I recently had the good fortune to accompany other American journalists on a press trip to the Midi-Pyrénées region (southwestern France). Art and gastronomy were the focus of the voyage, and the gastronomy was extraordinaire with four and five course meals for both lunch and dinner on most days.
We savored cuisine at restaurants whose chefs are famous, restaurants with Michelin stars, as well as a few restaurants that were ordinary at best. We visited colorful markets and tasted the area’s wine. Following are highlights of our culinary experiences.
The week-long journey got off to a smashing start with dinner at Michel Sarran in Toulouse, France’s fourth largest city and the capital of the Midi-Pyrénées. The ambience in this two-Michelin star establishment named after its renowned chef is classy, elegant, modern. The food definitely wins stars for appearance and presentation. Each course (we had four) was a painstaking work of art with numerous bites of exotic creations, such as sea urchin mousse and hay ice cream.
As in most fancy French restaurants, the food descriptions are daunting. First course: La volaille de Monsieur Duplantier en crème onctueuse aux écrevisses, suprême poché au citron confit et raz el hanout, peau croustillante. Basically tiny pieces of chicken in a crayfish sauce with a delicious citrus flavor surrounded by delicate tidbits of other edibles. The main course was the overall favorite: Pigeon du Mont Royal (pigeon filet). The succulent bird was served with a tiny nest-like creation: Suprêmes frits en kadaïf et jus à l’encre – (a middle eastern cheese pastry with octopus ink), plus other petit delicacies.
For dessert, a wild strawberry melange with a lemon basil sauce, lime crumble and the hay ice cream (lait glacé au foin).
All very, very good. But we wondered if all that labor intensive preparation of so many different tiny bites wasn’t a bit much. Was the chef trying too hard to win a third Michelin star? I would have preferred fewer items served in slightly larger portions. http://www.michel-sarran.com
Lunch the following day at the outdoor terrace of Emile, a Toulouse favorite in the bustling Place Saint George, was a winner. Chef Christophe Fazan is known for both creative cuisine and local favorites.
Foie Gras, the controversial fattened liver from force-fed geese and ducks, is a regional specialty. Several of my traveling companions ordered this served with mango chutney as their first course, while I chose ravioles de foie gras, crème aux cèpes. This was my all time favorite dish of the entire trip – ravioli filled with foie gras smothered in a cepe( bolet/porcini) sauce. Each bite was bursting with flavor. Elaine, our affable tour leader, went for Cassoulet, the signature Toulouse dish, a stew of meats, sausages and beans. Former French president Jacques Chirac is said to have especially enjoyed Emile’s Cassoulet. http://www.restaurant-emile.com
While Michel Sarran’s food was good, most of us preferred that of Christian Constant, another renowned French chef. His restaurant, Le Bibent, features glamorous baroque/art nouveau décor and great food. My first course, a tartare of several kinds of fish and oysters with a hint of ginger served in oyster shells, was excellent, and better than my main course, a confit of lamb. Confit or preserved meat is yet another regional favorite with duck confit the most popular.
An incredible dessert followed: a gigantic mille feuille. This pasty whose name translates as “a thousand leaves” is layers of thin, flaky pastry with custard in between. Constant’s version is enormous, yet light and yummy.
I was tempted to buy Constant’s cookbook in English. But, my shelves are already overloaded with cookbooks and my suitcase was already too heavy. http://www.maisonconstant.com/bibent/
We were ready for a simple and light lunch the following day. Le Capucin, supposedly a gourmet fast-food eatery established by yet another famous chef, Michel Bras who has several restaurants which together have earned three Michelin stars, was the place. Sandwich type ingredients, albeit with some creative concoctions, fill edible cones which you eat like ice cream cones while sitting on high stools. A clever idea, but short on taste. A basic ham and cheese on rye would have been better. http://www.capucinbras.fr
We sampled more of Michel Bras’ cuisine and met the star chef at Café Bras, his newest restaurant in the new and stunning Soulages Museum, dedicated to the works of contemporary artist Pierrre Soulages, in the town of Rodez. Mixed reviews on the food here, although all were in awe of the first
course, a light and creamy type of cheese soufflé. We requested – and were given – the recipe. The main courses were standard fare — a choice of veal, fish or beef — none of which excited the palate. But, ah…the dessert. As a chocolate lover, this got my vote as best dessert of the trip: le petit pot de crème praliné/chocolat croquant sésame. (a decadent chocolate praline cream). http://www.cafebras.fr
Most of us were not overly impressed with yet another star diner just outside of Rodez at Chez Isabelle (one Michelin star), but by this time perhaps we had
reached the saturation point with gourmet cuisine. I ordered Pressé de joues de boeuf et de foie gras au vin rouge, gratin de macaronis. (cheeks of beef with foie gras, red wine sauce and macaroni). Disappointing, and even without a star I can do a better job on macaroni. Chef Isabelle Auguy is one of the growing number of female chefs who have earned the coveted Michelin star. http://www.restaurantisabellesuguy.fr
There were a few other disappointments. The main course at a hotel meal sounded and looked exquisite: scallops (one of my favorites) atop a mound of risotto. Alas, the scallops were overcooked and the risotto was mushy. I am not
shy about trying unknown foods – all part of the taste experience. For lunch in the town of Conques, I bravely ordered the first course: gateau aux oreilles et pieds de cochon, vinaigrette à la moutarde (cake of pig ears and feet). The French let no part of an animal go to waste, but in this case, they should have. The cake was tasteless.
Not so the boudin noir (blood sausage) served with apples, onions and potatoes and rich in flavor at Le Clos Sainte Cécile, a lovely restaurant in the town of Albi where we sat in the garden under plane trees.
Dinner at the Hervé Busset restaurant won hands down as the favorite meal of this epicurean voyage. This was the trip finale with both an overnight and dinner at the one star chef’s hotel and eatery in a renovated ancient mill in a wooded setting on the banks of the Dourdou River just outside of our favorite town, Conques.
Busset has a passion for nature reflected in his cuisine. Wild edible plants are used in the preparation of his food which is innovative, unusual, delicious. http://www.moulindecambelong.com
After a week of extravagant eating, I was ready for a Big Mac, but the zipper on my jeans told me it was time for starvation.
Comments welcome and appreciated. Today’s Taste features a recipe for Chilled Avocado Soup topped with Crab. My guests loved it!. See “Today’s Taste” at the top of this post. While you are up there, sign up to become a Tales and Travel follower.