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….
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.