Ask me about my recent birthday dinner at Pierre Gagnaire’s 2-Michelin-starred restaurant La Grand Maison de Bernard Magrez and I’ll ask you how much time you’ve got. A flawless experience from start to finish, though I never expected otherwise. This Relais & Châteaux gem brings together the essences of three great men. The menu is conceived by the visionary Pierre Gagnaire, bearing his unmistakable avant-guard touch, and executed to perfection by the talented Chef Jean-Denis Le Bras, who has worked by his mentor’s side for the past 11 years. And finally, Bernard Magrez, who adds effortless luxury through setting (the grounds of his picturesque estate, just across from his namesake cultural institute) and wine (among which his Pessac greats feature prominently on the list). Theirs seems to be a happy union, indeed.
As we walked through the circular driveway, decorated with dramatically backlit statues, we were greeted at the gates of the stately limestone manor and welcomed in. We were seated next to each other at a round table in the corner, with a perfect view over the stunning dining room. This is old-school French class. Bordeaux-rouge carpet, Baccarat chandeliers, dreamy-creamy moldings on the walls all around, linens I would gladly take a nap in, a soft pouf on which to place my purse, phone and camera… We were presented our dining options, a 6- or 4-course tasting menu with replacement requests welcome. We chose the 4-course Labottiere prix fixe (with just one replacement from the Esprit menu on my part), wine pairing as selected by the in-house somm, and a glass of Champagne to start things off.
For bubbly, we went with the 2007 Cuvee Alain Thienot from the Thienot Champagne House, a gorgeous Chardonnay – Pinot Noir blend with a bouquet of toasted, nutty aromas and a very generous, slightly smoky palate. Following closely, an array of amuses-bouches, including a gin and Lillet Blanc “gelee” martini, crunchy little things, creamy things, a chilled dish of delicately seasoned sea snail and a kind of smoky fish bite, served on a slightly citric green leaf, and crunchy dark breadstick to dip into an avocado mousse… An exciting adventure of textures and flavors to get us in the mood for what was to come…
The first course offered a gorgeous snapshot of the ocean. Slick slices of raw sea bass, graced with a glossy glaze of very good miso and soy, came spiked here and there with plump muscles of vernis and razor clams. Interlaced with these delicate bits of marine meat were bright green, brown and black sheets of seaweed, pulled straight off the Croisic coast of Le Bras’s native Bretagne. And in the center, an ethereally soft and smooth “mayonnaise” of plankton, melting all over the dish and adding an extra boost of umami, along with a creamy, rich texture, to the marine jus base. This is the kind of dish that just melts in the mouth, delivering wave upon wave of oceanic flavor. I also really appreciated the toasted bits of grain sprinkled over the top, adding a much-needed crunch to the otherwise soft, smooth, creamy symphony. Paired with this first course was the Le Chêne Marchand 2016 from Domaine Lucien Crochet, a gorgeous Sancerre with generous white pear and peach aromas, along with a powerful wet-white-stone minerality and great length on the palate. An obvious pairing, a match made in heaven.
The next stop on our journey paired the ocean with some of my favorite representatives of land. Under a glass hood was a heap of incredibly tender, lightly cooked squid rings, juicy baby artichoke hearts, and bits of celeriac – three ingredients I would never think to put so close together, but which complement each other fantastically. The almost crunchy snap of the squid offered good contrast to the softer artichaut and celery root. These were doused in a decadent cream of smoked haddock and cuttlefish, whose salty, nutty, umami, wood-smoke coziness was almost reminiscent of a well aged Parmesan. Paper-thin slices of black truffle were left to melt up against the rest of these ingredients by the steam coming off the dish, releasing a flood of earthy aromas in the process. Whereas the first dish was clean, pure and delicate, this second course offered a more sinful expression, with tons of flavor and an indulgent texture. The Chassagne-Montrachet 2014 by Domaine Bernard Moreau et Fils provided the perfect compliment, standing up to this unctuous, generous dish with its own unctuous, generous mouthfeel and adding a great tension and minerality to wake up the palate.
And finally, a leg of a suckling lamb from the green fields of Basque Country, served in perfectly bite-sized slices and mixed with fresh leaves of spinach (or something similar). The meat was beautifully cooked, the bleating tender baby flesh retaining a bounce and juiciness, expertly seasoned with touches of acid and spice. Underneath the surprisingly generous pile of lamb was a hidden layer of cabbage, stuffed with black garlic, which was probably my favorite detail of the entire meal. Such an intensely nutty, umami, kind of charred flavor was emitted by such a subtle, almost invisible, layer of this dish, flooding my brain with memories of my mother’s Hungarian layered savoy cabbage casserole… those slightly charred and crunchy little tips of cabbage leaf sticking out on the surface, just waiting for me to peel them off in secret… a kind of priceless nostalgia that I was not expecting to feel that night. On the bottom of the dish was a mound of wheat grains, soaking up all that delicious lamb jus. And the wine, which we knew was coming, the Château Pape Clément 2012, adding those signature Pessac blackberry, cedar and tobacco notes and thereby elevating this dish even more. The oak was not overwhelming here, helping round out the tannins but without overtaking the fruit or the glaze on the lamb.
In a separate little dish, the sweetbreads and kidneys of the lamb were mixed up with plump snails in an intensely flavored red nora pepper sauce. And for a touch of freshness and color: chopped bits of puntarella (a kind of chicory).
Ben got the Labottiere menu main dish, a crumbly and warm pâté of veal and duck fois gras, combined with a lightly sautéed, warm salad of bitter greens, button-shaped Paris mushrooms and smoky, toasted hazelnuts. The salad was drizzled with a creamy sauce, with clementine juice also sprinkled onto the greens. I only had a bite of this one, but the composition seemed wonderful. The texture of the gummy little mushrooms and juicy bits pâté was complimented nicely with the crunch of the nuts, on a bed of fresh, snappy greens. The tart tang from the citrus helped clear the palate of any excess cream left behind by the rest of the ingredients.
I was anxiously awaiting the arrival of the dessert wine pairing, whose profile I thought would give me a clue about which of the desserts would be capping off our meal. I’ve never really had a sweet tooth and I feel myself growing less and less tolerant of sugary treats with age. So I was hoping our dessert that evening wouldn’t be some decadent molten chocolate creation to make the digestion of this 4-course meal even more difficult at 11:30pm. I was hoping for acidity, bitterness and crunch to keep my tired palate engaged instead of lulling me to sleep, right there at the table. What actually arrived was an array of 5 dishes each.
There was a crunchy little square, flavored with green Chartreuse and touches of citrus, topped with a brunoise of ripe mango and candied angelica stems. A pear coulis at the bottom. A kind of wake-up call in terms of texture, to get you ready for the rest.
There was a gorgeous flower-shaped bowl of pleasantly tart flesh of lemon, maybe some kind of blood orange and juicy litchi fruits, sprinkled with rose water for a delicate, only very subtly sweet, floral touch. In the center was a pearly white burratina – fresh, clean cream flowing out of a tender little center and adding texture, but not too much weight, to the dish. And for crunch, some pieces of toasted hazelnut spotting the cream. This dish was exactly what I had been hoping for, with its acidity waking me up and the bitterness of the citrus helping my body deal with the dishes that came before.
The Italian touch continued with the next dessert, which was nothing short of genius. There was a creamy mousseline of piquant clementine and tender, brightly acidic kumquats with a espresso-flavored rombetti ice-cream melting over the latter. This combination of cool, coffee flavor and tangy citrus was another brilliant wake-up call, especially with the brittle, snappy Amarelli liquorice meringue coating it. A fun, surprising dessert.
It continued with a kind of glossy, thick chestnut cream, spiced with aged rum. A few spots of cassis dotted the smooth circle, which was topped off with a Joconde biscuit.
And finally, a velouté of Manjari chocolate, topped with a rum-infused, juicy cassata and an airy, light chocolate chantilly over the top. In honor of my birthday, the kitchen also sent out a lovely little ball of chocolate, filled with a kind of grainy coconut ice cream, and a candle over the top. The desserts were served with a Fine White Port by Quinta do Noval, which I was clinging to at this point to balance the richness of the last few desserts. We finished with a beautiful green tea, paired – of course – with a selection of tea-side snackies. A dreamy meal from start to finish, one definitaly befitting of such a special occasion.