Like so many who come “pour le vang,” as Le St.-James’s Marseillais chef Michel Portos calls it, my trip started in the Médoc’s Pauillac, hallowed ground in the region. From there, I wandered up and down the peninsula’s Left Bank (not to be confused with Bordeaux city’s Left Bank) and on to the villages—and some of the celebrated wineries—of St.-Estèphe, St.-Julien, Margaux, and Arcins before a shorter wander across the Garonne River and through St.-Émilion on the Right Bank. Though the château scene is indeed a little stiff, once I got to Bordeaux city proper, I wondered if all my Parisian friends who had so disdained the town had even been here lately.
As part of a face-lift, Bordeaux has given its contemporary art museum, the CAPC, a massive overhaul and added a space-age tram, which will soon expand to serve Mérignac Airport. The city-sponsored École du Vin, meanwhile, opened a few years ago, offering wine-country weekend tours and on-site two-hour tasting courses at a posh-looking but bargain-priced wine bar. And once the Regent’s Jacques Garcia– designed hotel opens in the center of town next month, Bordeaux will have a large-scale deluxe property to compete with Jean Nouvel’s Le St.-James, across the river in the charming village of Bouliac. Also new to the scene is a cool little upstart bed-and-breakfast, La Maison Bord’eaux, which combines colorful contemporary interior design with family-style service and rooms for under $300. Add the TGV express train from Paris, which now brings travelers south in three hours—two by the year 2015—and there are more reasons than ever for those visiting the capital city to take a side trip south.
The traditional food of Bordeaux—duck confit, andouillette, foie gras—is still wonderful and, just as important, easy to pair with the local tipple. But some of the most exciting chefs in France have gravitated to the region, creating highly technical, deconstructed dishes: the sort of intellectually adventurous food that France on the whole should be good at, but never has been. Unlike in Paris or Lyon (the country’s true food capital), anyone going to a hot table in Bordeaux should expect to eat something infused with liquid nitrogen, like the reconstituted sunny-side-up egg with baby clams I had at Le St.-James, Michel Portos’s increasingly lauded kitchen. Or unusual combinations, like the scallops in beef jus with raspberry vinegar that Philippe Etchebest served me at St.-Émilion’s just-remodeled Hostellerie de Plaisance.
“Elsewhere they don’t have the same religious attitude about food as the Bordelais, and when I first started here ten years ago, no one liked what I did!” recalls Thierry Marx, the muscular Gault Millau 2006 Chef of the Year, who runs the kitchen at Cordeillan-Bages and is something of a team leader to France’s high-concept new guard. “Though we always concern ourselves with the marriage of food and wine, what I do doesn’t go with the established tradition.” It does require some work to understand how to pair Marx’s chocolate-coated lamb served with mango chutney, or apple sorbet dipped in liquid nitrogen and housed in an isomalt shell that floats on Italian meringue. “But people are coming around,” he says. Sommeliers with global experience help, as has Jean-Michel Cazes, who also opened—and sank a mint into developing—a cooking school for Marx in the tiny nearby hamlet of Village Bages, which are Cazes’s. Abetted by a delicious and lively gastro-bistro, Café Lavinal, and a spacious wine shop and boulangerie (especially close to Marx’s heart—his grandfather was a baker) are also attracting an adventurous clientele to this corner of the Médoc. But the place everyone kept telling me about was Restaurant La Cape. Even the townsfolk were atwitter about the somewhat bizarre eatery in suburban Cenon. With a menu as abstract as those at the tables mentioned above, the ambience is unlike that of your usual Michelin-starred establishment—no fine linens or Riedel stemware here. The setting feels like a suburban house in the San Fernando Valley decorated by a sponge-paint-happy art therapist. The plastic chairs and low-budget lawn umbrellas on the patio can be misleading, but the expertly turned out, eclectic dishes (pigeon tacos, foie gras with seaweed, frog tempura with watercress) are a steal if you stick to the fixed menu.
La Cape is a little off the main road, but getting off the main road is part of the experience in this corner of the world. And like the food, hotels are becoming sleeker, with a new wave of contemporary high-style châteaux and chambres d’hôtes. As choice real estate in France becomes increasingly more difficult for the French to afford, enterprising English and Dutch families are moving in, gussying up, and renting places out.