It’s far from everywhere, a place that requires a car, a map, and a couple of hours to get to from the nearest major airport (my apologies to Carcassonne, but your airport… not so much). It’s in a tiny village called Fontjoncouse, which is in the Languedoc-Roussillon region in the southwest of France.
Why so far away? Who knows. Perhaps the chef, Gilles Goujon, wanted to eschew the easy reservations that come form being present in a city center or a destination known for its tourism. To come to this restaurant is a pilgrimage, you need agency to be here, you won’t find it by accident. Coming to sample his food has to be your purpose. Being far from the crowds is a statement in itself, I suppose.
After leaving the motorway, there’s a further 25 minutes of winding country roads before you come to this tiny village, dominated in many ways by the restaurant and the hotel that surrounds it.
Since it’s poor form to drink and drive, and it’s even worse form to eat a gastronomic feast without the requisite accompanying libation, a remote restaurant faces an obvious dilemma. The solution is to provide rooms as well as tables, and if you’re going to do food to a high level, you need to provide lodgings of a standard that doesn’t take away from the experience.
This is no five-star hotel, of course, but luxury is only one way to make your mark. The other is charm. Staying far from the madding crowd is a luxury in itself. The hotel is just behind the restaurant, arranged around a lovely swimming pool with spacious rooms, elegant bathrooms and a few simple mod-cons that are all too often missing in larger and more ostentatious hotels.
Of course you really come here for the food.
There are around 116 three-star Michelin restaurants in the world. The hoops you have to jump through and the quality levels you have to achieve to receive a third Michelin star are extremely intimidating. The food has to be original, perfectly executed, exceptionally presented. The service must be faultless, comfortable, expert. The venue must be elegant, interesting, immaculate. The list goes on, but faultlessness in every aspect of the service is the minimum requirement necessary to even begin to hope for three stars.
So perhaps you don’t come here for the food. You come here for a unique dining experience.
You’re at first proposed a drink on the terrace. A small and intimate area where we chose to have a glass of champagne each. This comes accompanied by some amuses-bouche, small mouthfuls of food designed to put you in the mood. We also received some reading material; A menu and a very long wine list.
The champagne: Comtes de champagne Taittinger Millésimé 2005
Presentation of the amuse-bouches
The amuse-bouches were presented on a wood, metal and stone tree sculpture which had exactly eight pedestals on which to place the various dishes. The waitress carefully explained what each was, how it was to be eaten, and in what order the pieces were to be tackled.
Bouchée de foie gras
We were told to eat this first. The instructions were very clear. The entire thing was to be eaten at once as it contained a liquid filling, it was to be eaten rapidly as it was warm, and it should be picked up with the help of the little spoon underneath the tree.
You bite into the pastry, which promptly squirts its content all around your mouth, imposing a very strong taste of truffle and foie gras on the palate so suddenly it merits the adjective “explosion” of taste.
It’s delicious, and foreshadows the nearly omnipresent taste of truffle that will permeate the rest of the meal.
This comes second, possibly because the taste of mushroom is strongly associated to more truffle. This is served cold and has a reasonably solid consistence. The taste is also extremely powerful and imposes itself on the tastebuds in a way that reflects perhaps the confidence of the chef that designed it, and the chefs in the kitchen that prepare it.
Tomato Stuffed with Ricotta and Mascarpone
After the depth and power of the truffles, a sudden change of pace with something lighter and more in keeping with the fading summer months. A tomato stuffed with cheese, on a thin biscuit wafer. Delicate and pleasant, this was almost a palate-cleanser after the overpowering (and exceedingly pleasant) taste of the first two dishes.
A dose of subtlety after the introduction to the truffles.
Choux Pastry with Snail Flavoured Jelly and Wild Garlic
To finish, a small hollow pastry serves as the base upon which to layer the flavours of both wild garlic (“l’Ail des Ours”, which literally translated means “The Bear’s Garlic”) and a sliver of jelly with an intense flavour of snail.
I have to admit that snail is not my favourite dish, but when certain ingredients in the hands of masters are much more appreciable, which always makes me wonder whether I’ve just been eating a mediocre version of the dish all my life.
The First Courses
We chose the “surprise” menu, and after the habitual explanations regarding the fizandato‘s intolerance of iodine (shellfish are not a good idea for him). The restaurant is famous for a specific dish, however, and fizandato checked before ordering that this dish would indeed be one of the “surprises”. The famous dish was duly confirmed as part of the menu, and we quickly finished our champagne (well, not that quickly), and settled down for the meal.
But first, we interrupt your regular service to bring you….
The Wine List
We had read online that the wine list was extremely onerous, with a poor selection and prices that defied gravity, good sense and common decency. I am happy to report that the online reviewers have no idea what they’re talking about. I don’t know where they got that idea from.
The wine menu is a book, thick enough to rival a work of Tolstoy, and broad enough to satisfy even the most exacting consumer. While we quickly tracked down the regular culprits (La Tache, for example), that cost an absolute fortune, fizandato’s initial reaction was that he had never seen such a long list of wines under 100 euros in so prestigious a restaurant.
We asked for help, because we lack the competence to navigate a wine menu with this kind of depth and breadth, and were readily assisted by a member of staff who knew not just the taste, but the precise location of each vineyard, the name of the winemaker, the difference between the vintages and the wine most likely to both challenge and please us based on what we told her. Based on what we told her, she recommended a wine that was actually less expensive than the one we initially settled upon. While a three-star meal will never be cheap, it’s hard to claim that this restaurant tries to oversell you on the wine.
We settled on a local red from a vineyard not more than 15 kilometers away, called Atal Sia, but were advised to take a glass of white to go with the starter as red would not do as well here, so we also took a glass each of Maccabeu, a local biodynamic wine which was a pleasant discovery.
Both wines were new to us, we stayed very comfortably under 100 euros for the bottle, in fact we’ve bought more expensive bottles in far inferior restaurants, and so we’re very happy with the wine list in the restaurant. They were also local wines, which is something we only do in this region when we are guided by someone with better knowledge than us, since getting it wrong can have serious consequences. The Atal Sia comes from less than 15km away, and the Maccabeu is only a little bit further from the restaurant.
The first, first course.
Here we diverged – fizandato received a tomato salad, which perhaps doesn’t sound like much but was apparently amazing (I tasted a little and confirm that these were no ordinary tomatos) – a collection of different tomatos cut into a salad in a cocktail glass. Fizandato said…
|I had a duo of oysters. It comes presented in an oyster shell with a huge pearl-like object balanced on the edge of the oyster shell. The waiter hands you a small mallet (not joking…) and you smash the pearl which is actually made of sugar, but contains beechwood smoke (still not joking) which you can smell clearly. This is the flavour you will find when you’ve eaten the first oyster and you’re onto the second one, which is underneath, tartare-style, and smoked – you guessed it – with beechwood. Sorry the photo is a bit blurry, my I-Phone is on its last legs and fizandato broke the camera lens on his so his pictures are all washed out.|
If you think this is showing off, then you have to remember that we were at this point only one course into a five-course meal.
The second first course.
As a second starter, we had the restaurant’s flagship dish. The oeuf pourri aux truffes. Which literally translates as “an egg, made rotten with truffles”. The chef later explained to us that he was using the word pourri (rotten) in the context of a French expression, pourri gâté, which means “spoilt rotten”.
This comes on a glass plate that contains hay (inside the glass), to look like a hen’s nest. The egg sits on the centre of the plate on a layer of mushroom mousse. You are then invited by the waiter to cut into the egg. What emerges is a dark sauce mottled with specks of truffle, accompanied by a powerful smell of truffle. At this point the waiter pours a copious amount of sabayon of truffle on top (a sabayon is a light foamy sauce). Then he whips out an actual truffle and a grater and puts a few slices directly on top of your egg, in case you didn’t get the message yet. Then just to make sure, they serve it with a truffle-flavoured brioche and a truffle-flavoured foam that you drink through a straw, both on a side dish.
|First the egg, then covered in sabayon after I cut it open, and finally the accompaniments|
The egg is amazing, with the taste of the yolk present in the background of the omnipresent truffle. The quantity of truffle in the dish must be huge. The inside of the egg was flavoured with melanosporum, the dark winter truffle of the Perigord, but since it’s out of season the fresh slices were summer truffle. You can preserve truffle perfectly by freezing it, but you can’t then unfreeze and grate it, you can only use the truffle to flavour other dishes.
Aside from the technical difficulty of perfectly soft-boiling an egg while replacing its contents with an unctuous truffle sauce, the flavour and sheer pleasure of eating this rich and generous a dish is the sort of experience you can only have in a place like this. How they cook the egg while replacing its contents is a closely guarded secret.
The third first course
Nope, not kidding, three first courses. Now we were served a piece of seared tuna, with a smaller piece of tuna belly (ventrèche de thon) to provide contrast with a stronger flavour and different texture. This was served on a bed of tomato ratatouille, itself on a bed of smoked tomata (a paste made of tomato reduction, garlic and other things), a thin layer of tête de veau, on a fine coating of sauce ravigotte. I’m not going to translate all of that, suffice it to say that it’s a lot of very difficult-to-prepare things in absolutely microscopic quantities. The sort of dish that says, here, for your eating pleasure, we prepared two cubic inches of food and it took us several hundred man-hours of work in the kitchen. It’s the sort of dish only a fully-staffed kitchen of expert chefs can ever hope to prepare.
Also on the plate was a selection of three tomato hearts, each from a different kind of tomato, and a tomato and basil sorbet on the side.
We were encouraged to mix everything on the plate to make sure the tastes all get assembled in each mouthful, but it feels like a crime to demolish such a carefully-prepared plate.
The Main Courses
It’s a big theme these days among highly-regarded French chefs to apply an earth and sea theme to their menus. This generally means that they mix seafood with meat in their dishes in ways that are supposed to complement each other. Much like a high-wire act in a circus, you have to get it right for it to work, otherwise it falls over itself in a way that’s best described as embarrassing.
Of course here we are in the hands of an excellent chef, so it’s most likely to work out in our favour, and he’s taken the whole concept one step further, at least in terms of wording; since he’s so close to the Pyrenees, he’s called his menu mer et montagne, which means “sea and mountain”.
There were two of these. Best not to come here when you’re on a diet…
A quick language lesson: I never refer to main courses as “Entrées”, because that’s a false friend in French-English translation. Entrée in French means “starter”. When Americans say “entree”, they actually mean the main course, which in French is called the plat principal. I’ve always wondered where that particular misunderstanding came from.
The First Main Course
Fillet of John Dory with truffle interspersed between the layers of fish, accompanied by chicken oyster. Carved artichoke, artichoke purée, nasturtium flower and poultry sauce deglazed with Noilly Prat. Rather than explain all of that I’ve linked to everything. The most interesting part is the oyster of chicken, which in French is called the sot-l’y-laisse, which literally translates as “the fool leaves it behind”. This is because it’s a very small part of the chicken that most people never carve, but which is considered to be the tastiest bit. In our case, it was the only bit of the chicken on the plate.
The truffle was somehow inserted into the fish, perfectly mirroring the natural separation of the flesh of the fish. The flower is a nasturtium which is edible, and you can see the carved artichoke in the background behind the fish.
Needless to say, this was excellent, and the truffle went surprisingly well with the fish. It’s one of those things you imagine wouldn’t work, but when you taste it you find out it works much better than it should.
The second main course
Now comes a small spectacle as the wait staff bring out a table on which to carve, preparing the knife and the board just so. They then present you with a casserole in which there is a piece of beef. But this is not any old beef, and it has not been cooked in any old casserole. That would be way too easy.
The casserole also contains some hay – this is the only hay in France that has its own AOC (appélation d’origine contrôlée), this means that no other hay is allowed to call itself by the same name because this hay has been deemed so special that it’s name has been protected so that it can identify itself commercially – this is the same protection given to the words champagne, feta, or Burgundy. And yes, it’s just hay, I was surprised too. It’s called “le Foin de Crau“. It imparts a particular taste to the meat.
The meat, of course, is no ordinary beef. No, this is a premium cut of meat from a fighting bull from the Béziers arena. So in fact it has neither the texture nor the taste of ordinary beef. It is much richer, firmer and with different flavours. I didn’t know you could eat fighting bull, I didn’t know it was even edible, but apparently it’s a thing.
Obviously, since it’s all plated at the table it’s a delicate operation because they can’t recover from any mistakes like they could in the kitchen, so there are three waiters in full-on surgeon mode operating on this piece of beef so ensure it’s arranged on the plate just so.
Then, out of nowhere, comes the chef himself, Gilles Goujon, who darts around the table with an uncanny agility, sprinkling what he laughingly refers to as rice crispies onto the side-dish, which is cheek of beef and porcini mushrooms in a sauce gardiane, with puffed rice sprinkled on top. He’s far less serious than his waiters (although I suppose that’s his prerogative), and laughs that he gets the rice from Kellogg’s (which is a joke, it probably requires a PhD in cookery to get it right) before zooming off towards the kitchen entrance.
Gardiane sauce is what you get when you marinate the beef in red wine to tenderise it, then stew it in thyme, onions, bay leaves and garlic for three hours. This is traditionally served with camargue rice (which we had on the main plate), and in our case with a piece of porcini mushroom.
Also on the main plate on top of the brown rice ratatouille (riz de camargue) is a slice of red pepper jelly (you can see it on the right in the picture), and we were also given a basket with a puffed rice cracker that was so delicate it was almost impossible to pick up without breaking it.
It’s always amazing to be introduced to a new ingredient, especially when it’s completely mastered like it was here. This was a really interesting dish and if I wasn’t such a dessert addict it might have been my favourite dish of the meal.
The Cheese Platter
No French meal is complete without a cheese platter to separate the main meal from the dessert, and here the cheese platter was a fully-loaded chariot with a selection so broad that by the time they’ve finished listing the cheeses on display, you’ve forgotten the first half of the list.
We chose local cheeses, because that’s a theme in this restaurant, and it’s good to discover new things!
Well, perhaps not quite so finally, because there were still another four home-made sweets to accompany the coffee to come, but first they brought us a reconstituted lemon tart.
Yes. Reconstituted. This is something chefs sometimes do to demonstrate awesomeness in the kitchen, and it can be absolutely amazing or it can fail disastrously.
The idea is that you take a known dish, in this case a lemon tart. You then decompose it into its constituent parts, in this case the lemon topping, the crust, the glazed sugar, the candied fruit and the meringue. You then recompose the dessert but in a completely different form. So what was presented to us was a big lemon in the middle of a plate.
You are then invited to smash it (this meal was quite a destructive experience overall) with your spoon, whereupon you discover that it contains lemon sorbet, basil, bergamot, candied kumquat, small bits of meringue and biscuit.
The lemon sorbet (white around the edges) was really light and fluffy, and the taste of the candied fruits came through very clearly. The meringue was discreet, in the form of little white pellets that melt in your mouth.
The dessert was accompanied by a very nice sweet wine made by the sommelier in partnership with one of the winemakers the restaurant has a relationship with. This was also delicious, with strong matured fruit notes to it, and without the sickly sweet finish dessert wines sometimes have.
We had a coffee, but this was of course accompanied once again with a collection of sweets made in the kitchen. Fizandato was no longer very hungry, and so he only tasted one or two of his. I ate all four of mine, and then one of his for good measure.
It’s a huge deal to come to a restaurant like this and eat the chef’s tasting menu. I’ve come across people who like to compare notes of different Michelin-starred restaurants, claiming this one is better than that one, or that better value can be had here or there. I suppose that’s one way to do it but if you always compare everything in this way you too easily lose sight of what a privilege it is to eat a meal like this in the first place.
It’s an expensive exercise that I appreciate all the more for not indulging often. I can count on the fingers of my hands the times in my life when I’ve had meals of this quality. I enjoyed each one, and made discoveries every time. I hope never to lose the naiveté necessary to come to a place like this with my eyes open and to be amazed.