Weekend in Bordeaux

I was in a holding tank this last weekend…a Friday-Saturday-Sunday of studying wine, of prepping myself to start a Monday morning foray into the wine-growing Medoc, to meet with new producers there. (“Never on Sunday” persists in the Bordeaux wine trade, ya see.) The “holding tank,” fortunately, was the city of Bordeaux…a truly historic, stately ville which wears its history gracefully on its cupolas and flying buttresses, all the while bursting with energy and hip new neighborhoods. Ships that for centuries picked up Bordeaux wine at the quai are there still, but in attenuated form…this time the commerce is all about selling a luxe cabin to a wealthy couple for a waterways romp.

Me, of course, I never stepped aboard throughout the weekend. I stayed on land…where the food is! And a groovy modern hotel provided me with the perfect/exploration base.

‘Weekend in Bordeaux” is exactly what developed.

My quest? Find a couple of real-person restaurants with either great traditional food, or great smart/creative food. That would be the base underlying the exploration of Bordeaux. I had lots of hope, lots of time, and I tried hard. Maybe I just didn’t get the right recommendations, as though there was plenty of “pretty good” in the bistros and brasseries, there wasn’t any “Oh, wow!” that came my way. The kind of “Oh, wow” that would motivate me to report to you. They may well be out there, but more research time would be needed to snag ‘em.





However…hey, this is France, after all…I did have two extraordinary gastronomic experiences in and around Bordeaux; these are the ones I want you to file away so you can retrieve them as you plan your next trip here before you begin your barrage on Margaux, St. Julien, Pauillac and St. Estephe. Or, come just for the city of Bordeaux!

Joël Robuchon/Facebook
Joël Robuchon/Facebook

I knew far in advance of my trip that I’d be in for an incredible meal on Saturday night. I had discovered that Joël Robuchon—whom I always call the chef of my lifetime—had opened a full-bore temple of gastronomy in the city of Bordeaux, in December 2014.

You may know the Robuchon history. In the 1980s, his Paris three-star restaurant, Jamin, rocked the world; it was the restaurant of that decade. He announced retirement in the 1990s, though he was only 50. Retirement? Yeah, right. He went on to become a cooking show star on French TV, to dabble with a few lower-key establishments in Asia, particularly Tokyo. Then, in the early 2000s, he opened a hybrid restaurant concept in Paris: L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon on Rue Montalembert, which looked like a modern cross between a sushi bar and a tapas bar. The food was simpler, more direct than the old Jamin fare—but it had the knockout quality of whatever Robuchon cooks.



L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon spread in the 2000s to multiple locations around the world—including Las Vegas, where he also opened a much grander restaurant called The Mansion. The dizzying price of admission to The Mansion included, of course, a free limo to and from the restaurant, wherever you were staying in Las Vegas. The place had Robuchon quality, to be sure—but it had (and still has) a kind of Las Vegas muchness to it, not always the best key for the simple purity of what Robuchon does.

So we all waited with bated breath: would Robuchon ever bring back a full-blown, Jamin-like, gastronomic experience?

When I got the word on the Bordeaux place, I figured this was it. To relieve your suspense…this is almost it. La Grande Maison, at 10 Rue Labottière, is an incredible dining experience in every way. It is conceived as dwelling on a higher plane that Jamin’s—bigger, grander, more opulent—so the comparison isn’t perfect. But Robuchon announced that with La Grande Maison he wishes to go back to the fundamentals, and his fundamentals—bringing us a cuisine that, while far from uncreative, does pare away some of the exotic excesses that had inevitably crept into the world of this world-traveler.

Don’t worry about your car…or your evening!
Don’t worry about your car…or your evening!

You know what kind of night it’s going to be as you drive up; the restaurant is a taxi drive away from downtown Bordeaux, in a quiet neighborhood, with a circular drive just past the imposing gates that leads you to a beautifully kept 19th-century classic French mansion. The building had once been the home of a wealthy family; later, it became a bank; now, it’s merely one of the greatest restaurants in the world. The dapper, duly-suited, Lord of the Drive (that’s what I call him) directs you to the front steps.

As you arrive, you notice directly across the street an even grander mansion called L’Institut Culturel de Bernard Magrez. Monsieur Magrez is a wealthy Bordeaux winery owner, with a range of vinous jewels from Bordeaux in his diadem. He’s also of the philanthropic artist bent, and receives painters and sculptors at the Institut Culturel so that, in residence, they may refine their work.

Why he hooked up with the greatest living chef I don’t know; no one could ever imagine that Robuchon needed to refine his work. But it must have gladdened Magrez’s heart to have this living legend, this one-of-a-kind culinary master, setting up in the old bank across the street, inspiring us all: staff, customers, even those just walking by. (For the array of global art work around the circular drive is breathtaking).

The giant Japanese volcanic boulder crafted by a female Japanese artist…with representations in crevices of buildings from all over the world.
The giant Japanese volcanic boulder crafted by a female Japanese artist…with representations in crevices of buildings from all over the world.

IMG_0841

Your passage through the door is likely to take your breath away—for here await an impeccaby dressed cadre of gentleman, leaning slightly Third Empire, who will cosset you into your seat as surely and smoothly as can be done on this earth. The room is elegant, filled as it is with gorgeous historic furniture, meant to soothe and congrue—not to boast or inspire envy.

In a corner of La Grande Maison, a table soon to be filled by a beautiful young Sri Lankan couple who, after study at MIT, moved to London to work in finance. That’s the clientele!
In a corner of La Grande Maison, a table soon to be filled by a beautiful young Sri Lankan couple who, after study at MIT, moved to London to work in finance. That’s the clientele!

 

Robuchon, whom I’ve known for years, was not present on this Saturday night; he was in Monaco, where he has two restaurants! But just to gladden my heart (and being the consommate restaurateur that he is)—he was in telephone contact with me during dinner through house staff.

Gladdening my heart still further is Chef Executif Tomonori Danzaki, who worked with Robuchon 20 years ago in Tokyo—and has been working with him ever since. He is deighted to be in this high position of responsibility in Bordeaux, and everything he sends your way ringingly confirms that!

Let’s allow a picture stand in for a thousand words, as you observe the amuse-bouche that came out us in the early going:

A plate, for one diner, of lobster roe gelée, dotted with “eyes” of cauliflower purée, each one touched with a chlorophyll bull’s-eye, set around a round cap of Aquitaine caviar on a bed of local crab meat.
A plate, for one diner, of lobster roe gelée, dotted with “eyes” of cauliflower purée, each one touched with a chlorophyll bull’s-eye, set around a round cap of Aquitaine caviar on a bed of local crab meat.

It is a dish you eat, and never want to stop eating. The sweet apotheosis of lobster hovers throughout, as you advance to the way-stations of the other related treats. The magic that’s soaring through the air, literally—in the synapses between your nerves, on the plate between elements—is staggering. It is the kind of copycatting that every young chef does, usually without the universe coming together, but when Robuchon does it, the flavor, the logic and the apparent purpose of the universe come home from their extended vacations.

At La Grande Maison, thee are multiple menus and formules that allow you yo pick just what you want, in any size menu you want. I went for a €205 menu that offered me two appetizers, two main courses (a fish then a meat, perhaps?), then a full cheese course, then the panoply of desserts that always attends three-star dining. For me, it was a bargain to boot: a whole lotta Robuchon for a relative pittance.

In the next course another of the night’s super novas lay:

The menu says: La Tomate, en bonbons, acidulés sur une transparence a l’huile vierge citronnée
The menu says: La Tomate, en bonbons, acidulés sur une transparence a l’huile vierge citronnée

It is not easy to describe the world-rocking explosions set off by every new attempt at human mastication of this dish. The red, green and yellow tomato arias sang, tickled, reminded you of everything you’d already forgotten. An extraordinary tour de force.

Was anything on a lower plane? Only if you’ve got PRD (Picky Restaurant Disease)—though this meal could be a cure for some of those patients. In mid-meal came the Robuchon reference of all time: his langoustine ravioli under a sauce of foie gras, garnished with perfectly cooked Savoy cabbage. It was miraculous, a bit like The Winter’s Tale, to see an old love again after a gap of 25-30 years. But there she was, resurrected. The flavors were as transporting as ever—certainly one of the smartest juxtapositions of my culinary lifetime. I could quibble a bit about texture; the interior of the dumpling seemed a bit heavier than it once was. But I’d be a madman to register a complaint after wrapping my whole being around one of the world’s greatest dishes!

Fish courses were exquisite: a flaky turbot sautéed with lemongrass and leeks; and a chart-topping black cod, its caramelized umami-recalling dark sauce dragging you down to the bottom of the sea, where it all started.

And the cannette. The maître d’hôtel talked us into the whole female duckling for two, raised in the salt marches of Challans, in the nothwest. From wheel-out, to carving…

The elegant Directeur Executif, Jean-Paul Unzueta, carving a cannette
The elegant Directeur Executif, Jean-Paul Unzueta, carving a cannette.

…to the multiple courses yielded by the bird…it was a great duck-eating time…all of it sprinkled with the fairy powder that only Robuchon knows how to apply.

Slices of magret served with little packages of fig and foie gras (to be followed soon by crunchy slabs of dark-meat duck).
Slices of magret served with little packages of fig and foie gras (to be followed soon by crunchy slabs of dark-meat duck).

Why is it not Jamin? For me, Jamin—which I visited three times in the 1980s—was food-focused and perfect. Well, the insane focus is here—though the grandiose Maison is worth a distraction or two. As for “perfect”—it nearly was. It really nearly was. Little things. The famous Robuchon mashed potatoes were a little heavy/gluey. The guy with the bread “chariot” talks your ear off, then doesn’t deliver his promises on time.

The grand effect, as you’re considering these moments in the restaurant’s aprés-chambre, lingering over digestifs (try the great 1979 Domaine Boingnéres Armagnac, Cepages Nobles!)—is a memory wipe. The dining-room transgessions are so tiny that, except for those who like to dwell on that side of the street, the slate is wiped clean. I know of no better Robuchon restaurant in the world today, and, in my mind, I am already on my way back.

By Sunday morning—and with the Robuchon table glow still lasting—I knew that I wasn’t going to find a few compelling restaurants within the city of Bordeaux in just a few hours. So my strategy shifted.

I’d always wanted to go to the oyster mecca Arcachon, on the Atlantic Coast, about 70 km west of the city of Bordeaux. I made some inquiries and found that the oysters of early September are well worth eating. In fact, the leading place for oysters only (there are fancier restaurants too in the Arcachon area, with wider menus)…has a terrace on the Bassin d’Arcachon, set under real grape trellises, that’s open ONLY from June 15 to Sept. 15. I was in time!

IMG_0919

I hustled out to Arcachon on a beautiful late-summer day, getting there about 2PM…just in time for a gorgeous Sunday lunch of oysters and local white wine!

This place is called La Cabane de l’Aiguillon

IMG_0918

…and the oysters are fantastic.

IMG_0928

As I expect from French oysters, they are briny and firm (not sweet and fatty!). And the prices! You can get a dozen medium-sized oysters for €12/dozen…about a buck each! You can also get a few other items…large red shrimp, bulots, clams…but I found it most satisfying to focus on the oysters.

Keep in mind that it is a funky shack, so don’t expect elegance. Who cares!

But if you do want a little taste of the finer things, seaside style, you should drive a few miles to the town of Pyla-sur-Mer, right on the ocean, a town that made me think of Carmel, California merging with Costa Brava, Spain. Amidst the fancy homes, and strings of fancy cars, there is one resort worth considering for a drink: La Co(o)rniche,  on the beach, with a very Côte d’Azur sensibility. And a gorgeous ocean view!

Of course, this too is a place for oysters! They shuck and sell local oysters in the most elegant way…

Prepping for oyster service at La Co(o)rniche, which will cost you 2-3 times as much as at La Cabane de l’Aiguillon!
Prepping for oyster service at La Co(o)rniche, which will cost you 2-3 times as much as at La Cabane de l’Aiguillon!

But most late-afternoon visitors lounge in the comfortable deck chairs to see and be seen…

The deck at La Co(o)rniche in late afternoon.
The deck at La Co(o)rniche in late afternoon.

…probably sipping on one of the many delicious fruit drinks that are a specialty here…

My favorite fruit drink at La Co(o)rniche, the Virgin Maracudja (passion fruit and coconut, very tart and tingly)
My favorite fruit drink at La Co(o)rniche, the Virgin Maracudja (passion fruit and coconut, very tart and tingly)

There is an extensive menu, both on the deck, and another at a more serious restaurant also part of La Co(o)rniche. Stuffed with oysters, I sampled nothing…but my eyes told me that a drink on the deck is about as good as it gets right here. Of course…I sure wouldn’t mind coming back to stay here sometime!

So…back in Bordeaux on Sunday night, turning things over in my mind…

The key words for a weekend in Bordeaux surely are:

Robuchon
Arcachon

Try to get to them both next summer…after La Cabane de l’Aiguillon opens its terrace in June.

On to the Médoc!