Living in the back of beyond in rural France means that you have a Michelin 3-star restaurant within 30 minutes’ drive. But not along broad, straight roads. Nope, get ready to thread your way along narrow, winding roads through classic Corbières scenery: gorges with streaks of pale rock interspersed with the deep green of holm oak, Aleppo pines and broom. Lower down, the gnarled fingers of pruned vines grasp at empty air. Be ready to pull over at the narrow bridges if you see something coming the other way. As you get nearer the restaurant, the reassuring signs are more numerous: yes, it really is up this hill, round this bend, through this gorge. You imagine the Japanese tourists who have vowed to point-score every 3-star restaurant in France thinking, “But it can’t be up here!” Later I laughed at a Trip Advisor review claiming that you need to be a rally driver to get there. No, these are normal back-country roads that locals drive along every day to get to work.
You arrive in the village and find the gates, decorated with giant metal fish skeletons and tongue-in-cheek sardine-can lids rolled back around their keys. Hmm, somehow the style of this metalwork looks familiar, and inside we recognise the work of Robert Cros, a sculptor from a neighbouring village: giant bent nails, catapults, light-switches with correspondingly giant price tags. The restaurant has got bigger since we were last there 10 years ago, gobbling up the eponymous well that used to stand in the courtyard, now under glass in the bar area. Another TripAdvisor laugh: a Parisian, after slagging off the food, appears to claim that “quelconque” villages in the Aude populated only by peasants and with inadequate car parks shouldn’t be allowed to have smart restaurants; they should be in a place that is more “historique et exceptionnel”. Paris, presumably.
At the table, we are served tiny mises en bouche, on the inevitable piece of slate. We can’t remember the detailed descriptions reeled off by the waiter, but we taste them all in the order he suggests. I particularly love the two crispy bite-size spheres that explode in your mouth, one filled with gazpacho, the other with some warm, intensely flavoured liquid I can’t identify. There’s a home-made potato crisp with a tiny cone of potato puree balanced on top. Sounds boring, but it’s divine. A strange pink sphere on a stick with something crunchy inside it didn’t go down so well, but I liked the verrine of pork terrine with a sharp, acidic sauce gribiche cutting the fat.
I have a little fit of irritation over the menu: S’s has prices, mine doesn’t. Perhaps you have to do this to keep your three stars. If so: hellooooo, Michelin, we’re in the 21st century! Women earn their living just like men!
From the massive wine list, we choose a bottle of “Jules 7 ans” — not a reference to the age of the wine, but to the age of the vigneron’s grandson, whom we have met. Indeed we once spent 2 hours in M. Mazard’s tasting room while he showed us slides of every variety of orchid in the Corbières (there are quite a few) with a number of truffles, mushrooms, and other native species thrown in. Even as we left he pursued us across the yard to thrust an extra complimentary bottle of wine and a postcard into our hands. Anyway, his petit Jules is very good. I’m imagining a future cuvée called “Jules, 31 ans”.
Note: unfortunately, the markup on the wines is massive: this local bottle was 50 euros, and I suspect it’s no more than 10 if you buy it direct from M Mazard. But what do you expect? It’s a 3-star restaurant with a massive staff (10 in the dining room alone), and foodwise the cheapest of its category (for the record, our set lunch menu was 65 euros per person). Oh, and the water at 6 euros a bottle: “It’s from the spring in Fontjoncouse,” said our waitress; “we add the gas back in.” The bread is from a baker in Mayronnes, a place the Parisian and the reluctant rally driver would not wish to visit since it is certainly remote and probably quelconque as well if you are from Paris. The pain blanc is almost as dark as the pain complet; both have a yeasty, sourdough flavour and crackling crust.
The first real course was fabulous. I can barely describe it: a paper-thin translucent globe of sucre soufflé in the shape of a squash, balanced over a creamy white mousse and some fragments of truffle. At the table, the waitress poured over a pale gold, creamy butternut squash soup which magically made the dome collapse. The result was still beautiful, and the combination of flavours was unbelievable. This was the star of the meal for me — just sublime in both appearance and flavour.
Next, a truffle-stuffed courgette flower: pretty, but less memorable than the previous course — even though it was the first truffle dish I’ve had that contained enough truffle that you could actually taste it. At this point, something rather odd happened — for a 3-star restaurant anyway. The waitress removed the plates and placed new cutlery for the next course. Then we had time for quite a long conversation about what we plan to do when we retire, while we watched the people at the next table eat two further courses, one of which required the presence of M Goujon to slice it up. A purely nominal requirement, I’m sure, since it looked pretty straightforward to me. Anyway, he stopped to talk to everyone in the room, so obviously there was no pressure in the kitchen. I wasn’t particularly keeping track since we were relaxed and not that bothered about speed, but it must have been at least 20 minutes, possibly more, before our main course appeared. I concluded that they must have dropped something on the floor, or the apprentice didn’t do it to the required standard and had to do it again.
This course was duck done two ways: a boudin and a rosy piece of magret. It was fine, but it seemed to me that almost any self-respecting restaurant in the area could have produced exactly the same flavours and textures without breaking a sweat; heck, even I could in my own kitchen. The presentation was pretty of course, but there was nothing original about it.
The dessert was another handsome plate, if not as amazing as the butternut dish: a sphere of crackling clementine encasing praline ice cream, a thin slice of dried clementine, crisp and intensely flavoured, and a very classic clementine sorbet in a clementine shell. S thought the praline was boring, but I thought it was a good foil in taste and texture to the sharpness of the clementine. To our surprise, the waiter presented the box of mignardises while we were still eating dessert. Shades of Spanish restaurants; I almost expected him to snatch my unfinished dessert plate away. But it was certainly intentional, since everything is in a restaurant of this standard. We ate them with our coffee in the lounge area; they were extremely good, especially the chocolate filled with salted caramel. Oh, and being in a 3-star restaurant means you get sugar shaped like seahorses.
Total damage: 223 euros for two. It’s by no means the most expensive meal I’ve ever had, and much cheaper than the only other 3-star restaurant I’ve been to (Michel Bras in Laguiole). Of course, we did choose the cheapest menu (available at lunch only) — the next menu up is double what we paid, so you could easily spend a lot more here. Unlike other restaurants of this calibre, the atmosphere is relaxed given the inevitable constraints of 3-star service, sans chichi. We left feeling satisfied, and with half a bottle of Jules 7 ans to drink at home — since we had the rally-driving still to do.
In conclusion, here the three stars are all about the food and the service, not the village, the building, the décor or the place settings, which are understated, letting the meal you came for take centre stage. Not all of the food we ate was what I would call three-star standard, but in this class, you can’t beat the price. Bravo to Gilles Goujon for staying close to his roots, working with local producers he’s known for years, and not flitting off to Paris or Lyon as soon as he gets well-known. He is a true ambassador for all that is good in the Corbières.