The Hungry One is rarely in trouble, so our nine hour detour to Michel and Sebastien Bras’ famed place in Laguiole can only be explained as another step in our insane quest to sample the best.
We arrive at Bras dressed up, with The Hungry One decked out in a summer weight suit. When we leave the shabby Best Western in town I check with the receptionist whether he needs to be wearing a jacket and tie to Bras- let’s not have another French Laundry incident.
‘Non’ is her reply . She smiles at him. ‘But, he should leave it on- is…..nice’.
Nice. An innocuous word- but ‘nice’, ‘sweet’ and sounds that start with awh and end with a smile are the easiest way to sum up an evening spent at Bras.
A leisurely drive up a hill hemmed with wildflowers and past dozing cows is as an effective introduction to the congeniality that follows.
Dinner is served from 8pm, but the lounge opens at 7.30pm. The modern white glass fronted cube of a room is packed. Everyone is nursing pre dinner cocktails, but what they’ve really come to drink in is the view. From the calmness of stone and blonde walls the glass windows lurch you out and over pine trees and fields of flowers. It’s unspeakably pretty. The only distraction is the arrival of two decapitated eggs with little flowers tucked on the rim, like they were behind the ears of Pacific airline stewardesses. They eggs are filled with a savoury custard that’s as smooth as satin edgings on hotel blankets. Bedding down with them are parmesan and grain bread stems to dip.
The niceness continues with a visit from the sommelier. We’ve chosen the larger of the tasting menus and are dithering over wine. The list is as large as an atlas, in a white embossed album that’s shinier than the one that houses our wedding photos. Despite housing some palm shaking price points a simple downward hand gesture to the Sommelier and a smile leads to a half bottle of 2003 white burgundy being suggested that lives within a digestible price bracket. He tells us it’s his favourite drop. We half believe him.
Perhaps the niceness has a genetic component. Bras is a family affair, started by Michel, with his wife overseeing the floor, with their son Sebastian joining the kitchen and his wife working as hostess. As she guides us from the lounge to the dining room we have a quick tour of the kitchen en route. Its positively delightful in there with 20 chefs working as quietly as monks. There’s natural light streaming in and a distinct feeling of calm.
That feeling carries through to the rectangular dining room, which is divided like bars in a musical score by white sails. There’s the sound of the trickling water feature, the muted murmurs of guests and the occasional clink of cutlery. Our wine is enjoying a cool bath, draped in a towel and waiting expectantly for us. Just in case you might do yourself some harm , the point of your knife is shielded by a folded piece of paper with a note in French, welcoming us to Bras.
From there it’s an easy dance among flowers and great French produce with dishes coming and going in a soothing lilt. Six chilled and stunted spoons start us off. There’s one with cauliflower with spinach and sour cream, a second of pork diced to the size of matchstick heads topped with cornichons and mustard cream and the last is a julienne of vegetables toppled over a jellied prawn consommé.
Then the flower show really starts.
A summer vegetable salad is a jumble of good things, leaves and berries with whisps of green apple and splodges of tomato and squash purees playing ring a rosy around the edge. It’s decorated with a variety of blossoms and drizzled over the top is a light cream emulsion which causes the leaves to slip and slide over each other. It’s a poem of a dish which makes you feel as giddy as a school girl. Look mum! I’m eating flowers!
Then the classic white fish filler course makes an appearance. It’s a fillet of dorage with a cushion of spinach and a wand of Florentine onion which reclines lustily over the top. It’s squatting in a lake of ‘spiced milk’, which tastes a little like an acidophilus boosted yogurt. Adding extra points to the pretty score is a paint brush stroke which is accurately described as ‘a taste of orange’.
Even prettier still is the roasted baby pear that escorts the half lobe of duck foie gras. Its mild acidity is a welcome foil for the the heart stopping velour of such a manly portion of engorged liver.
But just in case you wanted to add a little more richness, there’s a s plodge of white cheese. Yet two things keep you going back for more. A trickle of cardamom granules add a nutcracker suite hint of playfulness and two little sancho leaves may look like holly but give a little burst of aniseed and eucalyptus. You keep on going back to unlock how in heavens they all work together.
The only mild disappointment in the meal is a galette of vegetables over a truffle flecked jus, which looks like melted stracciatella gelato. It’s stuffed with corn, sweet onion and red pepper and reminds The Hungry One a little of an earnest after school toasted sandwich.
By 9.30pm the sky is streaked pink like a messy watercolour and the traditions of the Aubrac region are invited out to play. Two joined cutlets of lamb, pink like sunburn and heavily seasoned with freckles of salt and pepper and buds of garlic flowers waltz out. At least now we have a dish which justifies the heft of our knife. You see, this is no ordinary knife we’ve been eating with.
Earlier on in the meal a message was delivered from Michel that ‘in line with Laguiole tradition, please keep your knife for the meal- you’ll see there’s a little ridge underneath which allows you to balance it on the edge of the plate and keep it clean’. It’s heavy in your hand and takes some getting used to. It cuts through the lamb as though it was ice cream.
To follow is a side of aligot- a local, traditional dish developed to steel pilgrims for long walks and feats of strength. A mixture of tomme cheese and mash potato, spiked with garlic, it’s got the texture of mozzarella and the heft of an encyclopaedia taking residence in your stomach. True to form, The Hungry One goes back for two portions.
The generosity of portions continues to the cheese trolley which is rolled to the table like a stage mother urging a chubby child to the spotlight. We skirt the embarrassment of asking for too much and ask for a small regional selection. No fewer than six different cheeses are sliced for each- to be eaten with raisin spiked bread and a jammy relish.
Dessert is the crowning glory in Bras’ inclinations towards the sweet and pretty.
It starts with a biscuit tower that oozes molten apricot when its walls are breached. Sitting on to is an ice cream flavoured with Queen of the Meadow- that would a local wildflower- common in July. Then there are malteser sized ice cream balls, flavoured with white chocolate and elderflower. Add to that a pale green flower jelly and celery leaf sorbet with fresh berries and a petals performing the role of a cone, which adds a sweet and vaguely medicinal tone to ginger spiced Chantilly cream.
If the international restaurant ranking game was to borrow something from beauty pageants, Bras would surely be awarded Miss Congeniality. The prettiness on the plate is just part of this. Yes it’s expensive but while you’re there it manages to be soothing beyond belief. Tucked away in the Aubrac hills the Bras family have managed construct an experience that treads a fine line between familial and formal, while being totally indulgent.
Parting is such sweet sorrow, but the pain is eased with a gift of bon bons.
If only all time spent with family felt like this.
Restaurant Magazines’s 2009 7th best restaurant in the world
Route de l’Aubrac, 12 210 Laguiole, France
+33 (0)5 65 51 18 20