This is my favourite restaurant in the world. Set in a tiny village in the French countryside, Michel Guerard’s Pres des Eugenie has held three Michelin stars for 42 years, with Michel Guerard now a sprightly 86 years old and cooking in his kitchen every day, supported by head chef Hugo Souchet, who previously worked at Louis XV and also in Tokyo. The property has forty rooms that you can stay in, both in the main house and in several buildings in the grounds of the property, and also has the casual but superb restaurant Ferme au Grives, set in an old barn. Visitors from abroad can fly into Toulouse (168km = 104 miles) or Bordeaux (178km = 111 miles), or possibly Biarritz (132km = 82 miles) or even Bilbao (269km = 167 miles). If you start in Paris then you can fly to the local airport of Pau, which is 48km (30 miles) away. The property extends over eight hectares and has many attractive gardens, and even a (small) river running through it. It is a very pretty spot, and adjoins the sleepy little village of Eugenie les Bains (current population 447). The dining room is quite relaxed and informal, reflecting the country setting, with a mix of stone and parquet flooring and paintings of still life food and hunting scenes on the walls. The dining room can seat around 75 people, and at any one service there are at least thirty chefs, which gives you an idea of the level of effort going into the food here.
The menu offered a la carte choice or a trio of tasting menus, priced at €139 (£123), €220 (£194) or €260 (£230). Given that the property has a natural hot spring and health spa, it is appropriate that you can also eat in the garden from the low calorie “cuisine minceur” menu, where three courses weigh in at a mere 500 calories (this costs €60). The wine list was extensive, stretching over 87 pages and exclusively French, so no pesky foreign wines. The list had particular depth in the vinous offerings of Bordeaux, which is fitting given the location, with Bordeaux itself a couple of hours drive due north of the property. Sample labels were Ollieux Romanis Corbieres Cuvée Classique 2014 at €45 for a bottle that you can find in the high street for €12, Chateau Clarisse Puisseguin-St-Emilion 2012 at €85 compared to its retail price of €29, and Paul Pillot Chassagne Montrachet 2015 at €145 for a wine that will set you back €59 in a shop. Those with the means could splurge on Leoville Las Cases 1990 at €950 compared to its retail price of €407, and Guigal La Landonne 1995 at €1,300 for a bottle whose current market value is €517. We drank the superb Clos Rougeard Poyeux 2012 for €195, a steal given that its current retail price is €317, if you can actually find it at all. The markups in the list vary considerably, and there was the odd bargain tucked away, such as Coche Dury Meursault 2014 at €360, half its current market price of €720.
Dinner began with a trio of canapés. A truffle choux bun was served warm and was gloriously rich, essentially a truffle gougere, with superb choux pastry. Mr Guerard himself holds the prestigious title of Meilleur Ouvrier de France for pastry (since 1958!), and nowhere in France makes better pastry than here. Also sublime was a croustade of salmon with horseradish sauce, again with pastry of remarkable delicacy. There was also grilled mackerel with an aromatic herb sauce and a touch of horseradish, the latter nicely cutting through the natural oiliness of the mackerel (20/20 nibbles). Bread was a selection of rustic bread, olive bread and lemon bread, which is made fresh in the kitchen daily. This was excellent (18/20) though there is better bread to be found in a few corners of France.
My first course was a cold crayfish broth with spring vegetables. The depth of flavour and clarity of the bouillon was remarkable, and the local vegetables were of very high quality and perfectly cooked (20/20). A signature dish here is “morel pillows”. This is a raviolo stuffed with morel mushrooms, resting in a silky cream sauce with wild mushrooms, asparagus and black truffles. It is difficult to do justice with mere words to get across just how wonderful this dish is. The morels were superb, their flavour lifted by the aroma of the Perigord truffles, The pasta was delicate, the seasonal asparagus superb, and the creamy sauce having gorgeous texture and deep mushroom and truffle flavour. This is as close to cooking perfection as you can find anywhere (20/20).
A whole guinea fowl from nearby Chalosse was cooked in the embers of the hearth in the kitchen. This was served with delicate, light gnocchi and a herb cream with spring vegetables. The flavour of the guinea fowl was stunning, the centre of the meat stuffed with top quality foie gras. This richness was nicely balanced by the vegetables: a glorious dish (20/20). Wild sea bass was cooked in its own juices, covered in herbs and served in a ring of freshly cooked herbs with a butter sauce. On the side was a plate of perfectly cooked spring vegetables: peas, baby broad beans, green beans, bak choi and asparagus. This was a simple but elegant dish (19/20). The cheese board here has a wide range, with three different Roquefort cheeses on offer amongst the many options.
Dessert was rhubarb, a sweet bechamel cake with a base of frozen cake with rhubarb, topped with a soft mousse and melted rhubarb ice cream with poached raspberries. Imagine eating the finest ice cream you have ever had, flavoured with rhubarb and raspberries (20/20). Also fabulous was strawberry tart, the strawberries picked daily from a farm near the property, these having the deep, glorious fruit flavour that seems to have long since disappeared from strawberries in England. The pastry here is always fabulous, and this was no exception (20/20).
At a second dinner we began with different canapés. Salmon from Insigny Sur Mer was served on a biscuit base with dill. Beef tataki was served with “custard” of beef in a delicate tartlet and was superb, and finally there was asparagus from the local Landes region grilled with lard from St Gery (19/20 average, but the beef was dazzling).
Tonight I tried the morel pillows, the dish that my wife had eaten the night before and is described above. This is a remarkable creation, a dish that for me epitomises high end French cooking. No wonder that it has been on the menu here, subtly refined, since 1978, and was as perfect as it was the night before (20/20). Truffle zephyr is a vichyssoise (leek and potato, cream and chicken stock) soup enriched by white truffle (the Alba truffles used here are preserved from the winter when they appear) cream and a black truffle coulis, on which is an unsweetened floating island (softly poached meringue) stuffed with truffles and a garnish of Parmesan crisp. This was a glorious dish, the soup creamy, the floating island light and airy, the Parmesan crisp delicate and adding its richness, the scent of truffles permeating the dish (20/20).
The lobster dish here is a classic. Brittany lobster is roasted on an open fire and served in its shell, the flesh beautifully tender. Lobster is so often disappointing, but here the smoky note from the cooking beautifully enhanced the perfectly cooked shellfish. On the side, served in its skin, was a puree of sweet onion, subtly flavoured with Parmesan cheese and a little peach puree. The superb onions were from a supplier called Mr Bostellico in nearby Verlus, and this onion puree almost outshone the lobster (20/20).
A pie of pigeon breast and duck liver with black truffle was a thing of beauty. As I have said, the pastry at this restaurant is as good as you will ever eat, and here this was filled with fabulously rich, deeply flavoured meat, balanced by a side dish of green cabbage and pear, designed to cut through the richness of the pie. This is French cooking at its best, with deep, rich flavour but also careful balance (20/20).
Chocolate millefeuille was made using chocolate from Madagascar, served with a creme anglaise with Armagnac. The layers of pastry came with coffee mousse topped with chocolate mousse and very thin chocolate tuiles and tiny pieces of lemon. A teacup on the side contained a tiramisu like creation with sponge soaked in coffee, coffee mousse and coffee cream (20/20). White peach was poached in verbena syrup and served with verbena ice cream, the peach itself gorgeous, the ice creams aromatic with a gentle citrus flavour. For some reason the plate was decorated with some greenery, which didn’t really add anything, but the flavour of the peach was memorable (19/20). For petit fours there were gorgeous lemon madeleines, choux buns with hazelnut cream and hazelnuts, and a tart with pistachio and cherry. There was also candied orange peel and dark chocolate ganache coated in dark chocolate and covered in cocoa powder.
On the wine front I couldn’t resist the bargain Coche Dury 2014, which was stunning despite its relative youth. Service was again charming, the staff lovely. The bill came to €675 (£596) including some very serious wine. A typical cost per person, if you took the cheapest tasting menu and shared a modest bottle of wine, might be around £180. This would just about buy you a main course in a Paris three star restaurant these days. Les Pres Eugenie offers extremely appealing food that is basic on terrific ingredients and executed to the highest level. Add in the charming service and lovely setting and you have a complete package. It remains my favourite restaurant in the world.