Michel Guerard (born 1933) began his culinary career with an apprenticeship at a patissiere in Normandy and worked in several Paris restaurants, including the famous Maxims and the Crillon. He earned his MOF for pastry in 1958 (no mean feat, as can be seen from the excellent documentary “Kings of Pastry”). He opened his own restaurant in Paris called Pot au Feu in 1965 and gained a Michelin star in 1967, then a second in 1971. In 1974 he moved to Eugenie Les Bains and took over the family spa of his new wife’s family. He immediately gained a Michelin star in 1975, a second the following year and by 1977 he had earned the ultimate third Michelin star, an exceptionally rapid rise. The three stars have been retained ever since – 38 years and counting, and the sprightly Mr Guerard is still very much in the kitchen. He was a driving force behind “nouvelle cuisine” in the 1970s and his “cuisine minceur” was an attempt at a lighter, healthier style of food.
The property was granted its spa status by Princess Eugenie in 1861 and has been in the same family’s ownership since 1961. The main building has attractive gardens, the dining room split into two main areas, with terrace seating in good weather. Tables are well spaced and have full length white linen tablecloths.
On this trip I had three dinners here and one lunch, as well as eating at the casual sister restaurant Ferme aux Grives. The first dinner started with a series of nibbles. A miniature tart of asparagus with lemon mousse had excellent asparagus though slightly too much lemon to my taste. Better was a little spider crab in a biscuit case with lovely seafood flavour, and better still was a simple tart of tomatoes with stunning flavour. As an extra nibble there were little boudin blanc sausages made from a blend of meat that the waiter was coy about revealing but seemed to be a blend of pork and poultry flavoured with black truffles. These sausages were remarkable, the truffle level perfectly judged, the texture and flavour of the meat filling dazzling, the seasoning perfect. This was seemingly so simple, just a sausage, yet one of the best things I have ever tasted (20/20). Bread was made from scratch in the kitchen, loaves of either plain sourdough or olive sourdough, the texture terrific (19/20).
The all-French wine list was extensive, with around a thousand separate labels and surprisingly fair mark-up levels for a three star restaurant. Domaine Berrouet Herri Mina 2007 was €45 for a bottle that you can find in the high street for €24, Mas de Daumas Gassac 2009 at €105 for a label that retails at €38, and Gagnard Chassagne Montrachet 2009 Morgeot €150 compared to a shop price of €75. At the posh end of the list, Lafon Mersault "Charmes" 2010 was a very fair €260 for a bottle whose current market price is €232, and Leflaive Batard Montrachet €500 for a wine that will set you back €391 in a shop; Romanee Conti Richebourg 1996 was listed at €1,750 yet retails currently at €1,946. There is the odd bargain lower down the list too: Climens 1983 was listed at €110, yet retails at €128, and the rare and highly regarded Clos Rougeard Les Poyeux 2009 was €150 on the list yet would retail at €208 if you could actually find any.
There were several tasting menus, from €125 to €245, as well as a full a la carte choice, which is the way that we went at this meal. The first course was an off-menu special, grilled langoustines prepared in two servings. The first was with a little bouillon of shellfish and potatoes baked with and served on bacon. The second serving had the shellfish in a citrus butter. The langoustines, which had been delivered live that day, were cooked delicately and had lovely sweet flavour, going well with the earthiness of the potato and the lovely bacon. The bouillon in particular was superb (19/20).
Even better was a cold vichyssoise topped with white truffle mousse garnished with black truffles and a Parmesan crisp. Just how it is possible to make what after all is basically a posh leek and potato soup taste this good is beyond me, but whatever happened in the kitchen here seemed closer to wizardry than mere cooking. The flavours were simply stunning, the crisp beautifully delicate and adding a little richness (20/20).
Chicken Rothschild was from nearby Landes and was laced with truffles and stuffed with morels and a little foie gras. What impressed me most was the flavour of the bird itself, a world apart from the tasteless meat that we have become accustomed to from chicken in the UK (20/20). Salmon en papilotte was neatly presented with the paper folded back and held by a peg, the wild fish having lovely flavour, precisely cooked with a herb sauce and a variety of vegetables: peas, broad beans, carrots, courgette, asparagus, French beans, celery leaves and sprigs of herbs with a bouillon poured over the dish at the table. This was a simple dish that relied on the high quality of the components (19/20).
I sampled the cheese board, which amongst other delights had three separate Roquefort cheeses from local farmhouse producers. Another way to try was with Roquefort soufflé, gloriously light and fluffy yet packed with salty cheese flavour, served with a simple green salad (20/20). For dessert, a lemon mousse and lemon pancake was inspired by an Antoine Careme recipe. This was enjoyable but was not quite in the same league as the earlier delights, the lemon flavour fine but the mixture of hot and cold not quite working as well as it might (18/20). However an apricot millefeuille was extraordinary, the pastry stunningly delicate, the fruit flavoured with rum and served with a red fruit couils on the side. Michel Guerard trained as a pastry chef originally, and his puff pastry is simply the best I have ever tasted, bar none (20/20). Even the mignardise were top-drawer, little chocolate soufflés presented in pastry cases.
The following evening the meal began with a different trio of nibbles. Bruschetta of ham with olive oil and basil was lovely, but better was a delicate tart of peas and herbs. Best of all was a remarkable anchovy savoury croissant, the pastry stunningly light, infused with deep anchovy flavour. This was followed by more of the dazzling boudin blanc sausages I had tried the previous night.
A starter of white Landes asparagus was wrapped in ham and served with pea mousseline and verjus jelly. The vegetables were of a very high standard, the pea flavour in particular superb (19/20). My starter of morel "pillows" was better still. Morels and girolles were served with ravioli, green asparagus tips and black truffles in a cream sauce. This was a dazzling dish, the mushrooms impeccable, the seasoning flawless, the cream sauce beautifully judged (20/20).
Scallops came with green asparagus and a seafood sauce, the shellfish perfectly cooked and having lovely sweet flavour. On the side were celeriac leaf and lemon tempura, the latter providing balancing acidity, the tempura of a quality that would easily fit into a top tempura restaurant in Tokyo (19/20).
Baby pigeon was cooked whole and served with sweet onions, raw pear and green cabbage, with soufflé potatoes on the side. The pigeon had lovely flavour, the pear providing acidic balance, the cabbage an earthy contrast. The soufflé potatoes were simply stunning, crisp yet light as a feather, even better than the superb versions I ate at Pierre Gagnaire (20/20).
For dessert Grand Marnier soufflé was, well, perfect. It was cooked evenly through, the texture fluffy as a dream, the liqueur flavour evenly distributed throughout the soufflé. On the side was the best bitter chocolate sorbet I have ever tasted, accompanied by beautifully delicate lemon Madeleines (20/20).
At the third meal of this trip, nibbles were little tuile cones of caviar. There were also a pair of vegetable tartlets and a superb little pastry with fennel seeds that had dazzlingly delicate pastry. A starter of a pair of blinis of truffles was separated by a mushroom duxelle and came with both black and white truffle sauce was a glorious dish. The blinis had terrific texture, the duxelle was faultless, the truffles luxurious (20/20). I tried terrine of foie gras with jellies of mushroom, wine and duck, served with toasted sourdough bread. On the side was a little "Lucullus" pie of duck and mushroom flavoured with black truffles. The terrine was silky and had deep liver flavour, the pie had stunning pastry and the contents had intense meat flavour (20/20).
Lobster was taken out of its shell, lightly smoked in the hearth and then placed back in the shell for display, served with sweet onion and an onion and peach mousse. The shellfish was as tender as could be, the smokiness from the hearth working well. The mousse gave just a hint of acidic balance but the star was the lobster itself, having magnificent flavour and texture (20/20). Fillet of local beef was coated in breadcrumbs coloured with squid ink to resemble the charcoal of the hearth in the kitchen, served with beetroot and grape juice. The meat was supremely tender, cooked rare with the coating going a pleasing textural contrast (19/20). On the side were the glorious soufflé potatoes I had tried the night before.
A modern take on peach Melba came with frosted herbs and vanilla ice cream. The fruit was lovely, perfectly ripe and having superb flavour and the ice cream was excellent but I was not convinced about the herbs (18/20). Soft bechamel cake came with superb melted rhubarb ice cream and raspberries. The fruit was lovely and the ice cream in particular terrific, though the texture of the cake did not quite match the quality of the fruit, at least for me (18/20).
At a final lunch we repeated some favourite dishes but I also tried Hache Parmentier, essentially a posh shepherd’s pie with fluffy potato topping. This was elevated from the ordinary by its use of veal sweetbreads, game bird meat, morels and other wild mushrooms as well as black truffle, and seasoning was spot on. This was a delightfully rich dish, and could have done with something green to offset this, though the intense old school meat sauce served alongside was in itself a textbook lesson in classical culinary technique. (19/20).
Service was very friendly and relaxed, at busy times not quite as flawless as in a Paris three star in terms of topping up. The bill for my final meal, with just water and coffee to drink, was £118 per head. With modest wine a typical cost per head might be around £165. This seems to me very fair given the standard of cooking, and barely half that of a Paris three star.
Mr Guerard, 82 years young, was very much in evidence in the kitchen, and popped out to greet the diners. He was on fine form and looked like he could continue for many years to come. Overall this restaurant is one of my favourites in the world. The quality of the produce used is dazzling, matched by the skills in the kitchen. Dishes are kept as simple as possible, allowing the beautiful ingredients to speak for themselves. The chefs here understand how to make a perfect sauce, not just how to set a water bath machine to the right temperature. There are trendier restaurants in the world than this, but none that is actually better.