Wednesday, September 26, 2018

Les Prés d’Eugénie Michel Guérard

One of the most respectable French chefs alive that not many people talk about as much as they should be is Michel Guérard. He began his career as a pastry chef and became the head of the pastry section at Le Crillon in '56. A couple of years later, Chef Guérard received the prestigious and notoriously rigorous Meilleur Ouvrier de France award for pastry. Despite his background, Chef Guérard was actually also versatile in cooking "normal" food and Michelin recognized this when awarded 2-star to his own restaurant named Le Pot-au-Feu in the early 70's. Michel Guérard's career path changed after he had married Christine Barthelemy, the heir of the current hotel and spa - Les Prés d’Eugénie. In 1974, Michel magically transformed the place into a grand and world class hotel, restaurant and spa; 3 years after that, his restaurant was awarded the Michelin's highest award and he managed to keep it until now. Last year, Les Prés d’Eugénie even received a rare distinction palace status. The pursuit of excellence by the Guerard's family has basically been very fruitful in every aspect.     

Getting into Eugénie-les-Bains, a tiny community in the southwest France well-known for its spa, was very challenging. It took me nearly 3 hours from Paris (flight + car). It was supposedly Spring but when I arrived it was still freezing as if it's still a Winter season and raining all day long; fortunately the weather improved the day after. Les Prés d’Eugénie was essentially a vast 8-hectare estate with green gardens in which most of the trees and plants were beautifully pruned and manicured. The 2 major buildings were: the Ferme Thermale, a serious spa with many water facilities as well as several doctors and specialists, and the main hotel building designed in colonial-style architecture housed most of hotel rooms & suites as well as Michel Guérard's gastronomy restaurant. I spent some times walking around the pretty estate and a small town outside the hotel. One drawback I noticed was that the gym and the pool were small given the huge spaces it had.

The (first) evening finally arrived. I was excited for my dinner. Given the difficulties to reach the place, I decided to stay for 2 nights so that I could have 2 meals in the legendary restaurant. (A casual lunch at La Ferme aux Grives should not be missed). My dinner began with several nibbles and I had different ones on both days. The bread selection (olive, lemon, brioche and sourdough) was good; even better was the Le ponclet butter having creamy texture and bold flavor to accompany the bread. For the dishes I ate, please see the following ...     

Dinner day 1 - Menu Palais Enchanté (with an additional appetizer)

Le Zéphyr de Truffe ‘‘Surprise Exquise’’ Comme un Nuage sur une Délicate Vichyssoise (‘‘Surprise Exquise” Truffle Zephyr as a Cloud on a Delicate Garden Soup) - To elaborate further, it essentially was a 'Floating island' white cream filled with black truffle coulis and underneath, there were light & yellow vegetable 'cold soup' made of creamy leek, onion and potato. This appetizer was as good as its description: the soup had deep flavor. Moreover, the ile flottante was airy, snowy and stunning, having textural contrast with truffle slices & crisp parmesan tuile, fragrant black truffle etc. It was indeed a delicate, ethereal and flavorful dish and yet not overly rich. The first few bytes were simply unforgettable ...   

L’Oeuf Poule à la Coque Grand Cru Cristal Kaviari Affiné 180 Jours (Tsarina Egg Dressed in the Shell served with Grand Cru Cristal Kaviari Aged 180 Days) - It was served with white Armagnac whose sophisticated flavor was useful to balance the rich egg flavor. Inside the shell, there were smoked eel, asparagus, mackerel jelly & celeriac to 'improve' the scramble egg and layers of caviar taste. On the sides, there were creamy baked warm potato with light sour cream as well as toasts on which we could mix the egg, caviar and potato together. Luxurious, interesting and enjoyable 

L’Oreiller Moelleux de Mousserons et de Morilles aux Asperges de Pays Une Symphonie Végétale et Soyeuse, Imaginée en 1978, Retour d’un Voyage en Chine (Soft Pillow of Morels and Wild Mushrooms - A Silky Symphony Created upon Returning from China in 1978) - The perfect example of Chef Guérard's cooking which he often described as silky and smooth. The delicate ravioli was filled with pre-dominantly earthy Morels and some Girolle mushrooms. In addition, this wonderfully rich and creamy soup contained asparagus spears / tips as well as black truffle spreading its intoxicating aroma. Everything was perfectly cooked, well-seasoned and worked harmoniously. The classic of the restaurant; this dish is always available all year round and deservedly so

Le Demi-Homard Rôti, Légèrement Fumé à l’Âtre Oignon Confit au Four (Half of a Lobster, Roasted and Lightly Smoked in the Hearth served with Country-Style Sweet Onion) - The lobster was perfectly prepared (the meat was lightly poached, then put back in the smoked shell) and covered with butter & herb sauce resulting in tender and delicious flesh, but alas the portion was very small. Not inferior to the lobster was the sweet onion. The 'gratinated onion puree' was roasted shortly, then integrated by glazed peach mousse and parmesan cheese giving complex and balanced flavors of sweetness, depth and slight acidity. It's perfectly complemented the lobster and I had difficulty to pick which one is better between the lobster and the sweet onion

Le Filet de Bœuf sur le Bois et sous les Feuilles Jus de Viande, Jus de Raisin Pommes Crémeuses et Pommes Soufflées (Wood Fired Beef Basted in Grape Juice, served with Creamy Potatoes on the one hand and Grande Tradition Souffléed on another) - The AOC beef was from Aquitane region. The preparation (wrapped and grilled in leaves and grapes) made the beef become moist, aromatic and smoky. The black choarcoal-like covering the beef was actually breadcrumbs with squid ink giving textural contrast to the meat. The beef medallions, cooked medium (rare), was dazzling having deep flavor and tender texture. The sauce, made from its jus, was very precise and tasty. It was accompanied by remarkable potato souffle (crisp, light, slightly salty), creamy & buttery potato mousseline, as well as rather sweet shallot confit with red wine sauce

Le Gâteau Mollet du Marquis de Béchamel et la Glace Fondue à la Rhubarbe Un Compromis Sensuel entre Soufflé et Crème Renversée (Marquis de Béchamel Soft Cake with Melted Rhubarb Ice Cream) - This dessert looked like an ugly souffle (done on purpose) with some creme caramel in it. It was served chilled. The soft bechamel cake with caramel sauce was in good 'matching' to the sweet / sour raspberry fruits and coulis as well as sharp rhubarb ice cream. Overall, the flawless combinations of textures and flavors made this dessert memorable. The portion was generous and I struggled to finish all - left nearly a quarter of it at the end

Dinner day 2 - Menu Jour de Fête (with two extra dishes)

Le Foie Gras de Canard et d’Oie Fermière Cuit au Coin de l’Âtre Tastou à la Truffe Trois Gelées en Camaïeu (Home-made liver of fattened Duck and Goose Smoked in Aromates Woody Tartine and Verjuice from our Vineyard) - The maitre d' was kind enough to allow me to try both foie gras. Both were good having smooth texture. I did not really prefer one over the other. Generally, I get used to eating duck liver (having beige-orange color) more which was rich and creamy; the goose liver (more of pink color) was delicate and refined with more subtle flavor. The livers were accompanied by jellies of mushroom, duck and wine. As with any terrine, it's often better to consume it together with some bread - toasted sourdough with truffle. Neither liver was cloying. I suppose if one's in Landes region, one had to eat foie gras

La Langoustine et le Rouget ‘‘Tire Ficelle’’ sur le Gril Jus de Coquillages (Scampi and Red Mullet on the Grill served with Red wine and Seashell Juice) - The big prawn was gorgeous with elegantly sweet flavor. The fish was nice with some kind of (very) intense Hollandaise sauce mixed with anchovy - a bit too much for me. There was also the Red Mullet skin with smoky and unique flavor infused by the 'fish's carcass' - classically French; an interesting pair of sea creatures

Les Belles Saint-Jacques Toastées au Sautoir Beignets d’Agrumes et Fondue de Chicorée au Beurre de Mer (Splendid Meunière Scallops served with Citrus Fritters and Melting Chicory in Sea Butter) - I thought serving scallops in May seemed to be out of season until I saw someone ordered it the night before and they looked awesome. Well, it was the right decision; somehow the kitchen managed to source and carefully take care of these shellfishes. 3 plump and beautifully cooked scallops were meaty with their pleasant and naturally sweet flavors. It was enhanced by the lovely and delicious buttery brown sauce and balanced by the 'stir fry' onions & somewhat bitter chicory. The slight sourness derived from the citrus fritter provided a nice accent to this dish. I liked it more than my previous seafood dish

L’Opulente Pintade de Chalosse sur les Braises Salpicon de Ris d’Agneau, Morilles, Quenelles, Truffes (Chalosse’s Opulent Guinea Fowl on the Embers served with Fine Stew of Lamb Sweetbreads, Morels) - The high quality herbs-stuffed Pintade was both meaty and moist, thanks to the sauce - the best part when consumed with the guinea fowls skins. What made this dish better was that it came together with tender sweetbreads stew, earthy morels, fresh peas & their emulsion as well as little black truffles. Commonly boring bird was transformed into creative and tasty dish, kudos to Chef Guerard!

La Pêche Blanche au Naturel, une Quenelle de Glace Crémeuse à la Verveine et le Coulis de Framboises d’Eugénie (White Peach on Verbena Ice Cream served with Coulis of Eugénie’s Raspberries) - The white peaches were splendid (sweet, juicy and a little tart), the raspberry coulis were tasty and fresh, the verbena ice cream was delicate with subtle sweetness, and lastly the leaves generated good smells. For someone who's not a big fan of peach and verbena, it was a stunning dessert. Why did I still order it then? I simply wanted something fresh & a bit acidic for my palate and it turned out to be a good choice

Le Palais Feuilleté au Chocolat Crème Légère au Café (Sumptuous Chocolate Millefeuille served with Light Coffee Cream) - Michel Guérard was the MOF of pastry, so trying an extra dessert was no brainer. The desserts here were glorious and I thought this one was somehow even better than Passard's chocolate Napoleon. The delicate pastry combined with light and a bit bitter coffee cream, rich and decadent chocolate & sorbet, and lastly the Armagnac cream sauce was light & sweet - magnificent flavor variations with different degree of intensity yet felt smooth and balanced. Hands down my favorite dessert at Les Prés d’Eugénie

Like the desserts, the quality of sweets were also excellent. My wine drinking was rather minimal this time. Somehow, I did not take detail notes ... I had a couple of glasses of white Burgundy (chardonnay) and a glass of red Pomerol. The list was, as expected, extensive with plenty of Petrus vintages. The service was generally immaculate - attentive, relaxed, and smooth. A little drop was noticeable on the second day when the restaurant managed to cater to more than 60 people assisted by about 4 sommeliers. However, I did not "suffer" the negative that much since I came quite early when the dining room was still half-full. It was not bad per se but just not as refined as the hospitality of Parisian palace during peak period. One lady wearing specs in particular delivered outstanding service in both evenings. The more senior maitre d' wore tuxedo with tails. Lastly, the master chef Michel Guérard, dressed in plain white (without the MOF tunic), would walk around the dining room and amiably greeted as many diners as possible

Michel Guérard was known to be one of the founders of nouvelle cuisine, a movement to lighten the traditional French cuisine and reduce the cooking time to keep the produce's natural flavors. Additionally, Chef Guérard was the inventor of la cuisine minceur and sante (slimming and healthy cooking to reduce weight). I would say at least 1/3 of the guests eating in the restaurant underwent some kind of diet programs such as detox / weight loss. They had specials off the menu items catered to their needs. Some of the dishes looked decent and a few them got to enjoy a dessert or two. However, what impressed me was certainly chef Guérard's gourmet cuisine where he was able to bring out the best flavors & textures out of the superb ingredients to create delicate and unassuming food that was absolutely delicious and perfectly harmonious. His ability to create sauce and season the ingredients was difficult to match. At the age when most people already retired, Michel is still striving to create new dishes when the seasons change or the menu is updated. It has been a huge pleasure to have a couple of memorable meals here and the hard work to reach this place was not in vain; 3-star restaurant, Palace status resort and world class spa - was this some kind of heaven on earth? The pictures can be found here Guerard May '18 

Food (and Wine): 98 pts

Service (and Ambiance): 94 pts

Overall: 97/100