20). This was followed by an excellent velouté of crayfish flavoured with meadowsweet, warm, rich and luxurious, the crayfish having fine flavour and the velouté intense flavour (18/20).
The dish of the meal for me was the simplest of all, a little pithivier of cep mushrooms. The pastry was light and delicate, the local ceps having lovely flavour - a thoroughly enjoyable dish, beautifully executed (19/20). Two meat dishes followed. Sweetbreads with mushrooms was a classical dish, the sweetbreads very carefully cooked and having very good texture; a rich but luxurious dish (18/20). Another classical dish followed: beef (Angus beef from Germany) fillet served with red onion pie, puff potatoes and some meat jus. The beef was excellent, the potatoes ultra-light and the red onion sweet; I just wondered whether some additional element, either something like spinach or even a little salad, would have balanced the inherent richness of dish (18/20).
Cheese was served from a large board, with numerous local cheeses in good condition. Dessert was iced zabaglione flavoured with herbs, with a selection of ice creams on the side, including a very good mixed red fruit. The herb flavouring didn't work for me, but for those of us that are not fond of shrubbery in our desserts there was on the side a little treat: a delicate beignet, rich and lovely. Service throughout the meal was impeccable, the dishes arriving at a steady pace, the topping up of wine and water faultless.
Overall I found this a rather mixed meal. The chef has trained in both classical (Les Ambassadeurs) and modern (Verrier du Lac with Marc Veyrat) kitchens, and the tasting menu blended these styles, with some nods to local foraging thrown in. The classical dishes, such as the beef and the crayfish velouté, were very capably made. The elements incorporating local ingredients, such as the edible flower nibbles, were pleasant if rather unexciting, while a couple of dishes, such as the langoustine with bitter herb broth, didn't seem to me to work well at all. I wonder whether this is a chef who is still searching to find his own unique style, still developing, for all his evidently strong technique. The best dishes showed real talent, but as an overall package this seemed to me still a bit of a work in progress rather than the finished article. Certainly the setting of the restaurant is spectacular, the service excellent and the meal pricing fair, so nonetheless there is a lot to like about Flocons de Sel.