Saulieu is smack dab in the geographical heart of Burgundy. What better place to test and taste the regions delights at one of the 3 star gastronomical shrines of France? Alexandre Dumaine held court at this spot for many years before the highway (A6) diverted travelers on their speedy way to destinations in Provence. Up until the late 70’s Saulieu was the perfect first stop on the trip south for Parisians who took the National 6 (N6), a much more picturesque road. People in search of a luxury layover found a hotel which catered to their needs and a restaurant with all the trimmings and finesse they desired…Today, Le Relais Bernard Loiseau carries on the tradition with unequaled refinement and creativity.
The section of the N6 which goes through the center of Saulieu has just been redone to give the approach to the Relais the dignified décor it deserves. As we entered the restaurant the welcome was courteous, discrete and comforting. Even though you may not be known by the staff, you’re greeted as a privileged guest in their home.
We were escorted through the airy hallway lined with large windows looking out on a cozy garden park nestled in the Relais’ center which is surrounded by the hotel and quaint balconies which adorn each room. We arrived at the top of a stairway which allowed a domineering view of the salon and its huge fireplace where we could have had a drink but decided to go directly to the dining room.
Our table, like all the others, looks out onto the lush garden. We imagined how nice it would be to wake up in such surroundings and have a fine breakfast in all this greenery. We shared a bottle of water en guise of an aperitif. I love good wine but don’t drink that much; especially at lunch, (it makes me sleepy). Remember to be careful when you get in your car after having several glasses of wine because the French police are on the prowl more than ever!
Even though we only had water as our “cocktail’ we were served some gougère au fromage. (When you don’t order a drink at the outset of your meal, oftentimes you don’t get those wonderful little nibbles you see the other tables enjoying and feel somewhat left out…not here!) The gougère, piped out on a thin layer of puff pastry, were crispy and creamy at the same time…a delightful reinvention of an otherwise common Burgundy classic.
What to choose, what to choose…My companion ordered the langoustine* royale and the veal chop and no dessert and I decided on the foie gras and the omble chevalier**. I asked the waiter to have the pastry chef to give me what he liked best and then got simple straightforward advice from the wine steward without the unnecessary and sometimes confusing though poetic spirited jargon.
As is the custom in fine restaurants, we received three “amuse bouche”, (literally means happy mouth), before the arrival of our order. We were instructed as to the order in which they were to be tasted and we did as we were advised. First there was a crayfish mousse on a veal jelly in a small clear glass…then a de-structured parsley ham in an Asian soup spoon and lastly a small, warm, green sphere which revealed hidden morsels of snails. We then were served another “happy mouth”, a small round of foie gras mousse with fried borage leaves. My companion was relieved to have decided to skip the dessert course.
The large langoustine, curled atop a ravioli on a tenderly cooked piece of fennel was bathed in clarified veal au jus with a hint of lemon and thyme. My companion was familiar with and enjoyed the langoustine but it was the broth which really sets this dish apart…like a fine wine, the flavors of the broth kept appearing and surprising her taste buds long after she finished her dish. My pan seared foie gras had white beans from Tarbes and a foam of Jurançon wine all cuddled in a tasty bouillon which did not overpower the delicacy of the foie gras or the refined texture of the beans.
My companion had chosen to have only one glass of wine throughout the meal and the steward chose a Givry 1ère Cru, François Lump, 2005, under the Loiseau label and I had a Monbazillac from Domaine de l’Ancienne Cure, Christian Roche, 2005.
The milk fed veal chop, perfectly cooked by the chef then sliced at the table by the waiter, was served with sage gnocchi and green asparagus. The quality of the veal was remarkable and the meat seemed to vanish in her mouth. She barely needed a knife. My fish had that dreamy texture and flavor that only an omble chevalier has. The tiny turnips which decorated my plate offered a pleasant crunch compared to the softness of the fish. I sipped a St. Aubin 1ère Cru, Bernard Morey, 2005, also under the Loiseau label.
We were served a pre-dessert which prepared our taste buds for the inevitable treats that accompany the real dessert: crisp almond tuiles, melt in your mouth basil macaroons and tiny tartelettes with jellied fruits. The pastry chef sent out a truly original creation. It was a bar of nut mousse made from locally grown hazelnuts, covered with cassis jelly, decorated with purple potato chips and a dollop of cassis sorbet all sitting on a long rectangle of an crisp cookie made with potato flour. The mingling textures were a treat and it was just sweet enough to qualify as a dessert.
It’s much easier to write a review when the food experience is unfortunate because that’s when I come up with all the caustic adjectives to bite back the inattentive restaurateur for having used all those good ingredients for naught. At Le Relais Bernard Loiseau we had happy mouths from beginning to end and everywhere in between. The service was attentive without being overbearing and the advice on wines by the glass precise, well balanced and affordable. To be honest, the surrounding décor was pleasant enough not be noticed which is a fine way to feel at home. The elegance with which we were treated allowed us to savor the luxury of a fine meal tasteful comfort.
Improvement can sometimes be the fruit of adversity. Bernard Loiseau died in January 2002. L’oiseau means “bird” in french. Bernard was a multi-colored bird who, like the phoenix, flew too close to the sun. His obsession and passion for perfection drove him to the height of his profession and took him at his apogee. Today his wife, Dominique Loiseau, has the great fortune to be seconded in the kitchen by Patrick Bertron. Mr. Bertron has succeeded in maintaining the 3 star standards set by Mr. Loiseau and has gone further in creating many new dishes which bring the dining experience far into the 21st century. He does this without the artifice of the latest trends in molecular gastronomy but with a solid understanding of place, preference and panache. His new signature dishes attest to his quest for excellence and this spirit is shared and encouraged by Mme. Loiseau.
Bernard Loiseau opened two restaurants in Paris in the late 1990’s, Tante Louise and Tante Marguerite. Dominique Loiseau has taken command of these restaurants and all the operations of the Groupe Bernard Loiseau in Saulieu and elsewhere with grace, finesse and business acumen heretofore unsuspected in this intelligent, elegant and strong woman. Today, Mme. Loiseau and her business are doing better than ever and a new luxury hotel and restaurant has just been added to their stellar activities; Le Cep, in Beaune. The renovation of Le Cep will be completed in August 2007.
Le Relais Bernard Loiseau is in the center of Saulieu on the national route 6. The prix fixe menus start at 120 euros and the à la carte menu ranges from 40 to 105 euros. For those who are looking for rare Burgundy wines they have one of the top cellars in France at their gourmet gift shop where you can purchase wines, regional favorites, books and other culinary trinkets which is just next to the restaurant.
*A langoustine tastes like something between a lobster and heaven.
**Omble chevalier, a fresh water fish, is to salmon what truffles are to mushrooms. Publié