By Andy Hayler
Southern France has a fine climate and a quintet of three Michelin star restaurants to match. Bras, situated in an insect-like modern building clinging to a remote hilltop on the Massif Central, is home to the father and son team of Michel and Sebastian Bras. Michel Bras was named the most influential chef in the world in a 2016 survey of highly rated chefs. In particular he is noted for a signature dish called the “gargouillou”, a collection of 50-80 herbs, leaves, grains and flowers gathered from the nearby hillside, prepared in a variety of ways and attractively brought together on the plate. Bras is located in a truly remote spot, many hours drive from pretty much anywhere, but such is its appeal that the restaurant is one of the most difficult reservations to get in France.
On the Riviera in the fishing port of St Tropez is Vague d’Or (“Golden Wave”), where chef Arnaud Donckele makes the most of local ingredients from nearby farms, alongside the rich selection of seafood available in the Mediterranean. A typical dish might be amberjack and crab with local oranges and baby vegetables with a citrus sauce flavored with thyme. The restaurant, which opens only in the summer, is in the Residence de la Pinede hotel, and has a terrace looking directly over the sea.
Another seaside location houses Le Petit Nice in Marseilles, which is nestled at the top of cliffs overlooking the Mediterranean. Here chef Gerald Passedat’s cooking is firmly rooted in the seafood that is on his doorstep in France’s largest port. You may encounter sea bass with a Provencal garnish, or crab with peppers and green vegetables. Some of the fish used is less familiar, such as the lovely dentex, a firm white fish that is most at home in the Mediterranean, and tastes like a superior sea bream. The stunning view over the deep blue waters below definitely add to the experience of eating here.
Auberge de Vieux Puits is in more isolated countryside spot, a lengthy drive from Toulouse. Chef Gilles Goujon adds many theatrical touches to the dining experience here: a “scallop shell” melts in front of you when a consommé is poured over it, and fish soup cascades down the side of a plate to form a pool in which perfectly cooked red mullet are served. Such culinary trickery is in no sense at the expense of flavor, however, as can be seen in a stunning dish of eel, and in a fine cherry dessert. The setting is quite rustic and there are no tablecloths, but there is no doubting the amount of effort that is going into the food here.
My personal favorite is Pres des Eugenie, where chef Michel Guerard has held three Michelin stars for forty years. At the age of 84 the sprightly Mr Guerard is still in his kitchen at virtually every service, utilizing the fine produce of the Landes region. The cooking style is deceptively simple, with few elements on each plate, but the flavors are glorious and the cooking precise. Dishes such as a local chicken with black truffles under its skin are simply stunning. The restaurant is in pretty little village called Eugenie Les Bains, south of Bordeaux and west of Toulouse, not far from the Spanish border. It is a gorgeous spot to relax and enjoy some of the finest cooking in the world.