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Bras

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Contact info

route de l'aubrac12210 Laguiole
France
T+33 565511820

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Open

MTWTFSS
Lunch              
Dinner              

Chef's personal info

Name: Michel Bras
Date of birth: Unknown
Origin: France
Experience:
Introduced by his mother to local culinary traditions. He studied culinary literature with a passion, taking inspiration from such great thinkers as Saint-Augstin, Lamartine,  Saint-Exupéry, Ernest Renan and Francis Ponge, amongst others. He walked the trails, gathered, pondered and mediated, and finally found his own culinary path.  
 
Awards:
Restaurant Bras voted 7th Best of the world -
 
Owner:
Ginette and Michel Bras
 

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ALifeWorthEating.com -
Michel Bras

Michel Bras

I’d wanted to go to Michel Bras for a long time.  Years, really.  But it wasn’t exactly easy to get there.  When I moved to Paris, things became easier, but not by much.  The restaurant is a 10-hour train ride from Paris followed by an hour taxi.  The ride back is a night train.  Aside from all that, reservations are difficult.  When I called in March, they were fully booked until May.  But after weeks of persistence and a bit of luck, there was a last-minute cancellation.  I was in.

Given the distance to the restaurant, I decided to make a weekend out of it.  I’d arrive Saturday afternoon and leave late Sunday night to catch the night train.  This would enable me to order the entire menu and pace myself to better understand the cooking of Chef Bras.  36-hours of Bras would mean two dinners, a breakfast, and a lunch.  I was more than ready.

Coming from Paris, the countryside feels strange and foreign.  Bright green rolling hills and dark textured clouds make this place of nature feel like an alien world.  Things move fast here, perhaps faster than Paris: a beautiful sunny day can turn dark and stormy in minutes.  There is a powerful mix of light and dark, movement and still, quiet and noise which exemplifies the chaos that is nature: its essence can barely be tamed.

The all-glass dining room overlooks the countryside letting in the natural beauty but keeping out the harshness.  It looks like a spaceship.  From a calm climate-controlled room nature’s fury seems all but turbulent.  The wide expanse of earth and sky glow like an illuminated landscape.  The only displayed art is that of the flora and fauna, far more impressive than oil and canvas.

The attitude of the staff here is calm and peaceful — much like a visit to a day spa.  The receptionists speak just above a whisper.  For a fully occupied Relais & Châteaux, Michel Bras makes guests feel like the only occupants.  The one seating per lunch and dinner further facilities a sense of serenity.  Instead of rushing out the door to beat rush-hour traffic, a calm stroll from the guest room to the dining room takes all of two minutes.  It also helps that there is really nothing to do in the local area, besides a requisite visit to the Laguiole Knife Factory.  This really makes diners think about their surroundings and appreciate its glory.

I showered and got ready for a seven o’clock seating.  At this point the sun was just starting to reach the horizon.  It was spectacularly beautiful.

The oversized menus were surprisingly easy to read.  To the left was a humble collection of dishes, to the right, an extended tasting.  On the first night, I went with the tasting.  The meal started with a glass of house champagne and a delicate oeuf en cocotte.  The egg custard was served in shell with a hint of sherry vinegar for acidity.  This was closer to Manresa’s rendition than the original served at L’Arpège.  The subtle swirl of acidity cut through the egg’s monotony rendering a different flavor with each spoonful.  The toasted multigrain bread sticks added a chewy crunch and absorbed the remaining yolk.

The orchestra of amuses bouches hit all the notes: sweet, savory, spicy, bitter, salty, and acidic.  The bite-sized spoonfuls ensured that all the ingredients properly mixed at once to highlight the full spectrum of flavor.  Each spoonful carried a blend of crisp fresh vegetables with raw lamb or sea bream.  This was edible art.

Le Gargouillou – This Bras-originating dish has been borrowed and re-invented all across the world.  A simple medley of garden vegetables and flowers, each individually blanched to its ideal time, assembled together as a Leviathan of flavor and beauty.  This is evidence that when nature is left to speak for itself magical things can happen.  This salad was as fun to look at as it was to eat.  The Gargouillou gives new meaning to garden diversity.  With over fifty ingredients — some as scarce on the plate as a single leaf — each bite was completely different.

A thin slice of cured meat was buried beneath a heap of flowers and leaves adding salt and depth.  The fat from the meat somehow coats the vegetables and enhances their flavor making each component taste much more intense.

So many aspects of this dish were given careful consideration and thought: it is perfectly balanced.  Crunchy but soft elements give the dish an overall consistency that overcomes clashes of flavor creating a coherence rather than a collection of individual ingredients.  This salad is a true trip to the nearby meadow.

La dorade royale de saint Jean de Luz et les primeurs, relevés de boeuf séché et de grillons-noisette, ciboule de Saint Jacques et peucedanum – Sea bream with cured meat, spring vegetables, hazelnut, and scallop.  This was a generous filet of fish which was surprisingly fresh given the restaurant’s land-locked location far from the sea.  The fresh peas were blanched for no longer than a few seconds ensuring that the starch was removed but the crunchiness preserved.  This was a welcome addition to the smooth fish.

La tranche de foie gras de canard grillée, confit acide de fraises et cèbe de Lézignan rôtie, valériane phu et niac, citron, cumin, anis vert – A generous lobe of grilled foie gras with acidulated strawberries and spices.  The liver was thick and creamy, its fattiness kept in check by the fruity — but not sweet — acidulated strawberries.  This dish was served with no bread of any kind making the texture a bit wearisome, a thin slice of bread would have gone a long way to absorb all the oils.

The waiter explained that in keeping with local Aubrac tradition, the knife would not be replaced throughout the meal.  Rather my knife was my tool and would be mine for the next few hours.  I really liked this concept in theory, but in practice the knife got kind of gross.  I found myself secretly cleaning it.

Les asperges blanches croûtées aux truffes de Comprégnac, pousses de pois et pois, de la peau de lait – Lightly cooked white asparagus encrusted in black truffle served with green peas in a cream sauce.  Despite being late in the season, the grated truffles were amazingly fragrant and acted like breadcrumbs to absorb the creamy sauce.  The salting was generous — essential to bring out all the earthy nuances of the cream.  This was one of the highlights of the night.

L’endive farcie au gras, huile rance comme une crème et un jus aux truffes de Comprégnac – An endive bulb served with a black truffle cream. The endive was thoroughly cooked to remove all bitterness rendering its flavor closer to lettuce.  This also caused the multiple layers to merge into a single mash.  This was my least favorite course of the night as I found its flavor one-dimensional and simply unappealing.  The truffles were not detectable.

Le carré d’agneau Allaiton rôti sur os, sarrasin grillé dit kasha et côtes de moutarde, lait de coco et coriandre, le jus d’agneau – Roasted lamb and grilled buckwheat with large grains of mustard seed, coconut milk, jus, and cilantro.  This was surprisingly good.  The mustard offered a hint of spice without the sour acidity that often follows the vinegar.  The hint of coconut milk and dash of cilantro brightened the jus making this a fantastic combination of east meets west.  My palette got a bit tired, however, after the third bite.  This was a really large portion.  Too big, I think.

Stringy Mashed Potatoes – This local delicacy, a combination of pureed potatoes and cheese, stretched nearly a meter in the air from the fork to the plate.  The cheese added density and made the gritty potatoes squeak with each bite.  While dense the flavor was clean and not greasy.  An additional splash of butter a la Joël Robuchon would have gone a long way, but I appreciated the dish’s simplicity.

Les Fromages – A potpourri of local and imported cheeses including all the all-stars (Roquefort, Comte, Fourme d’Ambert) as well as some next-door delicacies no bigger than a silver dollar.

Le biscuit tiède de chocolat, rhum coulant, sorbet banane-caramélisée au beurre demi-sel – Though a contentious debate, it’s quite probable that the chocolate coulant was invented here a long time ago by Chef Bras.  A wedge of frozen chocolate is centered in what appear to be chocolate batter “muffin trays” before baking.  When the batter cooks the interior simply melts.  The shell is very dry: more like a cookie than a moist cake, which is Bras’s intention.  The texture crumbles and fractures due to its frailness.  The inside is piping hot as its trip from the oven to the plate is less than a minute.  The flavor is of deep and rich chocolate with the sweetness coming from the salted caramalized-banana sorbet adorning the top.  Only when the ice cream and liquid core mix with the dry crust does the texture become balanced.  This was wonderful and very different from the chocolate coulants imitated elsewhere.  Somehow here, the dessert was light and delicate.

Une gaufrette de pomme de terre, crème à la pomme de terre, pignon et safran – A delicate potato wafer with potato cream and saffron.  The flavor was sweet and earthy, but tasted a bit too much like mashed potatoes with sugar for me to enjoy past the second bite.  Interesting concept, not so interesting flavor.

Petits Fours - A granted slate topped with pot de creme, hazelnut-infused dark and milk chocolate squares, and custard.  By this point in the meal I was stuffed.

I finished my first meal here satisfied but lukewarm with content.  Many of the dishes were beautiful and conceptually simple but their flavors ordinary and uninteresting.  There was no bill presented; rather, everything is settled at check out.  Waiting for me was the key to my room which had been turned down.  Needless to say, I fell asleep pretty quickly.

I am so glad that I decided to spend the night as the next morning I awoke in what seemed to be a completely different restaurant.  It turns out that Chef Bras was not in the kitchen during my first night.  He was, however, in the kitchen for my second lunch and dinner.  And his precision and keen eye for extracting nature’s best flavors showed.

Shortly after waking up I walked outside my room and admired the bed of wildflowers carpeting the rolling hills all the way into the horizon.  It really doesn’t do justice to eat dinner here: the true natural beauty can only be seen during daylight.  I stopped by the dining room for a morning snack before heading out.

Morning Pastry Basket – A basket of fresh baked French pastries including a croissant, pain au chocolat, and miniature baguette.  By the time I crawled down to breakfast with my food hangover from the night before, the pastries had already cooled.  But guests who awoke bright and early, just a few hours after dinner had ended, enjoyed warm pastries.  The pastries were served with local confitures (apricot and raspberry) as well as honey.

Local “pancake” – A savory pancake dusted with sliced scallion and salt.  The pancake was served at room temperature causing the absorbed cooking oil to coat the surface.  Considering I was eating lunch in just under two hours, I asked for a second croissant and baguette took a few small bites and went outside to further explore the surroundings and build up an appetite before lunch.

The day was absolutely gorgeous: A cool 65 degrees, light wind, and bright sun.  The sounds of wild birds and wind brushing against the greenery made the experience tranquil, the sea of wild flowers and high contrast clouds made it surreal.  It was at this moment that I understood the source of chef Bras’s inspiration: his color palate comes from a walk through these hills, his use of light and dark from the contrast between the earth and sky.

Lunch started with Le Gargouillou, and while the ingredients were nearly identical to the evening before, its flavor tasted completely different.  This time it tasted sweeter, fresher, and less salty.  It is truly amazing the sheer diversity of flavors and textures that compose these greens.  I was tempted to ask for a second round.  This was an unbelievable portrait of nature at its best.

Les asperges vertes poêlées dans une beurre au curry; coriandre, ail des ours et du lassi épicé – Green asparagus with a curry butter, cilantro, wild garlic, and herbes.  The hint of curry added a tannic element to the butter making it creamier and richer but with more structure.  The asparagus were gently salted and very lightly cooked preserving their crunch.  This was an excellent segue-way from the Gargouillou onto more substantive plates.

Tellement gouteux de jeunes navets et les premiers champignons, pousses de pois, pois et cresson alénois – Young turnips, first mushrooms of the spring, sweet peas and watercress.  Oh my god this was delicious!  The buttery cream sauce melded with the textured mushrooms filling every pocket and dimple on its rough surface.  Its flavor was earthy and creamy, yet generously salted and fresh.  The watercress leaves added a refreshing crunch and the sweet peas were some of the most flavorful and intense I’ve ever tasted.  This was unbelievable.

La pomme de terre roulée à l’anchois, côtes et feuilles de moutarde, jus au pain – Potato rolled with anchovy, mustard leaves and garnished with a light butter sauce.  The texture of the potato was light, its matryoshka-doll layers really helped absorption of the light sauce.  Somehow Bras took an ingredient, deconstructed it, and made it better.  The thin strips of anchovy added salt and created hints of crunch.

The ten or so of layers of the potato became crystal clear when cut in half.

Chou-rave cuit en cocotte, doré à l’orange, baignées d’un lait d’orge torréfiéKohlrabi “casserole”, golden orange, bathed in a roasted barley milk.  This dish was bright and clean, the barley milk thin and light.  What I liked most about this dish was the raw and unrefined flavor of the turnip garnished with the polished, earthy barley milk.  The milk somehow made the turnip taste sweet without adding extra sugar.

Une crème de laitue à la livèche, copeaux de poutargue et de ventrèche – thin slices of bottarga and cured meat shaved atop a thick lettuce cream.  The lean bottarga was pleasantly salty but not fishy and complimented the fatty slices of pork belly.  There was a distinct vegetal bitterness that came from the cooked lettuce, much like endive.

La pièce de’Boeuf Aubrac – pure race – poêlée, une pomme de terre farcie du jus aux truffes de Comprégnac – A gorgeous medallion of local Aubrac beef, lightly pan seared and served with a truffled potato sandwich and sugar snap peas.  The meat was rare, tender, and lean.  The color was a brilliant magenta which contrasted sharply against the bright white salt crystals.  The crisped potato sandwiched turnip, and local greens.  The potato stood upright keeping it from becoming soggy in the truffle butter sauce, a very clever solution to a common problem.  This course was fantastic.

In all the lunch meal was much more exciting and innovative than dinner the night before.  Though each dish still had a solid foundation in local meats and produce, things felt more refined and focused.  The flavors were much more vivid, as were the colors.  It was clear that chef Bras was in the kitchen, and he and his team were working at their peak.

I finished lunch around four in the afternoon and had a bit of time before my night train to Paris at midnight.  I headed back to the room and packed up my bags in time for check out.  I spent some time in the cocktail room with my laptop, the staff was more than gracious with accommodating me until my train left later in the evening.  At around seven, the kind woman at the front desk asked if I would like something to eat.  The truth is I didn’t, I was stuffed to the brim.  But I would have been stupid to refuse an additional food offering.  They had already set up a makeshift table for me downstairs by the window (and technically the bathroom, but it was a fair distance away).  I ordered a glass of wine and a last and final Gargouillou.

Once again the Gargouillou tasted different.  This time it was saltier and more meaty with barely any apparent sweetness.  I’m pretty sure there is no bad combination that can come from this dish.  Like a kaleidoscope, only the colors and perspective of the salad changes, not the satisfaction.

I didn’t intend on ordering dessert, but the waiter was very persuasive.

Pineapple and Vaniilla Custard – A cone of layered pineapple giving shelter to a light vanilla and maple mousse.  I didn’t really want dessert but the waiter was very persuasive.  This was very sweet but surprisingly tasty.  The maple tempered the pineapple’s acidity creating a more rounded flavor.


Take-home almond cookies - These were the hardest yet thinnest cookies I’ve ever had.  Each bite unleashed a pile of small razors that became dangerous to chew.  I guess it was worth it.  The cookies were sweet but not overpowering.  The occasionally crispy bite gave way to a soft pocket of whole almond and hazelnut creating an interesting diversity of texture.  These cookies lasted for an amazing period of a week without any noticeable degradation in texture of flavor.  They were already hard to begin with.

I didn’t sleep much during the ride home.  It was partly because of the bumpy ride and noisy strangers in my sleeping cabin, but mostly because I was still digesting my experience (literally).  I’d eaten the entire menu!

I’m pretty sure this is one of the most memorably food experiences I’ve ever had.  While there was no particular dish that stood out as once-in-a-lifetime delicious there were quite a few that were revolutionary for their time twenty years ago.  They didn’t seem fresh and innovative to me because I had been experiencing copies of chef Bras’ work for my entire life without realizing it.  To me, this was more about understanding the source of so many dishes such as the chocolate coulant and the medley garden salad of fifty ingredients that I had grown to love.  This is an essential culinary trip for anybody who loves food.

The gorgeous surroundings, chivalrous staff, and overall zen-like atmosphere of the property make this a sensational two-day trip from Paris.  This is really the Blue Hill at Stone Barns of France, except this came first.  I hope I have the opportunity to return again, preferably sometime soon.

ALifeWorthEating.com -

EntreChefs.co.uk - Laurent Feneau
The Bras embrace the Aubrac

The Bras embrace the Aubrac

 

Michel et Sébastien Bras

Perched above Laguiole, on the plateau of Aubrac, Michel and Sébastien Bras are intently aware of the open and generous nature surrounding them which they interpret from season to season. Pastoral murmurs for a sensual and savoury ode.

"We have the deserts we deserve (…) those which are able to break us and eradicate our soul (…) or, on the contrary, those which lift and elate us, making us kings in a space full of harmony and achievement." This desert, described by Patrick Million* is the Aubrac. A world of rocks and light which inspire Michel and Sébastien Bras on a daily basis. Up there, on the high plateaus bathed in sunlight and overlooking Laguiole, fathers, sons, women and children all live and work according to the seasons.
It all started a little lower down in the valley, in Lou Mazuc, at the inn of Michel's parents. At this restaurant catering to workers and local breeders, this future chef first worked as a pastry chef. Self-taught, he learned how to cook with his mother before opening his first restaurant, and then a second - presently with three stars - in 1992. Perched at an altitude of 1,200 metres, this gem of contemporary architecture is a refined design of the milk-shed, typical of the regional shepherd huts. Basalt, shale, granite, and slate are all combined to form enormous spaces, creating an incredible view overlooking the Aubrac landscapes.
In the early morning hours, after passing through the kitchen with around 30 cooks already busy at work, there is an office whose patio door leads onto a wind-blown pasture. There, as every morning, the family deals with the daily business at hand. The walls, covered in photographs, are like a long storybook which Michel proposes to tell.

The big book of nature
"Totally understanding the Aubrac has been a long and slow process. The mystery which enveloped this plateau when I was a kid was far from being the playmate it became as a teenager," he explained, handling a tiny bird's nest that he found on his way. "As a child, I was present for the annual autumnal tree cutting ritual and watched the men who came down from the state forests. I envied them. They came from another world up there, a place that I imagined to be inhabited by I don't who or what." As a teenager, this blacksmith's son learned the "basics of nature" from each season that passed. "In the spring I looked out for the sap rising in he branches of hazelnut trees, and picked the red and black berries in the brambles. In the autumn, the flowery scents made room for the fragrances of the undergrowth."
This was Michel Bras' background and upbringing which makes it understandable how even today he entertains a close relationship with nature. He has the childhood capacity of being wonderfully surprised, and of seeing only the good sides of his work. He is over sixty and yet his face, "sculpted" by walking, is that of a young man. Walking is a daily routine which allows him to carefully take in the Aubrac landscapes and essentially helps inspire his recipes. "There comes a time when physical effort allows the body to secrete endomorphines and you suddenly feel in a secondary state, where everything comes undone and is exposed to you. That's when nature whispers things to me … "

Divided into four hands
There have been no spectacular events to tell of in Michel Bras' kitchen, just many years of trekking along various taste trails and always finishing with a plate resembling a landscape. The infamous "gargouillou" - a recipe which will be celebrating its twenty years in 2007 - is one of his ultimate emotional cooking dishes. By tasting it and looking at the forty, or so, vegetables, herbs, plants and flowers which make it, is like experiencing a total symbiosis with the surrounding nature. A perfect culinary understanding.
When Michel handed over the restaurant to his son, it may well have been perceived as expecting too much from someone the father still affectionately calls "Sébas", but in Aveyron, where family businesses are rampant, it's a normal situation. Even more so in that this transmission could not be slower! Trained at the Institut Bocuse in Lyon, Sébastien has been working alongside his father since 1995. "I began as the pastry cook, but dad never let me make even one mistake." "Probably because I never allowed myself to make any," Michel murmurs lovingly.
Today the son is officially in charge of the kitchen but this doesn't mean the father has hung up his apron. Both are behind the stoves cooking away with similar inspirational ideas floating in the air between them … the Aubrac air, of course.

Songs from this rich earth
And what could be more normal? "We have shared the same working approach for years," confides Sébastien. Nonetheless, Michel gave his son "a ten-year lead". But if the technique is there, how is it possible to pass on this incredible natural inspiration? "It's all a question of upbringing," answers Michel, "I raised Sébastien to be in total harmony with nature and he grew up with this wondrous daily rapport with the region's glorious landscapes."
Behind the stoves on the upper plateaus, the Bras' cooking is like a concert. They create renewable emotions, exposing themselves in their culinary dishes which reflect their symbiosis with nature, shared souvenirs, and songs of this rich earth and of men … rarely sung with two voices. "We each have our own approach even if our ideas end up being the same. We also have competitions of who can be the most creative with a simple product like a potato. Why don't we make a dessert with it? asks the young chef. In the end this became the potato wafers with hazelnut butter which is on the menu today. He adds, "creating is in fact a very intimate thing which is always part of us, Michel, or me."

What if Aubrac was the centre of the world? …
Passing the helm is never easy. To be in the kitchen without really being in it, Michel has found a solution: his vegetable garden where, with his wife Ginette, he grows over 300 vegetables, herbs and plants. "It kills me, but I manage to arrive at the kitchen with my basket in hand!" He follows on to say, with a slight fiery look from his blue eyes "I fell in the vegetable pot when I was younger. That's why today, inventing my gargouillou with these products which incarnate life and good health, just gives me extraordinary strength."
Over the numerous trips they make each year, the father and son discover other extraordinary gardens. In India, the fragrances of the different herbs in curry. In China, the head lettuce which the Bras' serve, the heart accompanied with milk skin and nut bread crust. Throughout their discoveries they have fun building bridges between the different cuisines. "In Rajasthan, milk is used like in France. In Indonesia, people eat banana leaves - in the restaurant we serve our desserts in gentian leaves …."
So each time that Michel and Sébastien leave, it's to really just appreciate returning even more, and to discover with great pleasure that "Aubrac is like the centre of the world." Or perhaps its the other way around.

"From the garden to the market … mere paths of pleasure"
"The vegetables in my garden are never the same. The weather, the region and the moon are all elements which annually present me with totally different ranges of colour, taste and texture. Going to open markets is also an important part of my life. The day I find myself physically unable to enjoy this ritual, I think I'll stop cooking. What absolute heaven to hear the market gardeners tell their latest adventures! How wonderful to hear the odd squeaking of courgettes rubbing together … I love to turn them over in my hands, tear off the small leaves, pick them up, inhale their fragrance... When I get back, I like sharing my latest finds with my fellow cooks, especially when discussing these foodstuffs carries us miles away to sugar loaf, buck's horn plantain, wild garlic… I show them my freshly fragrant corollas"

EntreChefs.co.uk - Laurent Feneau

 

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