La Bouitte

Saint-Marcel, Saint-Martin-de-Belleville, France

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This restaurant, which opened in 1976, is run by father and son team René (who is an entirely self-taught chef) and Maxime Meilleur.  The restaurant is open from early December to early May, then from late June to early September. The dining room has a rustic feel, with a wooden floor and cowbells hanging from the ceiling. The restaurant gained its first Michelin star in 2003 and a second one on 2008.  It was awarded the ultimate third Michelin star in the 2015 guide. It is located in St Martin de Belleville, a ski resort in the French Alps. Other than this restaurant and its snow, the town’s only notoriety is being the setting for the Marquise de Sade novel 120 Days of Sodom (made into a 1976 film by Pier Paolo Pasolini), whose events are probably not the “traditional rural values” that the local tourist board has in mind when it now promotes the town. 

A range of tasting menus were on offer, from three courses at €119 (£87) , four courses at €149 (£109), five courses at €179 (£131) and eight courses at €239 (£175). There was a full à la carte selection too. The all-French wine list had just over a thousand different labels on offer. As well as the expected serried ranks of Bordeaux and Burgundy there was a reasonable selection from Alsace and other regions, though just three Sauternes amongst the dessert wines. The Loire section listed the quite rare Clos Rougeard 2010 in all three of its styles: Le Clos (the 2008 was just €132 compared to a retail price of €163), Les Poyeux and Le Bourg, though it transpired that the latter two had sold out.  There was a solitary bottle on the list priced at €36, but the vast majority of the labels were over €100, the prices rapidly heading up to the stratosphere. Examples were Chablis Droin 2012 at €96 for a wine that can be found in the high street for €19, Chassagne Montrachet Moreau 2012 at  €135 compared to a retail price of €49, and Ostertag Riesling Fronholz 2011 at €122 for a label that will set you back €37 in a shop. There was quite a good range of champagnes, with for example Billecart Salmon Rose NV at €195 compared to a high-street price of €83. At the posh end of the list, Etienne Sauzet Batard Montrachet 2010 was €717 compared to a retail price of €363, and Krug Clos d'Ambonnay 1998 was a chunky €7,510 for a bottle whose current market price is €2,189.

A trio of nibbles began the meal: oyster with yuzu and hazelnuts, a miniature beef tartare topped with summer truffle, and nettle soup with calve's foot.  This was followed by a consommé of ham stock with pieces of cheese topped with crisp bread crust. The best of these was the tartare but these were distinctly basic nibbles for a restaurant at this price point (14/20). A trio of different breads was available: baguette, "timber", essentially a country bread, and corn. This was made from scratch in the kitchen and was excellent, the baguette having lovely flavour and texture, the corn bread surprisingly good, the country bread the least good of the trio but still pleasant (17/20).

A take on a risotto was made using a local style of pasta from Savoie, with Beaufort cheese topped with chanterelles and garnished with wild sorrel. This was an unusual and enjoyable dish, with plenty of cheese flavour, the texture of the pasta good, the mushrooms cooked carefully (17/20).

Crayfish from lake Geneva was served with pike gnocchi, a few walnuts and a cream and shellfish sauce. This was a good dish, the crayfish cooked properly and having reasonable flavour, the gnocchi quite light, the sauce having plenty of flavour intensity. The limitation here is that the local crayfish does not compare in flavour with (say) langoustines from Brittany, but I respect the fact that they have chosen to focus on local ingredients (16/20). 

The local lake fish fera was served with a local style of bread, pickles and white butter infused with a local white wine. The fish was precisely cooked, a quite simple dish just with the pickles to accompany it. It did not compare well with a stunning fera dish I ate at Marc Veyrat many years ago, but since he was one of the finest chefs ever to live that is hardly surprising. Nonetheless it was a pleasant plate of food (16/20).

The dish of the night was smoked caramelised sweetbread with horseradish tube and Africa potato with lardo, a white bacon from Piedmont. The veal sweetbreads were silky in texture, smoked over beech wood, the caramelisation offering a combination of sweet and savoury notes. The horseradish added welcome bite and went well with the potato (easily 18/20).

A pre-dessert was frozen "vin chaud", essentially a mulled wine, flavoured with strawberry. On the side was a strawberry tuile and a strawberry dusted with sugar. The fruit itself had good flavour but the tuile was, not to put too fine a point on it, bad: soggy to the extent it could be folded. The frozen mulled wine was fine (overall 15/20 if I draw a polite veil over the tuile). 

Raspberry and verbena baba was served with sweetened almonds and Chantilly cream. The baba itself avoided the dryness that can easily affect this dish, but the verbena was too dominant for me, and the fruit was a touch soggy, disappointing in a high-end restaurant (14/20). Milk textures involved milk in assorted forms: confit, ice cream, mousse and meringue with a few hazelnuts. This worked quite well, though there are limits on how exciting milk can be (16/20). 

A little doughnut from Savoie was filled with saffron cream, accompanied by chocolates in the shape of cows (the symbol of the restaurant). A local recipe "Cruche" made with cream, flour and sugar was like a buttery biscuit, a childhood memory of the chef. A further trio of petit fours were flavoured with chocolate and creamy pistachio, rhubarb jam and orange blossom. These mignardise were very pleasant (16/20 average).

The bill came to €309 (£225) per person with a nice bottle of wine to share. If you ordered (or indeed could find on the list) a cheap wine then a typical cost per head would be around £180. Service was friendly and capable, though we had the undivided attention of the staff this Thursday evening since we were literally the only diners in the restaurant, presumably as this was almost at the end of the summer season.

Overall the food here is very enjoyable, with considerable emphasis on local ingredients such as the lake fish and crayfish. Is it three star level? Not by a wide margin in my view, but this is an issue with Michelin's assessment, which raises unrealistic expectations, rather than with the restaurant, which is delivering a very pleasant experience based on the cuisine of the area. 

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