Archive for January, 2011

Les Pres D’Eugenie – Michel Guerard

January 21, 2011

Eugenie Les Bains

I often get slightly apprehensive when visiting high end restaurants. A lot of money being spent on a meal, with disappointment a very real possibility. I’m finding that disappointments are more often found when the restaurants are experimental in nature, where you’re meant to marvel at the technique. You are at the mercy of chefs and their ambitions. On the other side you have restaurants that deal in luxury, places that provide an indulgent experience. I’m quickly coming to the opinion that the latter category, while not providing the most thought-provoking food, is where the learned money goes.

And so on to Les Pres D’Eugenie – a lovely meandering drive on the way to San Sebastian. One of the highlights of our trip. We drove from Langon through small foreboding villages dominated by large churches. We came to a valley floor, crossed the town limits sign of Eugenie Les Bains and found ourselves in a place akin to Deauville in its chi-chi-ness. A bit of an eye-opener.

It’s a spa town (obviously) dominated by the hotel, run by Michel Guerard, holder of 3 michelin stars for 30+ years and a true father of modern gastronomy, but without the profile you would think he would deserve. The guard at the gate waves us through after some pleasantries and we are greeted with a simply stunning hotel, full of classic old-money charm. The sun is shining on a brisk winters day. The gardens are manicured and charming. We are won over before we even step into the building.

Our reservation is noted and we’re invited to take drinks in the drawing room – a room of about 70 feet with 3 different seating areas studded with huge sofas, armchairs and ornaments from far flung places. We are led to a mighty sofa and a fire is lit before we order our aperitifs – gin & tonic.

All is right with the world and lunch hasn’t even started. We have entered a bubble of luxury and life for the moment is very good indeed. Warm amuses soon arrive:

From the left – wild mushroom & parmesan tart, mushroom & truffle pastry and a foie gras tartlet.

These are just what the doctor ordered – substantial little tastes with not a mickey mouse sweetcorn veloute in site. We continue to peruse the menu and opt for the reasonable Dinette menu that offers dishes from the a la carte with inclusive wines. We were led to our table in the most open of salons with large tables and whicker chairs with views over the grounds.

Bread was presented to us as a huge freshly cooked country loaf – a choice of plain or studded with olives.

It was warm, crusty with a pleasing sourness and pretty much as good as bread gets.

After a brief interval the starters arrived. We had opted for the same dish – morels and wild mushrooms with asparagus tips.

The generous bowl was filled with the funghi with a submerged large ravioli containing more morels. I’m not one to get too excited about soup, but it was a dish to swoon over. The veloute, like silk, made with the most intense of mushroom stocks. The asparagus was vibrant and sweet despite the winter. It was a dish of its kind I could not imagine being bettered. It brought out the glutton in both of us. Our pleasure was evident enough to be offered second helpings, of which we duly obliged. And even though we were on a glass of wine with each course, more wine was poured when our glasses were exhausted. This is service.

The main courses arrived. My wife opted for the special:

Landes Farmers’ chicken breast veiled in bacon, stuffed with foei gras and cottage cheese. First presented on burning embers….

Then plated:

It was a fine dish – the provenance of the ingredients could not be faulted and while many people believe that chicken is the most neutral of meat that doesn’t deserve it’s place a fine dining menu, sometimes you need an example that shows how great chicken can really be. This was it. The fact it was laced with bacon and foie gras bought out the richness and luxury one would expect here. Can you spot the odd ingredient? Yes the cottage cheese. It belongs in spa food, not gourmand. But it did give the dish a touch of lightness from the big flavours. My wife loved the dish, principally for the chicken, not the cheese….

My main course: Crunchy Buttered Bread Lace of Pig’s Trotter, Duck Liver and Gambas with Smoked Eel Salad and Parsley Cream

I’m not sure it’s possible to get more great ingredients on one plate – wafer thin toast stuffed with an assortment of fine ingredients, providing a very old school take on surf and turf. The gelatinous goodness of the trotter, the fattiness of the liver with some sweetness from the prawn. It was heaven on a plate. There was balance with a light acidic salad, but of course with more luxury in the form of eel, offering up some gentle oiliness.

It was at this point that Michel Guerard ventured out from the kitchen and began greeting his guests. It’s always a pleasure to see a 3 star chef in their restaurant. His English not being up to scratch and my French being the butt of many jokes I was able to distil the immense enjoyment of our meal to two impactful words – “Tres Bien”….. My wife was in tears of laughter as she reflected that this most anodyne of compliments perhaps did not do justice to the stature of the man and his accomplishments. I will not be allowed to forget this moment….

The ribbing continued while we took a pause before desserts, letting the richness of our mains subside.

and in truth after the previous courses, the desserts were a little anti-climatic. They were classic examples and could not be faulted, but lacked the verve we’d had in previous courses.

I was served a Marquis’ soft cake with melted rhubarb ice cream – as described: A Sensual Rendez-Vous of Soufflé and Crème Renversée

It was essentially a twice cooked sweet souffle with a touch of lemon with rhubarb, custard and a raspberry compote. It was creamy, sweet and a little heavy. I’m not sure i was able to finish it, but I didn’t mind trying.

My wife opted for a Millefeuille “à l’Impératrice” with a vanilla cream

Thin layers of pastry layered with cream and raspberries. Again it was light and moreish, but lacked an expected je ne sais quoi.

And so our main meal came to an end and we were quickly served a selection of petit fours – mine sponges, apricot tarts, and caramelised pineapple.

Completing the circle we decided to take these petit fours with our coffee back in the drawing room. coffee liqueur, truffles and caramel tarlets were also provided and we sunk back into the comfiest of sofas and took our time to digest our meal and take stock of our surroundings. Bliss.

We eventually paid our bill (very reasonable) and regretfully left this fine restaurant. I would have happily spent the rest of my holiday here and I would return to France just to be able to visit this restaurant again. The environment and time of year made for the most relaxing of dining experiences. The service was generous and attentive. The food was comforting and skilful with luxury and passion evident on the plate. It was a perfect combination.

Tres bien.


Claude Darroze, Langon, France

January 15, 2011

95 cours du General LeClerc, Langon

Hola France! Back to the UK for Xmas and learning from the hectic nature of our trip last time, we decided to book some time away in Europe before heading back to the UK to see friends and family. The destination was San Sebastian (for obvious reasons). Ever the opportunistic glutton we also spent a couple of days in France, flying into Bordeaux. It being Xmas time we didn’t have the full gamut of dining options available and having heard conflicting reports about La Tupina we decided to spend the evening in a small town east of Bordeaux, staying at Hotel Claude Darroze. The Darroze name is well known with Helene operating michelin starred restaurants in London & Paris, a family business in armagnac and this restaurant also benefiting from a michelin star. This is a family with a sense of purpose.

It’s a comfortable hotel in the centre of a pleasant town. The room we stayed in, although small had been thoughtfully designed with a slate partition and a modern sleek bathroom. No complaints.

We were of course here for dinner. The main salon sat about 40 or so with about 10 tables. A variety of menus were offered, all well priced, with us opting for a menu saveur – of which there were 2 options for each course. The evening got off to an excellent start with a selection of amuses – foie gras with champagne jelly, salmon tartare and mushroom soup.

This is a way to start a meal. A selection of honest, excellent tastes. France on a plate. Just the sight of a slice of foie gras was enough. I’d been deprived too long. It was of course a lovely plate. The foie gras rich and creamy with the sweet acidity of the jelly. The salmon was fresh, clean and light. The mushroom soup, delightfully earthy.

It segued beautifully into my starter – more foie gras:

A terrine of leak and foie gras with a truffle vinaigrette served with asparagus and of course foie gras. Served a little cold, it soon warmed up with the flavours coming together nicely. Maybe the truffle lacked a little intensity, but it was a fine plate of food and I savoured every bite. My wife opted for a ceviche of saint jacques with a fennel salad and truffle cream sauce. She was not able to eat some of dish, but it was my gain.

The main courses arrived. My wife ordering the wild boar with poached figs, venison sauce and chestnut puree

Wild boar is not something we have often, It was a couple of small ribs on the bone, succulent without the heaviness of other game/wild meats. The venison sauce created the intensity with of course figs to cut through it all. We weren’t sure about the chestnut puree – a bit weirdly sweet. But there were no complaints.

Taking a break from the foie gras I opted for hake, cooked basque style

A sizeable tranche on the bone. It was a good peasant style dish with big flavours. The white wine based soup was lovely, studded with eggs, peppers and celery. It was hearty and delicious. Not finessed food, but very comforting dining.

Being back in France there was of course the cheese course, with a decent selection of unpasteurized cheeses

Dessert was baba rhum for me:

Drenched in rum, it was full-on. The cream barely able to compete against the saturated sponge. The pineapple provided a little more lightness. It was tasty, but too rich when eaten on the back of other indulgent dishes, not that I wouldn’t want to try again…

My wife opted for the classic tarte au pommes.

A slightly souped up version – crisp pastry, flattened to the extreme. I like a little more air in my tart, but it was of course a competent version, if lacking a little character.

After a long day of travel we declined digestifs (a decision to regret in hindsight). We are still presented Baillardran Caneles to finish.

Having only encountered these before at the Connaught, this was like welcoming an old friend. These little beauties are crisp pastries with a slightly gooey custard laced with a bit of rum. They are divine. It’s a struggle, but I manage to eat them both.

And so our first meal back in France boded well for the rest of the trip. A good family hotel and restaurant – serving excellent hearty food in comforting surroundings. We enjoyed this meal even more so with the knowledge our bed being a few seconds away. So if you’re in this neck of the woods, Claude Darroze is well worth a visit.

Royal Mail Hotel, Dunkeld

January 11, 2011

98 Parker Street, Dunkeld, Victoria

My mother and father made me the person I am. Their love of food, excellent home cooking, an introduction to good dining at an early age, and the idea that quality time spent together involves a 3 hour meal and 2 bottles of wine. As I’ve grown my culinary tastes and interests have got broader that means that eating out is as much about discovery as it is symbolic of a great time.

My father’s trip to Australia presented an opportunity for such a visit to restaurant that’s been on my radar for a while. We were on a roadtrip from Melbourne to Adelaide and I was keen to sneek a visit to The Grampians to spend a night at The Royal Mail Hotel, a winner of several dining accolades and a place fast becoming a pilgrimage for many gourmands. It’s recent attention has meant that it’s now booked up 5 months at weekends. But a visit on a Tuesday night at the end of November was not problematic.

Although 3 hours out of Melbourne, it’s location 45mins from The Grampians means it’s a great place for some dramatic sights and walking. The perfect excuse itself to visit. Not that you need it, since the hotel is regarded for its local approach to food. Almost all food is sourced within a few miles and seasonality is the order of the day here with almost all fruit and vegetables grown in the gardens that surround the hotel.

The hotel itself has great retro feel with the rooms themselves well decorated in a modern and comfortable way, lots of blonde wood and a natural feel, keeping with the environment. Outside of the rooms, there are views that lead up to a wide lawn and entry into the restaurant.

The dining area is divided into a bistro and a fine dining restaurant. We’re of course here for the fine dining. There are only 10 or so tables, widely spaced, next to the window overlooking the street. The room does not lack for light and it’s a place to take your time without evidence of stuffiness.

We take our seats for the 10 course tasting menu.

We get things started with some bread, locally churned butter and the peruse of a very expansive wine list. I’m not someone to get excited about wine lists. They can often be challenging, but there’s great variety here, especially local vineyards. It is also exceptionally reasonable with many wines priced from $30. It’s a list as much about discovery as it is about making a profit. Not often something you see.

There is no amuse, just a leap into the journey with: sea salad, lemon and lychee

The mention of lychee makes me wary. It’s not an ingredient to get excited about, but it thankfully doesn’t make much of a showing in a dish which wows with a taste of the sea. There’s a pleasing saltiness amplified by much under-rated samphire on a bed of squid. It’s a fresh introduction to the meal and displays a thought-provoking approach to composition, an understated approach to complexity and good use of ingredients.

This is followed up (after some wait) with: jerusalem artichoke, triple cream cheese and chive

It’s as simple as it gets. A dish which is all about quality of ingredients – a baked artichoke, with cream to add a sense of indulgence and a spring onion for texture. It’s easy to be a little underwhelmed, but the taste wins you over. It’s smokey, smooth and satisfying.

We follow with: egg yolk, toasted rye, legumes, yeast

This is already a famed dish – a sous vide fully formed egg yolk served on top of dried wheat & vegetables. Again an understated dish which elicited quite excited responses. Who doesn’t love egg yolk (?) and it combines excellently with the vegetables to produce something gooey, nutty and fun.

Thinks start getting a little serious with john dory, burnt celeriac, mustard, nashi

As little as possible is done to the ingredients with lightly poached dory that retains some gelatinous fibres, complimented with singed celeriac. It was a good combination, but relatively neutral flavour-wise.

Flavour makes a big comeback with a beautiful dish of asparagus, kohlrabi, duck ham, spring blossoms

A picture of spring on a plate that really leverages the seasonal vegetables. I can take or leave the kohlrabi, but the rest of the dish sang with freshness due to flowers and vegetables picked a matter of hours ago from the garden metres away. It was bought together by a lovely duck consomme. It managed to perfectly combine meat and vegetables in a very satisfying way.

Which brings us to: globe artichoke as pork, pea and parsley

A transition dish. Just because the restaurant is all about excellence from the garden doesn’t mean that meat can’t feature in a big way. This brings the two together with a sous vide artichoke cooked in pork broth served classically with peas and on a piece of pork belly. It’s a dish to delight in and will obviously convert the most extreme carnivores. It’s beautiful – sweet and savoury. The pork just amplifies the vegetables and it’s lovely.

The main course is lamb, eggplant in white miso, pine nut, chlorophyll

We see a continuation of a trend here with singed eggplant which amplifies it’s smokiness coupled with a fine fillet of lamb. I’m not exactly wowed by the chlorophyll. It just tastes of ‘green’ and a touch artificial. However it doesn’t detract too much from a satisfying dish that brings to a close the savoury part of the meal.

Gratifyingly there’s no twee palate cleanser and we’re served rhubarb, licorice, almond, citrus

The rhubarb has been cooked sous-vide, but still retains good textural consistency and it fibers. It requires a knife and fork. The glaze is sweet and has a pleasing intensity, which doesn’t overpower. It’s served at room temperature and is a pleasant dish to work through.

The ice cream course is next – banana in szechuan pepper, coconut and cocoa ice

Bizarrely we have a dessert wine with this that clashes with the coldness, but as a dish it’s thought-provoking if not a dish to get excited about. The cocoa dust I can take or leave, but there’s a nice heat from the pepper that lifts the ice cream and makes the banana sing (just a little).

The final course of the meal is pistachio cake with hazelnut, honeycomb, chocolate

It’s a lovely moreish cake and ends the meal on a  high. The nuttiness is lovely and the cake beautifully moist. The chocolate doesn’t overpower and it all adds up to a lovely plate of food to finish on.

We are sated without feeling bloated. It’s a good place to be. We end the meal with coffee that is accompanied by strawberries from the garden with chocolate soil.

This last treat serves as a pointed reminder of what we’ve experienced – the freshest and most wholesome of ingredients served with cutting edge culinary methods. The strawberries are hearteningly imperfect and sweet. The soil is of course compulsive eating.

This was a meal that I was glad to make an effort to have. The seasonality and confidence of cooking makes it a rare restaurant. I was expecting more wow moments and fireworks, but was not disappointed. On reflection this is a place that really let’s the ingredients do the talking (a tiresome cliche) and that the culinary skill admirably only serves to amplify the taste. There is also a sense of progress in the cooking and it’s clear that the food will continue to evolve around the seasons and making the most of natural flavour. So it will pay to keep my eye on The Royal Mail and return whenever that may be.