Michel Guerard started out his career as a pastry chef, and worked at restaurants such as Maxim’s and the Hotel Crillon in Paris. In 1958 he was awarded the prestigious Meuilleur Ouvrier de Francais (MOF) for pastry. He struck out on his own in 1965, opening the restaurant Le Pot au Feu in Paris, gaining a Michelin star in 1967 and a second in 1971. He married in 1974 and moved to Eugenie les Bains, where his wife’s family ran a spa, and transformed the kitchen there, gaining the ultimate third Michelin star for the property in 1977, just three years after taking over.
He has retained this third star for forty years, the second longest such continuous run after Paul Bocuse (who gained his in 1965). However unlike Mr Bocuse, whose health is sadly now failing, the sprightly Mr Guerard is still actively cooking at the age of 84, and has been in the kitchen on every one of my many visits here, bar one. At the one service he was absent, I knew about it in advance because he knocked on the door of every guest room on the property that morning to individually apologise for such a rare absence. It turned out that he had to travel that day to Paris to receive a lifetime achievement award from the President of France, which seemed a pretty good excuse to me. Michel Guerard was sufficiently influential to have appeared on the front cover Time magazine in 1976 (with his lighter style of cooking described as “the new gourmet law”), decades before the era of the celebrity chef. He shows no signs of slowing down and aims to be in charge of the kitchen for many more years to come.
Pres des Eugenie is in the tiny commune of Eugenie les Bains, with a population of just 507, situated in the department of Landes. It is 165km west of Toulouse airport, 178 km south of Bordeaux, 135km east of Biarritz, and is actually a manageable 174km east of San Sebastian in Spain, for those wishing to plan a food or wine related trip. The property has a large spa attached to the main house, with further accommodation in a converted convent that is now within the grounds, as well as more rooms near the second restaurant of the property in what was once an old barn, the marvelous Ferme aux Grives, which would have a strong case to make to be the best value serious quality restaurant in France, or indeed anywhere. There are extensive attractive gardens, with a pretty set of rose-covered pergolas amongst many other attractive features.
The dining room is on the ground floor of the main building, decorated with oil paintings. Tables were generously spaced, covered with taupe linen tablecloths with white stripes. There were three tasting menus, at €130, €195 and €245, as well as a full a la carte choice. The wine list is vast, arriving in an impressive red binder and covering over 1,400 different labels, though no pesky foreign wines are given any attention. Given the location of the restaurant, it is not surprising that the list majors on Bordeaux and the south west of France, with many older vintages tucked away. Sample labels were Coteaux de Murviel Mas Coutelou 2001 at €55 for a bottle that you can find in the high street for €25, Alain Chabanon Montpeyreux l’Esprit de Font Caude 2006 at €95 compared to its retail price of €35, and Jean-Claude Bachelet et fils Chassagne Montrachet Les Macherelles 2014 at €155 for a wine that will set you back €57 in a shop. There was no shortage of grander bottles, such as Latour au Pomerol 2009 at €300 compared to its retail price of €100, and Chateau des Comtes Lafon Meursault Les Charmes 2012 at €380 for a wine that currently sells for €221. For the seriously rich there were twenty-two separate vintages of Petrus, such as the superb 1982 at €4,800 for a bottle whose current market value is actually higher than that at €5,704.
The meal began with a little oval pan of nibbles, nicely decorated with fresh herbs including sage and rosemary. There was a delicate pastry baton flavoured with basil and lardo, a cheese straw, and a filo straw filled with langoustine. These sound simple but were extraordinary. The cheese straw was one of the most delicate, perfect things I have had the pleasure of putting in my mouth: the pastry melted on the tongue, the cheese flavour was deep and gorgeous. The langoustine straw was also fabulous, the pastry unusually delicate and the shellfish flavour coming through beautifully. The third of the trio of nibbles was also very fine, light and delicious. These were absolutely top of the range canapés (20/20).
A further amuse bouche was “truffle zephyr”. This was a savoury ile flottante, so instead of a custard there was a leek and potato soup as the base, the egg white somehow transformed into a creamy yet very light “exquise’ garnished with black truffle. This was a remarkable dish, the soup itself having great depth of flavour, the fluffy, creamy “exquise” like eating an impossibly creamy black truffle flavoured cloud. The culinary tricks of molecular gastronomy have enabled food to be transformed into unnatural textures that are undeniably original yet not always good to eat. By contrast, whatever wizardry in the kitchen conjured up this dish was something to be celebrated (20/20).
The signature “morel pillow” dish is a gloriously rich, creamy soup of morel mushrooms and asparagus tips on a base of delicate ravioli, the dish given a further element of luxury with black truffles. Michel Guerard is famous for his healthy “cuisine minceur”, but this was old-school classical cooking: the morels magnificent, the rich sauce packed with flavour, the truffles adding their heady fragrance (20/20).
Langoustines in a spicy citrus sauce was the next course. Five (count ‘em) large langoustine tails came with tiny potatoes and a rich saffron sauce that had julienned apple and carrots, flavoured with a very gentle hint of Indian spices. The langoustines were superb, sweet and lightly cooked, complemented beautifully by the sauce, the touch of acidity of the apple balancing the richness of the saffron sauce (20/20)
My main course was guinea fowl from Chalosse in Gascony, cooked in the embers of a wood fire, with a stew of lamb sweetbreads and morels, along with stuffed cabbage and baby peas. Unlike the birds we see in the UK, the guinea fowl here had bags of flavour, resting in a sauce of its cooking juices. The vegetables with it were excellent, the peas particularly tender (19/20).
For dessert, red currant meringue appeared as layers of meringue in the style of a millefeuille, each layer having vanilla ice cream laced with red currants and red currant parfait, with stems of sugar coated red currants as garnish and a pool of red fruit coulis. The meringue layers were delicate, the ice cream lovely, and the red currants about as good as they can be, their sharpness cutting through the richness of the rest of the dish (19/20).
Marquis de bechamel soft cake came with melted rhubarb ice cream. This was chilled after baking, with raspberry coulis and more raspberries as garnish. This may not be the prettiest dessert ever created but it tasted stunningly good, the cake having a hint of caramel on its surface, with the sharpness of the rhubarb perfectly balanced by the sugar used in the cake (20/20). Petit fours were a superb plum tart with pastry that tasted as if it were made by angels, dazzling lemon Madeleine and a lovely miniature tiramisu (20/20). Coffee was from a Nespresso machine, a pod called “Kilimanjaro” created by Nespresso exclusively for high-end restaurants, using Tanzanian coffee. This was surprisingly good, smooth and quite rich.
Service was superb, highly attentive yet not intrusive, the staff friendly and knowledgable. If you ate the cheaper set menu here and were reasonably restrained on the wine front then you could dine here with ease for €190 (£167), which if you compare with Paris three star restaurants is a steal. Here you have a glorious country setting and some of the best cooking in the world from one of the greatest ever chefs.
The following night we were given a different set of nibbles, which in itself was a nice touch, the kitchen obviously aware enough of their guests to not repeat things. There was a little tart of salmon with aromatic sauce, basil and tomato tartlet, and a further pastry case containing seafood with coconut mousse, black truffle and herbs. The salmon was merely excellent, but the other two were remarkable. The tomato had stunning intensity of flavour, nicely balanced by the basil, and the pastry was ethereally light. The pastry of the seafood mousse was also remarkably delicate, the filling beautifully balanced. The standard of the nibbles here is pretty special (20/20).
I was curious to see white asparagus on the menu, given that it was now September. Apparently the asparagus are grown locally, picked in early summer and then preserved for use the year round. The asparagus was served cold with green pea and parsley emulsion and a separate truffle sauce. On the side were tartlets of white asparagus and black truffle. The asparagus was fine but for me this was the least convincing dish of my stay. The sauces were excellent and the little tartlets lovely, but for me this was still merely very good, a step down from the other dazzling dishes that we ate here. It was also less impressive that I recall at a previous visit (17/20). My starter brought things sharply back on track. A lobster was beautifully cooked, baked in the oven and served with onion and peach sauce, the meat removed and then placed back in its shell for presentation. This was served with a hollowed out onion containing an onion and cheese sauce. The lobster had lovely sweetness and was flawlessly cooked, the gentle acidity of the peach a lovely foil for the shellfish, but I was even more impressed by the onion. The depth of flavour of this was extraordinary, with a hint of sweetness complemented beautifully by the cheese. It is one thing to take a luxury ingredient like turbot or lobster and cook it well, but to take the humble onion and transform it into something that tastes this good is culinary artistry (20/20).
I then tried pig trotter with duck foie gras in a crunchy bread sandwich, with a salad of crayfish, smoked eel and pear, and pools of parsley cream. This was glorious, the deep pork flavour lifted by the richness of the liver, yet balanced by the other elements (20/20). Beef from the local area was cooked in the fireplace in the kitchen, basted in grape juice, presented at the table and then allowed to rest. The fillet was coated in a crust of panko breadcrumbs and served with shallot confit with red wine sauce, alongside creamy mashed potatoes. On the side was a trio of perfect soufflé potatoes, as light and delicate as it is possible to imagine. The beef itself was excellent but again I was actually just as impressed with the shallots, which had beautiful sweetness from their slow cooking process (20/20). Red mullet was also grilled in the fireplace, giving it a pleasing smoky flavour note, served with anchovy sauce with crayfish alongside and also a strip of crisp fish skin. On the side were tiny potatoes wrapped in bacon. The mullet was cooked very well but the anchovy sauce was a little dominant. However the fish skin was impressive, the crayfish lovely and the potatoes gorgeous (18/20).
We tried the cheese board tonight, which was mostly local cheeses of the area supplemented by some Camembert and three different Roquefort cheeses, all in lovely condition. For dessert I had white peach, which had been poached, and served with verbena ice cream and a coulis of raspberries grown in the property. This was gorgeous, the peach simply stunning and the raspberry coulis having beautiful flavour (20/20). Also superb was a millefeuille of chocolate with light coffee cream and topped with chocolate sorbet. The pastry was sublime, which is a recurring theme here, and there were also delicate little chocolate biscuits and strands of chocolate with pieces of confit lemon along with a lovely Armagnac sauce. This was French pastry skill at the top of its game (20/20). With coffee was another gorgeous lemon Madeleine, a delicate red fruit meringue and a fabulous cherry Madeleine.
These two meals show that Michel Guerard is still operating at the highest level, still coming up with new dishes, and making the most of the superb produce of the area. The cooking style here is deceptively simple, dishes having no more elements than they need, the culinary technique flawless. This is not food for the Instagram generation. Sauces arrive as glorious pools, not smears, and there is no artful tweezering of edible flowers to make a prettier picture. Instead you just have to make do with glorious ingredients, beautiful cooking and superbly balanced dishes packed with flavour.