Below are my notes from a visit in May 2004.
This is quite a trek from just about anywhere, about 4,000 feet up on the plateau of Aubrac, perhaps 50km north of a town called Rodez (this itself is over 100 miles north west of Montpelllier, though Ryanair do fly to Rodez). Set on top of a hilltop, the Michel Bras premises are a grey granite and glass modern block which are not an advertisement for the sensitivity of modern architecture. There are some amusing notes in the room about this “blending in” to this environment, but short of using napalm there is not much more that the architect could have done to blend in less well to the hilltop landscape. The building is nonetheless striking, and has a great view over the surrounding hills and meadows. Bear in mind if staying to bring a sweater, as even in mid May when the temperature was 20C down at sea level, there was a bitter wind blowing at this height. Everything in the complex is ultra-modern, with the dining room being three sides of floor to ceiling glass, the other side separated from the kitchen and a corridor a little stream, over which tiny bridges cross into the dining room. This is quite effective, and the view does the rest. In daytime you see meadows of dandelions and little hilltop farms of beef and sheep, which no doubt the European taxpayer is subsiding heavily.
The menu was a mixture of things that draw on local produce and history, and there is a strong emphasis on vegetables e.g. a starter that is just a series of vegetables, simply cooked. The quality of the ingredients was very high, and this is a good job since Michel Bras seems to have almost eschewed sauces altogether. The wine list was extensive at 38 pages, mostly French but with a couple of pages of mostly excellent foreign wines. Mark-ups were 3-4 times retail i.e. modest by Paris standards though a little high for London. A glass of champagne was Louis Roederer NV at EUR 18, which would make even Gordon Ramsey wilt, and yet it was served in a small glass that was only half-filled. This could only have been about 60 ml i.e. half a glass. At what point did it become acceptable to charge this much and then rip the customer off on the portion as well?
Service was generally good, with only minor topping-up problems (at these prices they can afford plenty of waiters). The kitchen is partially visible from the dining room and is vast, with a humidity-controlled wine cellar next to it. We started with amuse-bouche of a mushy egg cooked in its shell and runny, served in its shell with balsamic vinegar, with three sticks made of cereal. Pleasant though hardly anything special (14/20). Much better was a little tarte of ceps and bacon, with delicate pastry and very good mushrooms (18/20). Next up was a series of nibbles each served on a silver spoon: a rabbit consommé, a radish cream topped with shredded radish, and a little finely chopped flesh of seafood e.g. scallops. These were around 14/20 also. Bread was slices of either sourdough (18/20), country bread (18/20) or cereal (18/20 also). There was also a little thin crisp bread in the Italian style, that was much less interesting.
I started with two slices of foie gras terrine (fois gras is a speciality of the area), each served between two thin wafers of crisp, savoury potato chip. Around the plate were a few pieces of fruit e.g. orange, apple and also a little fruit chutney. The foie gras was very good indeed, the terrine silky smooth and having deep flavour of foie gras (19/20). My wife had green asparagus, served hot, topped with a foam of vegetables flavoured with black truffles. The quality of the asparagus was superb, cooked just right (19/20).
For the main course I tried a fillet of beef from the local area Aubrac, which was cooked very rare and served in a vast chunk. Next to the beef were little matchsticks of turnip, a little wilted spinach and two sweet onions, with just a few small slices of black truffle. The vegetables were of the highest standard; indeed the turnip and spinach were magnificent, and yet the dish cried out for some kind of sauce or just some of the meat juices. As it was you just had a hunk of meat to chew on with a few (admittedly fine) vegetables, the kind of thing that is more English than French. Surely it makes no sense to spurn the use of sauces: what happened to all those lovely cooking juices for the beef? I can give this 18/20 yet to me it seemed as if it was too dry.
My wife had wild salmon, cooked “a cuit” i.e. just cooked through but not a second more. This was topped with shreds of cabbage and accompanied with a few wild mushrooms and a smear of avocado. There was a little set of sticks of chives and flat-leaf parsley garnished with a mountain wild flower. Again the ingredients were of the highest standard, and again the dish could have done with more than the smear of meat jus that was offered (18/20).
Cheese drew heavily on the local area e.g. the local hard cheese was served at four different ages. There were two kinds of Roquefort, a strong version and a very nice sweet version that as less salty than normal Roquefort. A few conventional cheeses made up the numbers e.g. a St Nectaire. The cheeses were in excellent condition (19/20). They were served with a raisin bread.
For dessert I had chocolate fondant with a very liquid centre, and a scoop of cardamom ice cream that worked well with the chocolate, although it was already melting slightly when served (18/20). My wife dessert had vanilla cream in between very sweet tuiles encrusted with pink sugar, interleaves with brioche ice cream that really was rather tasteless. This dish did not work for me, with the bland ice cream and the over-sweet tuiles (14/20).
A little “aligot” was then served on a hot plate. This is a local delicacy of the local cheese, mashed potato and some garlic (hardly noticeable). This was odd, tasting rather like the tasteless cheese that you sometimes get on mediocre pizzas, being stringy in texture. Plate after plate was returned untouched from almost every table.
Petit fours were a let down. A biscuit base had coffee cream (15/20) while chocolate ices, both white and dark chocolate, were watery (12/20). A lemon crisp was much better (18/20) but almond paste on a stick was dull (15/20). Two lollipops were certainly different, one made from red fruits and one with banana and pineapple. A couple of pots of sweetened milk were served, along with a chocolate mousse of raisins steeped in cream. Overall maybe 14/20 for the petit fours.
Overall I found the cooking to have the very highest standard of ingredients, with strong technical execution. Yet the abandonment of the sauce, that great triumph of French cuisine, seems to me to be a loss. I can admire the technique, but somehow I didn’t really enjoy it as much as I felt I should. As a French general said of the charge of the Light Brigade in the Crimean War “C’est manifique, mais il n’est pas la guerre”. Similarly, I can admire the technique, but I don’t have to love the experience.