Les rosbifs on vacances
La Grand’Vigne in Chateau Smith Haut Lafitte is a triumph of a restaurant
Yes, it’s art: Oeuf en colére (“angry egg”) at La Grand’Vigne (©J BOYER 2015)
I hate spas. I don’t believe in diets. I have a horror of white-coated ladies who might tell me to relax to a soundtrack of Inca flute music. I don’t want to release my tension. I like it just where it is, buried cankerously deep inside me, so I can keep an eye on what it’s up to. And if I felt like paying someone to touch me, I hear there’s a very good website called Gentleman 4 Hire. So I was distinctly unthrilled to learn that I was to review Les Sources de Caudalie near Bordeaux.
“It has wine,” said the beauty editor.
“When am I leaving?”
A spa in the vineyards of Château Smith Haut Lafitte has to be about as good as spas get, especially when on arrival I discovered that the business end of matters is taken care of in a pavilion at some distance from what is essentially an extremely elegant hotel. Better still, of the three restaurants managed on site by the Cathiard family, the proprietors of the vineyard, La Grand’Vigne has two stars, which was even more promisingly un-spa-like. I did manage a swim in a deep green marble pool housed in a cavernous converted barn before getting down to the serious subject of dinner. The principle of Caudalie is that the beauty products derive their rejuvenating products from the grape, and the chef at La Grand’Vigne, Nicolas Masse, also takes a winemaker’s approach, extracting the essentials of this exceptional terroir to offer local ingredients in their most perfectly-realised form. At least, that’s what it says on the press release, yet as I took my seat in the 18th-century orangery, with a glass of 2007 Clos Ste Hune Riesling, which smelled slightly alarmingly of flowery petrol but rolled off the back of the palate like God’s own rocket fuel, I was prepared to be convinced.
Not so the English couple at the next table. We were served our canapés at the same time; they poked suspiciously whilst discussing all the things they had left on the plate the night before. An Arcachon oyster in cucumber cream was ignored, as was a carpaccio of beef smoked over seaweed and presented under a transparent cloche which wafted blood and salt and tobacco as the dome was lifted. I thought it was the best thing ever, to the extent that I would have been quite prepared to lick the glass, but they were unimpressed. The husband speculated that he’d quite fancy trying an oyster, but what if it made you gag? They knew someone called Toby who’d once gagged on a scallop. They got on better with a roast mushroom stuffed with a cream of trompettes de mort. You know where you are with a mushroom.
Masse’s presentation was a bit Noma-ish, lots of twigs and nutshells, which I heartily hope will soon cease to be a Thing, but it didn’t distract from my pleasure in the pre-entrée of artichoke stuffed with chard and tarragon cream.
“Lots of fuss for such a small dish,” remarked my neighbours.
I’d chosen the langoustine with citrus as a first course, presented in two services: first raw, in an absolutely extraordinary grapefruit sabayon, then in an intense consommé with kumquat. There was quite a bit of stage business involved in the serving, which gave my companions the chance to speculate about me.
“Funny place to be having dinner alone.”
“D’you think she’s been stood up?”
“Maybe she’s a lesbian.”
“Mmmm. Probably. Look at her hair.”
They didn’t care for the raw langoustine any more than they did for me. I ate two rolls of sweet pain feuilleté with shards of black pudding gilded over the fragile layers of bread, which made me extremely happy. Not so someone called Lesley, whom they’d met on Lanzarote. Lesley was apparently very thin. I felt for Lesley, if she’d had to dine with this pair. I toasted her silently in Smith Haut Lafitte 2012, all berries and chalk. That brought out the slightly dirty-in-a-good-way savour of my sweetbreads with onion reduction, which appeared delightfully perched on a little tarte of pommes Anna draped in lardo di Colonna. I wish pommes Anna would make a comeback the same way I wish that moss on the side of the plate would just go away. So crisp and buttery and peppery . . .
“I’m not enjoying this meal,” said the lady.
‘Too much bother,” agreed her husband.
What were these people doing here? Do they go to the opera and then complain there’s too much singing? The attentive, beautifully mannered staff appeared visibly distressed as dish after dish was rejected. Over-elaborate. Too complicated. Yes, you philistine morons whose desire for what you assume to be rustic simplicity is strangling one of the great art forms of European civilisation, yes, it’s complicated, yes, it’s exquisitely constructed and complex and requires inhuman amounts of training and concentration to achieve, and no, it’s not actually meant for people like you, and I’m glad it makes you feel intimidated because you should just eff off back to the province you crawled out of and have a nice — what? What do you think is nice? Do you actually know what anything tastes like? Go home and sit on your three-piece suite and watch that rude Gordon Ramsay on the telly because that’s the nearest the likes of you should be allowed to get to haute cuisine.
That line of thought was more exercise than I’d anticipated, even in a spa. I kept my bitter snobberies to myself and squashed them down with a really smashing sandcastle of a pudding, sweet vermicelli over layers of coffee and cardamom, tart and muskily dense. My only sadness was that I hadn’t quite had room for one of Monsieur Masse’s specialities, the “angry egg”, poached with black truffle and pancetta, which looked like a rather brilliant riff on the Burgundian classic oeufs en meurette. The next evening, I dined at the charming Lavoir, the less formal restaurant (Rouge, the third Les Sources restaurant, is built over the ornamental lake and serves Atlantic-coast tapas). The egg was not on the menu, but they brought one anyway, without being asked, and no egg has ever been prouder, not least because it was presented under the discontented glare of the English couple, who were enjoying steak and chips. Well done. Beef is the primary culprit for fatal domestic choking in the UK and I did find myself hoping.
La Grand’ Vigne is a triumph of a restaurant, but spas? They make me tense.