Michel Guérard at Les Prés d’Eugénie: the milestone for fine millennial tastes
With his three Michelin restaurant Les Prés d’Eugénie, the octogenarian chef Michel Guérard stands as one of the last iconic personas of the French nouvelle cuisine. Set in a remote Relais & Châteaux luxurious spa hotel that fell into his lap almost five decades ago through a happy marriage, the visual surroundings reflect the fine style of his wife. Madame Guérard embraced the original historic site, later expanded by a duet of white-washed wooden buildings, that she decorated with museum quality French antiques mainly from the 19th century. Her chosen fine art becomes yet another dining companion in one of the three elegant rooms where many youthful trainees tend carefully to the discerned palates of the international diners. Supervised by a pleasant maitre’d and a captivating female sommelier the synchrony of experience, gender and eagerness to learn serenades playfully here.
Although the ageing chef now sparingly appears in the kitchen (within the week we stayed he didn’t cook once but greeted guests by the entrance one late afternoon), his two daughters run the hotel, spa and winery, while the recently appointed head chef cooked with one of Guérard’s most famous pupils Alain Ducasse in Monaco. At Les Prés d’Eugénie, one feels more welcome in the family setting, and as the current chef confided “this is not Ducasse, his cuisine uses lots of vegetables, but this is Michel Guérard and I cook precisely that“. Naturalism whiffs from the garden herbs surrounding the property and wood smokes the lobster, onions, in leafs wrapped beef fillet, and the Pintade de Chalosse (Guinea fowl) in the hearth. The bird recipe is having a revival. Lemon verbena sneaks not just into sweet but also into savoury plates. The herb lifts up the cream sauce with the langoustines.
At the same restaurant the signature spa “cuisine minceur” meets the nouvelle cuisine popularised in the 1970s by Michel Guérard and some of his contemporaries like the recently departed Alain Senderens. The three Michelin cuisine, still a cream-laden detour from the even heavier classic French sauces, embraces exotic seasoning and less voluminous plates. For 40 years (since 1977) Les Prés d’Eugénie by Michel Guérard has continually held its cherished status.
Top French gastronomy between the Pyrenées and the Atlantic meets in the Landes
It is not an easy route to Les Prés d’Eugenie. Flying either to Biarritz (about 90min drive), Pau (45min) or Bordeaux (90min), the drive in the sprawling countryside taking you through authentic rural villages is pleasant. The luxurious hotel and restaurant are in themselves a destination worth visiting. Across from the village church Michel Guérard’s realm sprawls in a tree shaded parkland. His new cooking school and a small café line the main thoroughfare, yet his baby, the gastronomic restaurant hides in the impeccably manicured forestry and gardens. Ushered by a nondescript gravel road, Les Prés d’Eugenie is discreet and grounded in precision and perfection. The three star restaurant became the mecca for budding global chefs eager to be trained under the sharp eye of the French chef. Teaching the new generation of spotless cooking is now his legacy.
Beyond the professional zone of culinary mastery, the recently opened culinary school [my participatory review coming soon] equips the attendees with decades of kitchen experience though tricks, some skills, but mainly the theory behind the cooking à la Michel Guérard. Fire and gas fuel are the heat sources for Michel Guérard’s cooking. Easy to clean and safer to use, electric ceramic stoves glisten in the new cooking school, but one can never achieve certain flavours with the neutral, smoke-free electric heat. In his own house, a rural château nearby where the winery of Michel Guérard also dwells, wood is piled in the chef’s country kitchen to season the ingredients lightly as they pass from the chef’s hands through the stove or oven. When I saw the kitchen a vintage movie of an old castle scene flicked through my mind [sadly photos were not allowed]. The massive hearth next to a wood-fired royal blue ceramic clad Italian stove, a massive dining table in the centre facing antique cupboards stuffed with hand-picked porcelain collected by Madamme Guérard. The three star kitchen is larger yet similarly equipped, in contrast to the culinary school kitchen no Pacojets and vacuum cookers in sight.
Gastronomic cuisine by Michel Guérard
Bordering verdant Landes, the region of generously corn-fed chicken and foie gras, touching the Atlantic south of Bordeaux and deep in Gascony, the potent seat of Armagnac, the local produce has been enveloped in a generous dosage of cream. For a day or two you can enjoy it, but probably not more. The daily changing cuisine minceur menu comes handy then.
During our week-long stay, we were greeted each time with a different trio of amouse-bouche with our aperitif. All superb and very different, the Tarte fine chaude a la tomate stood out as the most carved morsel to me. This snack dating back to 1981 was inspired by his grandmother Aimèe. The family love showed on the palate, but the award-winning former pastry chef at Le Crillon in Paris, Guérard is also a known master of puff pastry. The warm, fine filo coin encircled with ripe tomato flesh was just so perfect – juicy yet dry, savoury yet not too salty, generous but not too rich. If time allows, take your aperitif in the Loulou’s lounge, the wood antiques dark room with refreshing garden views feels very special.
From the current menu featuring mostly Michel Guérard classic dishes (recipes in the book from edition by Alain Ducasse), we tried most of the “light, naturalist” as Michelin describes his, for millennial fine tastes still overtly buttery and creamy, plates.
My husband and one of the Guéard’s daughters voted as their favourite plate L’Oreiller Moelleux, which the chef describes as “silky and vegetal symphony” created in 1978 after a trip to China. The morrel and Mousserons mushroom pillow-shaped raviolo in a generous cream sauce was dotted with spiky seasonal green asparagus tops. Really indulgent!
The main course of Homard (lobster) roasted in the wooden hearth with onions and served in its shell bathing in a cream sauce was another generous delicacy.
Many love the Truffle zephyr with “ Surprise Exquise ” like a “snow” on the “délicate Vichyssoise”. Simply a luscious starter of creamy harmoniously delicate truffle laced on a heavier bed of yet another cream sauce. If I weren’t cooking, baking and eating butter and cream in almost every dish of the cooking class that I participated in that week, I would probably appreciate the extra whip of cream over my lips, but I was too overdosed on the final night when I ordered this majestic dish, so I switched plates with my grateful husband.
The lightest offering on the current seasonal menu is the fleshy white Landes asparagus served over a truffled cream mousse next to a vegetable velouté. Three tiny eek tartlets accompanied this most veggie plate of the chef. Surprisingly, I found the exact item on the room service menu so I had to try the difference. It was identical, a three star room service, bravo!
A more indulgent yet much smaller was one of the chef’s oldest signature servings, L’Oeuf Poule au Caviar à la Coque. An egg shell stuffed with eel, creamy egg scramble crowned by French Grand Cru Cristal caviar by Kaviari aged for 180 days and two green asparagus antennae sticking out like straws to sip from. The 1977 dish was served in a custom-made chicken foot form with three perfectly baked finger toasts and skin baked warm potato cut to host a dollop of cold potato cream. Love for eggs of a frequent dining client from Lombardy, who owned the famous cabaret Le Lido in Paris, inspired this Guérard’s fantasy.
Not just the Brittany lobster, but also the smaller langoustines taste best during the summer, so it was time to savour Les Langoustines à la Fleur de Citronnier with ‘‘Fine Gueule’’ potatoes. The perfectly soft sea creatures were freshened up with fresh baby tangerine, lemon verbena and chervil sprigs, much needed in the cream setting of the exotically fragrant plate.
It takes an intricate survey of the gastronomic menu to find a plate without cream or dairy. The house-made foie gras (Le Foie Gras Cuit au Coin de l’Âtre, Tastou à la Truffe Trois Gelées en Camaïeu) and the superbly tender and lean Boeuf (beef) medallions wrapped and grilled in leafs and grapes served with the both creamy potato mash and the airiest “soufflés” potato chips on side fit the search. If saturated fat is the demon, these animal indulgences should be directed to the lighter fish.
Honouring Michel Guérard’s own acheivement as the Meilleur Ouvrier de France (MOF) in 1958 the cheese is selected from two holders of this prestigious title – François Bourgon, the son of the founder of Fromagerie Xavier in Toulouse and Dominique Bouchait from Fromagers du Mont-Royal in the Pyrénées. The highlights of the cheese trolley were the blue veined Roqueforts and a sheep-based in wax coated Le Régalis. Or you can order Les Petits Soufflés au Roquefort from the kitchen, but beware while being airy textured, two fluffy cheese pots are served per order and they are quite intense, but superb so you may eat them all as I did. Desserts are a must at least once, so save some space. The chef’s sweet spot for verbena planted generously in his gardens pops in the Soufflé Époustouflant Rafraîchi à la Verveine du Jardin, on order made delicate soufflé with an exquisite verbena ice cream. Another seasonal treat La Pêche Blanche au Naturel, une Quenelle de Glace Crémeuse à la Verveine et le Coulis de Framboises d’Eugénie, is made with white peaches, verbena ice cream and raspberry puree. We prepared this delicately sweet dessert at my cooking class, and I tell you, I could have two servings how ravishing it was!
So what would be the dishes that were so special that we would come back for? The tomato fine tart, the langoustines and the beef, plus the mushroom pillow for my husband. The food was innovative, lighter at his time, but today it weighs more in the classic heavily creamy sauce repertoire than in the contemporary leaner cooking style of most gastronomic restaurants. Taking his former pupils – Ducasse (Monaco, Paris, Moustiers, Celle,…) and Donckerle (La Vague d’Or) as examples, their generation of cooks the easier to digest multi-course yet balanced millennial cuisine.
Loulou’s Lounge bar
At first I was disappointed to hear that the piano gets fingers clapping only rarely, but as nature played its concert humming through the open doors from the outside, I was fine to give in to its charms. For an aperitif the dry brut Champagne made for Michel Guérard gives off refreshing bubbles, but for more complexity go for the grower champagne Brut Nature Fosse Grely by Ruppert-Leroy. Its biodynamic subtle yeasty fragrance, light toast and mineral expression of the soil we slightly preferred. Wines by the glass come from the nearby Château de Bachen set on the land where the chef’s family house is built. A visit of the winery and tasting were included in my week-long cooking class, and I can recommend the round white wine made partially with the locally indigenous ultra rare grape Baroque. The string of familiarity extends to the head sommelier who is a wife of the current New Zealand-born winemaker at this winery owned by the Guérard family.
An intricate alcohol free cocktails make tea-to-tellers feel special. Here, an afternoon tea is being served in a classy yet relaxed environment. After dinner a digestif seals the special outing. Pick from the whiskies, cognacs and the local speciality, the barrel aged armagnacs.
Great Bordeaux collection with some centenary treasures
The wine list is an experience in its own merit. About 15,000 bottle cellar guards hundreds of Bordeaux of vintages so rare that the pupils of any wine aficionado widen at the sight if it. Magnums of Château Margaux or Mr Guérard’s favourite Petrus nest in dust next to more recent en-primeur purchased bottles. The chef is a close friend of the Moueix family (owners of Château Petrus), so despite the reasonably priced wine list, the Petrus peaks above the average restaurant listing. The cellar is well stocked with Burgundy, with DRC’s prominent presence. Our tendency for local picks we ordered Bordeaux most nights, except for one.
Encouraged by the slightly more favourable prices of the older vintages, we went for bottles that we otherwise could drink in the current global vinous frenzy. Château La Tour 1983 took almost two hours to shine, but got to treating us with earthly longitude of pleasure. Château Margaux 1985 was quite bloody at the start, but it loosened up before our main course arrived. Yet my favourite bottle of the week was a 1989 vintage Charles Heidsieck champagne. The ultra dry cuvée Diamond Rose tickled our tongues with still a refreshing well of bubbly effervescence, while the secondary honeyed tones of toasted brioche made it perfect for food pairing. The perfect wine to ease the fatness of the creamy cuisine. As our Roquefort cheese soufflés were served like twins in silver pots, generous as they were, the high acidity of the Champagne felt like a God sent.
Michel Guérard makes the perfect final fanfare to his country. After the meal, a trio of freshly baked, still crisp on the edges, and warm Madeleines is served to accompany tea (by Mariage Fréres), a fresh herbal blend piked in the garden, pure verbena infusion or a choice from Nespresso coffee range. Three perfect morsels of lemon, classic and my favourite cherry with an almond and rum infused creamy centre, that exceed any Madeleine I have been treated to across France to date. If there was only one souvenir from the week-long stay at Les Prés d’Eugenie I desired, it was the recipe, and I got it! The secret is using a pate sable with crystal sugar, semi-salty grain butter, Mimosa egg yolk and a raw yolk instead of the typical smooth grained sugar and whole egg dough. Now, also you can bake these delicate sweet molluscs of pleasure at home.
The chef has changed the form of the French gastronomy curiously not through his three star cuisine that today can be viewed more as the traditional, more heavy high cuisine style, but through his ahead of his time vision or perhaps a lucky coincidence with the contemporary lifestyles. Our sedentary habits do not stir the appetite for heavy meals. We desire more subtle and light hedonistic joy in a very similar tone as his cuisine minceur. In today’s kitchens, what you mostly eat is chef Gurérard’s fat and salt deflated cuisine where the aromas of herbs and the produce itself stand strongly to naturally charm you. Nostalgia for traditional French cuisine brings many of his fans into the gastronomic restaurant as well as the rustic Ferme Des Grives farmhouse, where generosity is plated in its own worth. The three cuisines at Les Prés d’Eugénie by Michel Guérard were born on the premise of love and thus love for the French food is what should drive any gourmand to this rare country retreat in the Landes.
Les Prés d’Eugénie, 334 Rue René Vielle, 40320 Eugenie-les-Bains, France
+33 5 58 05 06 07
Mon: Closed; Dinner: Tue-Sun from 7:30pm; lunch on weekends. Between July 10 and August 25th open daily for lunch (except Mon) and dinner.