Maison Bras awed us with its innovative food and stunning views. This 3 star Michelin restaurant is the ultimate destination dining experience.
Immersion. It’s what fine dining is all about – the ability of a restaurateur to transport diners away from their day-to-day struggles to another place through smells, sights and flavors. The greatest of these restaurants allow us to forget about the stresses of the world for a few hours and create a memory – a place where diners can experience a fantasy world teeming with lush green meadows, winding dirt trails and glowing pink sunsets.
At Alinea in Chicago, Chef Grant Achatz goes as far as inflating pillows with burning leaf smells to simulate childhood memories of roaming through wooded paths. At Ultraviolet in Shanghai, Chef Paul Pairet places diners’ minds in a tizzy by carefully beaming controlled images on the walls of a windowless dining room while servers perform choreographed routines to trumpet the arrival of each course. This may sound silly, but, in the ultra competitive world of fine dining, chefs push envelopes to impress top dollar guests. We’re sure the food and experiences are wonderful, entertaining and immersing at these restaurants, but it makes us wonder if chefs can approach culinary art without pretension and fabrication to allow the beauty of the food and its surroundings to speak with honest force and breadth.
At Maison Bras they can.
Watch our video to see highlights of our 24 hours at Maison Bras and then keep reading for more details about our amazing dinner.
Le Suquet, the Bras Family’s Relais & Chateau, is located high in the Aubrac hills, overlooking the nearby town of Laguiole. Horned Aubrac cattle drive the agricultural industry of the region, and these cows ubiquitously inhabit the grassy, sloping landscape.
And what a landscape it is. Founding chef and nouvelle cuisine legend Michel Bras built the glass encased Maison Bras to integrate into that landscape with clouds and sky serving as walls around dining room guests. The extraordinary nouvelle cuisine of Maison Bras has evolved timelessly, much like a classical composition from Bach or Beethoven. Signature dishes like the The Gargouillou of Young Vegetables continue to amaze and surprise. In a way, the glass enclosed building functions like a great cathedral or concert hall where the natural view contributes to a timeless dining experience.
Since founding the 3 star Michelin restaurant in 1992, Bras handed over the kitchen reigns to his highly capable son, Sébastian, in 2009. Chef Sébastien has some serious kitchen chops of his own, having previously worked for Paul Bocuse and Pierre Gagnaire. The 2012 film Entré le Bras documented the switchover and inspired us to wake up in the middle of the night to reserve a space for a our getaway to Le Suquet.
Our Dinner at Maison Bras
We decided to stay at the Suquet for many reasons. Sure, there are some charming inns and B&B’s in the Laguiole area, but not many offer the experience of waking in the morning to the stunning Aubrac landscape. (We’ll post more on this in a future article in this series.)
Michel Bras built the hotel rooms into the hill so that the rear door of every room slides open to the most scenic overlook in the area, and our room was no exception. After a few hours of ogling at the cloud painted scenery, we made our way to up the stairs toward the dining room… or should we say dining heaven.
The Experience Begins
From the hotel, we climbed a staircase toward the lounge and began our dining experience.
In our eyes, any Michelin 3 star experience should have an epic flow much like a great performance. At Maison Bras, the lounge serves as an opening area – almost like a great proscenium in an opera house. The sunset bathes the guests from the windows, lighting the room with brilliant orange hues that emanate from the sun setting over Aubrac pastures.
For our dinner, the light bathed the amuse-bouches which included egg custards with pine nuts, a cep tart and a surprising cracker flavored with spices like cumin and coriander. The pre-meal allowed us time to scan the large (as is standard for this kind of dining) yet manageable wine list curated by sommelier Sergio Calderón. Calderón steered us to a great value wine from Gaillac, which he brought to our table at the start of dinner service.
Many of the Bras staff said that we were fortunate to witness such a rare, beautiful skyscape that night. Rare or not, it was certainly a sunset to remember.
Ushered to Our Seats – Time Stops
The view from our dinner table left us breathless – two chairs placed on the far side of the window overlooking the sunset on the valley. We felt like passengers about to ride on a dining ship sailing toward the infinite skies ahead of us. We arrived to this blissful position after visiting the kitchen and meeting Chef Sébastien. In the kitchen, a variety of vegetables sat on a table next to the expediting line displaying various fruits, vegetables and herbs currently available in Bras’ home region of Aveyron – white asparagus, white and romanesco cauliflower and various radishes along with an assortment of flowers – all of which would make their appearance later during dinner.
Maison Bras began our dinner service with a crudo of mackerel over millefeuille – a mere introduction to our legendary first course.
More of a culinary construct than a strict recipe driven dish, Gargouillou, the classic conceived by Michel Bras in 1978, remains grounded in the present. Our visions of the dish were firmly placed not only by the images in the Bras documentary but also by countless photos of the dish on the internet showing a wide collage of separate ingredients conveying the essence of the Valley d’Aubrac.
However, the tight plating of the dish surprised us. We expected to see everything but could not. But as we dug our forks into the gorgeous arrangement of flowers, herbs and vegetables, what appeared to be a mixed salad was actually a melange of elements prepared in varying forms of doneness. Radishes, carrots and beets were cooked, peppers were puréed and herbs were plucked straight from the grassy hills.
It’s no wonder that countless chefs have chosen to imitate the dish or, in many ways, make it their own. Some of the flavors in the gargouillou were shocking like bitter field herbs that carried a super intense anisey flavor. Others were comforting, like the small bits of fatty meat that counteracted some of that bitterness. In its best interpretation, the gargouillou represents gastronomy as a living art much like a constitution is a living document. This dish is no museum piece but rather a vivid conveyance of flavor and form executed by chefs who are firmly in control of their craft. Chef Sébastien’s gargouillou is no exception to this.
And it doesn’t stop here.
Parade of Dishes
The gargouillou tends to grab the ultimate spotlight at Maison Bras, but other menu items also shined during our dinner like the shockingly succulent and fresh wood fired langoustine with citrus butter and quinoa. We don’t usually love quinoa and its appearance on a French standard- bearing menu seemed somewhat surprising, but this competently seasoned grain counterbalanced the buttery meat with wonderful earthiness.
We can’t say that foie gras excites us at quite the level that it used to, but its ubiquity around France makes it a mandatory menu item at a Michelin restaurant. Pairing the tender sautéed duck liver with asparagus and fennel kept the delicacy fresh and springlike.
However, if the Gargouillou transmitted the essence of the region, the Poached Aubrac Beef shined a culinary light on its heart and soul. Long horned Aubrac cattle are as common in Aveyron as they are in Texas. These cows produce some of the finest grass-fed beef in the world. The French think about beef differently from Americans. Their cows are primarily grass-fed, and their steaks are lean with big funky flavors whereas Americans are used to big fatty steaks. The beef served at Bras approached the closest of level of meat perfection that we’ve ever tasted. Although we could still taste that great funky grass-fed flavor so common in France, the steak literally melted in our mouths.
We would be remiss not to mention the aligot – mashed potatoes mixed with aubrac cheese, garlic and butter, a dish that stretches when melted. We first enjoyed similar mashed potatoes at Montreal’s Au Pied de Cochon, a version made in classic poutine style with cheese curds. But Maison Bras’ simpler version, featuring Aubrac cheese, dates back centuries when monks would supply pilgrims with nourishment on their way to Santiago de Compostela in Spain. Unlike the PDC version, our potatoes stretched almost uncontrollably and had a nutty flavor that conveyed the region’s wonderful grass lined pastures. Aligot is so popular in the Aubrac region that it’s sold prepackaged and refrigerated. (Yes, we later bought a box to enjoy at our apartment in Lyon.)
In our humble opinion, French farmers produce the best cheese in the world, differentiating the French 3 star Michelin experience from all others. Sure, there are amazing restaurants in the U.S., Japan, Spain, and Scandinavia that offer cooking that is on par or at times better than in France, but, for us, there is nothing like seeing a server wheel an epic French cheese cart around the corner toward our table.
By this point in the meal, diners may feel at their limit, but this is no reason to stop. We mentioned that Aubrac is known for cows – well, in addition to beef, these cows produce amazing cheese too. During our cheese course, we especially loved the amazing aged Tomme de Laguiole with its nutty, yet slightly grassy flavor.
Other cheese cart standouts included super intense Roquefort Vernieres – a salt crystallized, sweet, funky wonder that we don’t often see in the United States. There was also fresh sheep’s cheese, chèvre of all types and blue Fourme d’Ambert that had been aged for so long that its paste resembled a caramel-like gold. We previously enjoyed a similar cheese experience in Burgundy’s Maison Lameloise, but this cheese cart gets extra points for its region specificity.
Maison Bras is a restaurant with an especially strong dedication to local products. In fact, there were so many local, distinct cheeses that even Daryl couldn’t identify them all despite his extensive cheese background. This was a serious cheese cart!
We don’t know why there were three dessert courses at Maison Bras. At this point of the epic meal, we felt like distance runners who had just passed the 20 mile mark of a 26 mile marathon. It was also at this point in the meal when Mindi’s face said “No Mas!!” But who were we to resist? The Chocolate Coulant arrived first, a Maison Bras classic in which special Trinidad sourced milk chocolate is frozen and melted inside a warm cookie shell with a side of barley malt ice cream. Next came Flausone, a rustic kind of sheep cheese cake/tart typical of Aveyron and scented with orange.
Finally, cones were served with an assortment of ice creams. Yes. It was probably too much, but, when you’re in the Bras house, too much is never enough. We returned to the lounge, enjoyed a memorable tea service and headed downstairs to bed.
To us, this dinner was a special dining experience that was well worth the price – an epic meal that transported us to another place where the beauty of nature became reality. Except in this case the fantasy didn’t only exist in our imagination.
Maison Bras is a real place, and we were lucky to be there for 24 hours.
Hotel Maison Bras is located at Route de l’Aubrac, 12210 Laguiole, France. Reservations are absolutely mandatory and can be made here.