“Elle connaît? Est-ce la première fois qu’elle en mange?” he asked my Frenchman with a half-assed nod in my direction. He wasn’t the best waiter, or even a very good one at all. But I get why he asked. “Oui, elle le connaît très bien,” came Ben’s answer. A lie but a well-placed one.
When, on my father’s recent visit to Bordeaux, my beau suggested Brasserie Le Noailles for dinner I hopped online to check their menu and chose not just my but both of their dishes three days in advance. It was a special occasion after all: I hadn’t seen my dad in months and it was bae’s birthday. He would get a steak, my dad some sort of duck, maybe. But there was no hesitation on my part. I’d be getting an old-school Bordeaux dish that I had seen mentioned on the short-list of Aquitaine classics, right next to garbure and salade landaise (already a favorite of mine).
Lamproie à la bordelaise is NOT a pretty dish in the least. It’s not meant for the faint at heart. Nor is it really from this century. It’s the kind of dish I imagine middle-aged men in some French town having feasted on dozens of years ago on their escape from the ball-and-chain, a night out and away from the bitchy wife, a chance to enjoy the company of buddies binge-drinking, telling barbaric jokes and singing tunes with vulgar lyrics. That’s really the only kind of environment in which this most foul of fish really fits as a protein of choice.
The lamprey is a long, eel-like, blood-sucking parasitic jawless fish with a creepy round mouth covered in sharp teeth. It takes real skill – and I mean rough, messy, time-consuming toil – to turn this nasty bottom feeder into something edible, let alone delicious. I’m not talking French culinary skills like a rapid-fire parsley chiffonade or even filleting a regular clean-fleshed sea fish. No. Lampreys are muscular creatures that must be hung up by the head and bled out while still alive, the phallic body held down as it writhes out its last breath. Then the limp rod of flesh is thrown into boiling water where, I believe, it secretes slime that is then scraped off the exterior. As it cooks, its grayish brown mucus floats to the surface of the water and must be skimmed off. The almost completely boneless body is chopped into rough chunks, thrown onto a sizzling pan and browned before finishing off in a heavenly sauce made of the lamprey’s own blood and plenty of local Bordeaux wine, thickened with a bit of toasted flour.
The result? That type of “Dear Lord, this is good,” flavor that makes my eyes close as I zone out mid-conversation and smile like a fool in love for the rest of the evening. The lamprey itself is silky smooth and tender, the flesh falling right off the grey and black spotted skin. The meat is slightly murky, almost muddy in flavor, but this quality is balanced beautifully by the sauce into which it is submerged.
And the sauce is a truly memorable masterpiece. It’s thick and beautifully even, silky smooth with a glossy finish. The flavors come in endless waves, striking the palate over and over. There’s a deglaze of the lamprey’s pan-stickings, nutty and salty and fatty and satisfying, and the depth from the red wine, some earthy sweetness from leeks and a kind of rustic comfort from thyme and bay leaf no doubt generously applied in this recipe. As the sauce coated, like a warm blanket, each surface in my mouth, I let it just kind of sit there before swallowing it down.
The bowl of fish in its own bloody mud sauce also contained some chunks of leek, delightfully plump and cooked to a perfect smoothness. Scattered around the bowl were some peeled and boiled, very tender potatoes. I didn’t eat too many of them, as my focus remained on how to scoop up as much of the sauce as possible. I did add some of Ben’s deliciously buttery mashed potatoes into the mix, which proved to be a fantastic sponge for the sauce. The crunchy croutons also helped as a vehicle for sauce-to-mouth delivery.
A show-stopping dish, one of the most unique and delicious things I’ve tasted in Bordeaux, enjoyed in good company in the beautiful setting of this noisy century-old Parisian-style brasserie.