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Back to the Land of Dordogne

We checked into the run-down 19th-century château, wondering what a great chef could possibly be doing in a place like this. Our top-floor room was shabbily furnished in faded red brocades, without a snippet of style. Looking for escape, I went down to the "bar"—a couple of worn armchairs and two tables—for an apéritif. Though I was sitting just a few feet from the receptionist, she was chatting with the bellman, and no one offered me a drink. Finally I had to ask. As I sipped my Ricard, several couples stopped by the front desk. "Oh, we really love our room!" one woman said. "Love the décor," a second couple said. They all seemed to be in a great mood. I looked around for a hidden video eye: Was I on a Gallic version of Candid Camera?

In the château's restaurant, L'Oison—with its crystal chandeliers and heavy red curtains—I ordered the multi-course chef's tasting menu. Etchebest's cooking was no less than stunning. He used regional ingredients in a very modern way, and his flavors were clean and surprising. The result was much lighter and more refined than traditional Perigordian cuisine. A delicate ravioli of langoustine in a frothy cream sauce sat atop julienned cucumbers tinged with cumin. Lasagne of seared foie gras and wild mushrooms were heightened by an extravagant black truffle emulsion. And could those crunchy little garlicky matchsticks actually be cèpes?The sleek tableware from Spain—a white Bidasoa porcelain plate with an oversized rim and a teacup-sized depression in the center—contrasted with the décor of the room as much as Etchebest's cooking did. A trio of Grand Cru chocolate desserts attested to his skills as a pastry chef as well.

The next morning I asked to see some other rooms in the château, determined to solve the conundrum of the gushing guests. The tour was led by Etchebest, who, as I learned, is general manager as well as chef; he and his wife, Dominique, have undertaken to turn around the long-neglected hotel. Besides putting in his new menu, he told me, they were two-thirds of the way through renovating the rooms. The entire second floor was finished, and he showed me the new rooms. Whimsical (Louis XV chairs upholstered in tangerine-hued crushed velvet), and playing on local themes (the Dordogne room has furniture made from sticks and rocks), they were more stylish and appealing than anything else we'd seen in the Dordogne. These were the rooms occupied by the giddy guests; bad luck had put us on the floor that had yet to be redone.

Much of Château des Reynats' renovation will be completed by this summer. And five euros says Etchebest will be the region's next big star.

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