Who knows, perhaps there’s even hope for the Michelin Guide, the tyrannical restaurant bible widely criticized for its disconnectedness to modern restaurant culture. The 2009 France edition arrived with the usual clatter of scandals: charges that President Sarkozy’s patronage helped Le Bristol, in Paris, land its third star; boos for the inexplicable two macaroons to Gordon Ramsay au Trianon, the bad boy chef’s white elephant in Versailles. Still, with rare insight, the red book awarded a second star to L’Atelier de Jean-Luc Rabanel, a modest 35-seat restaurant in Arles with no written menu and a $67 lunchtime prix fixe. Rival Gault Millau had named Rabanel, the restaurant’s previously obscure fortysomething chef, its toque of the year in 2008. Remarkably, L’Atelier was France’s first certified-organic restaurant to be inducted into the pantheon. I couldn’t get to Arles (a 460-mile drive south from Paris) fast enough.
Tucked away in the center of town, L’Atelier has a casual urban vibe and a flat-screen monitor showcasing the action in the kitchen. Although Rabanel’s cooking evokes botanist chefs like Michel Bras, in Laguiole, and Basque genius Andoni Aduriz of Mugaritz, outside San Sebastián, he has a vision all his own. Call it techno-terroir—powered by his seven-acre biodynamic farm growing 100 types of heirloom fruits and vegetables. Bright explosions of flavor are what shine here: icy jolts of sugarless sorbets from vegetables at their seasonal height; the hyper-Mediterraneanism of figs roasted in black olive oil. The daily menu might feature a faux yogurt of haricots cocos loaded with spongy bits of morel mushrooms, followed by a pintade (guinea fowl) baked in a salt crust. “I welcome progress in my kitchen,” he said, “but in the end I go back to the casserole!” How about the relationship young French chefs have been forging with Spain’s innovators? “Génial,” he approved. “But eventually we’ll find our own way.” In Rabanel’s case, he’s already there.
Next we headed west into Aquitaine, past plump hills and sunflowers and village shops crammed with Armagnac and foie gras. We were en route to the sleepy hamlet of Astaffort for a Gascon breakfast—for dinner!—at Une Auberge en Gascogne. The restaurant’s 38-year-old chef, Fabrice Biasiolo, had been recommended for his reinventions of regional flavors.
“Molecular, terroir… My food has been branded with all sorts of meaningless labels,” Biasiolo chuckled. “I call it simply libre [free] and ludique [playful].” Sure enough, the petit déjeuner turned out to be a trompe l’oeil, while the term auberge doesn’t quite capture the chic, modern feel of the dining room. The breakfast’s “tea” was a gauze sachet of dried, pulverized Bayonne ham, garlic, celery, and burned bread, infusing a rich duck broth into which we dipped a tartine layered with a foie gras carpaccio. Orange juice: a glass of delicious citrus and spice-infused liquefied carrot. Silky ham mousse spooned into an eggshell represented the oeuf à la cocotte. Playful indeed.
Biasiolo grew up nearby and worked briefly under Michel Bras. Over Armagnac he reflected on the situation in France: “Spanish chefs proved creativity has no limits. Us, we’re still burdened by tradition, authority, closure.” But like others, Biasiolo believes the next generation will set itself free “while keeping French flavors alive.”
“French flavors! Does it mean anything anymore?” The iconoclastic chef Thierry Marx wanted to elaborate when I met him the following day in Bordeaux, but a TV crew interrupted, impatient to film him. France’s answer to Spain’s Adrià, Marx helms the kitchen at Château Cordeillan-Bages, a two-starred restaurant in Pauillac owned by Lynch-Bages winery. His reputation as both tireless innovator and spiritual leader of the region’s food renaissance lured me to the hotel’s sedate dining room.
A high-wire blend of opulence and edgy conceptualism, the meal strung together a succession of “wow” moments while upholding Establishment values. The “risotto,” truffled and moistened with oyster jus, was composed of crunchy soybean sprouts instead of rice. Marx’s signature “saucisson virtuel” called for the waiter to puncture a bubble of edible plastic so that warm bouillon oozed out onto the plate, miraculously transmogrifying the whole into something deliciously recognizable as earthy lentils and sausage.
I recalled the first thrill of eating such food over a decade ago at El Bulli. Spanish experimental bravado has since settled into a more minimalist post-molecular style. But complacent Gallic taste buds, I figured, still needed shocking. I left hopeful that French haute cuisine would never be fusty again—and that was worth the hefty price of the dinner.
Marx, I later found out, grew up in a Polish-Jewish family in a proletarian Paris quartier, worked with the likes of Joël Robuchon, and spends lots of time in Japan. He was also a paratrooper in Lebanon and has a black belt in judo and a laboratory in Paris where he develops new dishes with scientists. Oh, and he’s about to launch a new Parisian venture: inexpensive, populist, and devoted to global street food. Vive la révolution.
Anya von Bremzen is a T+L contributing editor.