Tuesday, May 8th – Day 4, Etoges to Bordeaux
Tuesday was mostly about getting on the road to fetch up further south, closer to Pau. There was also a suggestion that the weather might be better further south, but I have no idea how it could have been. The sun was shining again when we got up, breakfasted with W and E, paid our bill and packed our car. We had been planning on possibly doing some sightseeing on the way, but a consultation with the maps and the SatNav system ruled that out. The drive was coming out at somewhere between 6 and 7 hours; we would stop for fuel and a very brief snack but nothing else if we could avoid it.
As it turned out, we couldn’t. There were numerous small but unforeseen delays, starting with several memorial services going on, it being May 8th, which is Liberation Day (or if you prefer Victory Day) for the French. A bus full of celebrants brought the road to a complete halt for a short while, but a longer delay was afforded by an escaped horse. It was rounded up by a couple in a 2CV, by the simple expedient of the man walking towards it with his arms out and grabbing it by the mane, while the woman rounded up a tow rope from the car boot and used it to tether the beast.
We were clear of that before long, and soon on the beautifully quiet and almost empty Autoroute des Anglais. A stop for another iced coffee, and a very small waffle, and we continued on our way, only to get around 100 miles out from our destination for the night, Bordeaux, to be stopped yet again.
The sunshine had disappeared and the sky suddenly turned very dark indeed. We both commented on how we didn’t like the look of it, and that’s when things got very nasty. The rain started to come down hard, and rapidly turned to hail stones the size of peas. It was impossible to see and pretty much everyone bar a few idiots pulled over onto the hard shoulder. When it eased slightly, we pulled back onto the carriageway, switched on every light we had, and proceeded at about 15 mph for the next 15 minutes or so, hazard lights flashing, peering into the gloom as the windscreen wipers slapped back and forth. And then, as abruptly as it had arrived, it stopped and we were back to dry weather all the way to Bordeaux.
I was very glad it was dry when we hit Bordeaux, because we arrived bang in the middle of the rush hour, and then found that things were made more difficult yet by what seemed to be building/road works everywhere. It wasn’t easy but we eventually located the hotel in a warren of narrow one way streets. The Maison Bord’Eaux was not easy to find, having a very discreet doorway (and disguising itself as the Consulat de Monaco!), and a car park in a building several doors further down!
Anyway, once there we were soon parked up, unpacked and ready to investigate our surroundings. The staff at the hotel were brilliant, ready with ideas and information, and happy to recommend restaurants and such, while equally happy to approve of the restaurant we had booked.
The restaurant also took some finding, and saw us wandering ineffectually round the area where it was supposed to be, and finally finding le Chapon Fin about 10 minutes late. This is probably the oldest restaurant in town, having been in operation since 1825, and it is also one of the very first restaurants in France to be awarded three Michelin stars when the award system started in 1933. It’s fair to say it has history. It was also a favourite watering hole for Toulouse Lautrec, Sarah Bernhardt and Edward VII, among others, many of its famous visitors being commemorated in the demented decor, as this photo from the website shows… It reminded me of the “fake” grotto that makes up some of the Jardins Exotique in Monaco.
Anyway we were soon seated and studying the menu, while also considering what to drink. The charming sommelier, Leagh Barkley, and his Brazilian sidekick helped us negotiate what is a considerable list, which was how we ended up ordering a €110 bottle of Saint Julien as recommended, and decanted, by the lovely Guilherme Braga Silva.
It was excellent, but it was for later in the meal. First there was Champagne, naturally.
We considered the tasting menu, then bottled out, on the grounds that we’d done two full menus over the previous two nights and we should probably be nice to our digestive systems. Two courses it would be, though we might just have cheese if there was any wine left.
Chef Nicolas Nguyen Van Hai is clearly keen to get at least one star back and it showed in the cooking. His Asian influences were also to the fore, especially early on, with a couple of amuse bouches, including a prawn wrapped in a crunchy coating, and tasting completely of the sea.
There was also a radish, carved, pickled, and presented on a tiny skewer as a jewel-like bite of freshness, alongside a teensy Asian taco. So we knew the kitchen could do artistic and clever. What else could it do?
Next was a scallop ceviche, again tasting exactly as you might wish, soft, tender, tasty, and very pretty, with tiny gems of fruit scattered over it, nestling in some pickled seaweed. Excellent stuff, and all before we actually saw the dishes we’d ordered.
Rolls arrived, with firm, crisp crusts and soft, springy interiors, along with a glass of white wine each to have with our starters. We shared a plate of white asparagus in an unctuous dressing, very eggy, with a scattering of Parmesan to provide a lift and a contrast to the bitterness of the vegetable.
We also shared foie gras, which came on a puffed quinoa cracker, shavings of the meat making a creamy mouthful that worked well with the mild crunch of the cracker.
The wine, which had already been decanted, was ready as the mains arrived. There was a fabulous pigeon, cooked pink, the meat soft, almost carvable with a spoon, with a couple of bon bons of pigeon meat, a croquette, and some fresh greens. Lovely. The iron of the greens worked very well with the tang of the pigeon.
I only wish I’d managed better pictures. The other main was lamb, again beautifully cooked, which was no surprise at all, and I thoroughly enjoyed it, but would probably go for the pigeon on a future visit.
We decided we could not manage any more food, but then someone wheeled the cheese past us. We’re weak willed and easily led, what can I say? We asked for the waiter’s favourite local cheeses and happily nibbled on the results while we finished off the wine. And we ended up with a small dessert because the staff thought we shouldn’t be allowed to leave without trying their ice cream at least.
And then there were petit fours, both delicious and delicate.
A brief chat with the chef, and then we wandered back to the hotel, which fortunately was a lot easier than getting to the restaurant had been, even with needing to negotiate the many dug up pavements that have resulted from the building of the new Bordeaux tramline, Line D.