Now that the summer and autumn crowds have gone, the Bordelais are delighted to have the exquisite little town of Saint-Émilion to themselves again. Just 44km from Bordeaux, for them it’s an ideal day out for its beautiful architecture, outstanding wine shops (Vignobles et Châteaux, 4 Rue du Clocher, is my favourite), and excellent restaurants, notably the Michelin-starred L’Hostellerie de Plaisance, an elegant Relais & Châteaux property.
For many years, this handsome dining room was the fiefdom of chef Philippe Etchebest, who held two Michelin stars here. Etchebest, well-known in France as the culinary pugilist on the television show Cauchemar en Cuisine, the Gallic version of British chef Gordon Ramsay’s Hell’s Kitchen now runs the rather underwhelming brasserie Le Quatrième Mur at the Bordeaux opera house. So during the summer, Breton Ronan Kervarrec, 46, became the new chef in this handsome dining room with a beamed ceiling, and his rapid mastery of local produce is winning rave reviews from the discerning local clientele, including the many wine-makers who entertain here.
Kervarrec was mostly recently chef at Le Chèvre d’Or in Èze on the Côte d’Azur and has also worked in other restaurants in the south of France and also in Morocco. So in addition to exhibiting a delicious and profoundly Breton knowledge of seafood, his style runs very much to a certain cuisine de soleil with a love of fruit – especially citrus – and vegetables.
Meeting a wine merchant friend for a long leisurely lunch on a recent Friday, we began with braised Macau artichokes with feathery preserved lemon gnocchi with truffle shavings – a beautifully balanced mixture of tastes – and Fruit de Mer ‘Un Souvenir d’Enfance’, a shellfish composition inspired by Kervarrec’s childhood memories of seaside Brittany. Composed of shelled crab claws in a pale pink pool of gently briny crustacean bisque, this dish was delicate and exceptionally elegant.
Next was grilled wild sea bass caught in the Bassin d’Arcachon, an hour west of Bordeaux, with a light kaffir lime sauce, oyster-filled ravioli, and smoked celery root purée, a dish that was fascinating for being so rustic and refined at the same time. We also sampled the roast pigeon, which was a juicy little bird pleasantly seasoned with marjoram, and served with roasted beetroot with truffle shavings and a little canapé topped with a rich purée of its gizzards.
Beautifully conceived and made desserts alluded to the fact that Kervarrec once worked for LeNotre, the famous Parisian-based patissier and caterer. I especially liked the tart sorbet of roasted apples with apple sponge and gelée and Calvados. The restaurant offers an excellent selection of wines by the glass and charming service – and the à la carte lunch menu is exceptionally good value for money.
L’Hostellerie de Plaisance, Place du Clocher, Saint-Émilion. Tel. (33) 05 57 55 07 55. Average dinner €140. Website: www.hostelleriedeplaisance.com
From France Today magazine