This was my second visit to Bras (formerly Michel Bras), a restaurant that has achieved many accolades, including three Michelin stars. It is in a remarkably isolated spot, at the top of a hillside in the Aubrac area, with some farms but not a lot else anywhere near. It is a good three hour drive from Toulouse, and more from Montpelier, which are the nearest significant airports. At least the drive itself up from the south (up the A75) is impressive, including the spectacular Millau viaduct over the river Tarn, a truly remarkable engineering feat. The scenery on the drive is certainly very pretty, but bear in mind that it is chilly at this elevation even in August, so dress accordingly.
The Bras building (which includes a number of rooms at which you can stay), built in 1992, is certainly striking architecturally, and I suspect has a “love it or hate it” effect for most. It is low slung, the grey stone in some way fitting given the bleak hillside location, which is often shrouded in mist. It looks very modern even today, and the rooms are well appointed, with terraces and generous bathrooms. There is a bar area in an observation deck with fine views over the surrounding countryside, and the dining room is on the other side of the building past the reception. It looks a lot better in the sunshine, with light streaming into the dining room. The little miniature stream with flowers that separates the corridor from the dining room seems to me a very pretty effect. Tables are generously spaced with high quality linen and tableware.
The restaurant is open from April to October. Sebastian Bras was running the kitchen when we visited; I had the impression that his father Michel, who wasn’t around, was generally in a more background role these days (Michel was born in 1946, so was 64 at the time of this visit).
We ate the vegetable tasting menu at €136 per person, while the “balade” tasting menu was €179. To give a sense of a la carte prices, the gargouillou starter was €44, while prawns with orange and fennel cost €70.
The wine list was extensive, with conventional mark-up levels at the low end of the list, but some relative bargains at the top end. For example the simple Albert Mann Muscat 2009 was listed at €48 for a wine that costs about €15 in the shops, yet Cuvee Frederich Emile 2001 was listed at €118 for a wine that will set you back around €105 retail. As another example, Mersault “Charmes” Domaines des Comtes Lafon 1996 was €255 compared to a retail price of around €240.
As we looked over the menus we were offered egg flavoured with aubergine and capers, which did little for me (14/20) though a cep tart was much better, with good pastry and high quality mushrooms (18/20). Bread rolls, although made in the kitchens, did not impress me that much in terms of texture (16/20 at best) but flatbread flavoured with coriander and other spices was interesting and well made (18/20).
Nibbles presented on spoons were an oxtail consommé with vegetables, which had a very clear and well-made jelly, a pleasant small piece of freshwater fish with carrot, chive and thyme, and bulgar and cucumber (17/20). The gargouillou is the most famous dish here, a prettily presented plate with dozens of vegetables, wild herbs and flowers, each cooked optimally (many sautéed in a butter sauce) and offered with parsley oil. This was very impressive, the vegetables and herbs of the highest quality, carefully cooked, the effect light and the presentation lovely (20/20).
This was followed by a simpler but also impressive dish of haricot beans and peas, skimmed milk and a pressed nut biscuit giving a crumb-like texture contrast. Again the vegetables were impeccable (20/20). The next dish brought things down to earth: grilled aubergine with basil, an intense tomato paste and ultra-salty anchovies. I didn’t think this dish worked that well, as the aubergine was for me not particularly great and its taste was overwhelmed by the saltiness of the anchovies (15/20).
Sweet onion slow roasted and served with “liquorice” powder (actually a sweet and savoury mix of olives, Demerara sugar and ground almonds) was much better; the onions were extremely butter and sweet in texture, served alongside some excellent almonds (19/20).
Next was pumpkin with raisins steeped in vinegar, with almonds and sorrel. While again the almonds were of terrific quality, the pumpkin was rather dry (at best 16/20). A further sweet onion from Lezignan offered with truffles and olive oil cream was strangely salty (14/20). In order to be sure we were doing justice to the kitchen, we ordered a supplemental non-vegetable dish, prawns with orange and fennel. This was very good, the prawns having good flavour and being tender, the dressing working well with them (19/20).
The aligot (mash potato with cheese) was as stringy and tasteless as I recall from last time; perhaps this is a French childhood thing that it is difficult for foreigners to appreciate; it appeared to lack taste almost entirely. I find this difficult to mark at all.
A warm biscuit encasing red fruits flavoured with lemon and honey was very enjoyable, the biscuit encasing high quality mixed red fruits, topped with an ice cream made from a local flower (18/20). Finally, little ice cream cornets had assorted flavours: fig and orange, chocolate ganache and mint, blueberry sorbet and ginger, peach verbena and honey and a caramel ice cream with milk jam; these were all capably made (comfortably 18/20).
Service tonight was much warmer than I recall it on my previous visit. Staff were friendly and topping up was skilful.
Overall, while I enjoyed my meal a fraction more than my previous visit, I was surprised by the number of dishes that seemed to either have a fairly apparent problem (such as over-saltiness) or were just rather dull. In between there were some real highlights, and from these I can at least appreciate how Bras gained such a strong reputation, with some very clean flavours. Yet after this meal I see no justification for changing my original overall score, given the inconsistency we experienced.