Pauillac, France – Anyone hoping to discover one of France’s rising star chefs would do well to reserve a table at Thierry Marx’s Château Cordeillan-Bages just 54 kilometers from the wine capital of Bordeaux.
With two coveted Michelin stars already under his belt, the creative, energetic, thoughtful Marx was also recently named chef of the year by the French restaurant guide Gault Millau. In French food circles, his name comes up each time one discusses future three-star chefs.
Balding, with intense, piercing eyes, Marx could be Bruce Willis’s twin brother. At the age of 44, he seems to be redefining the cuisine, lifestyle, and philosophy of his generation of young French chefs. A black belt in judo, Marx also gathers his staff for regular boxing sessions to help them de-stress. He is a runner, as well as a vegetarian. The Parisian-born Marx lives frugally and simply, spending three months each year in a tiny room in Tokyo, with little more than a futon and books, and as he adds, “ambition and modesty.” From his Japanese base, he fans out all over Asia during the winter months, searching for culinary as well as spiritual inspiration.
His culinary roots run deep. He has spent time in the kitchens of Taillevent as well as Joël Robuchon’s Jamin, attaining his first Michelin star at the age of 26.
But an evening at the table of his simple but elegant dining room is not made for everyone. As even Marx admits, “I’ve had plenty of clients you just said to me, ‘I didn’t get it at all.”
Look at the titles of some of his dishes and you simply may want to run the other way. Liquid quiche Lorraine? Virtual sausage? Bean sprout risotto? Sweetbread spaghetti? Wacky, yes. But Marx is not taking food to another level of perfection or enjoyment, but to a different level. Food such as his makes up open our eyes, look at taste in a new way, take our palates out of the box. In my book, none of this would be any good if the food did not offer pleasure as well as amusement, shock as well as satisfaction. And it does. Most of the time.
For me, the most satisfying, surprising, and enjoyable dish of some 15 little tastes was his smoked Aquitaine beef. Marx sears the filet ever so quickly, slices it, then sets the beef upon a miniature hibachi set above burning Merlot vine clippings. All is wrapped in clear thick plastic (the kind used by florists), tied with ribbon, and paraded to the table. As the wait staff unwraps your dinner gift, light, delicate, pleasing smoky aromas waft through the room. The end result is a meat that is juicy, delicate, sweet, and oh so gently smoked. A dish created with a stroke of genius.
I marveled, as well, at his bean sprout risotto: The tender soybean sprouts are cut precisely to the size of a grain of rice, warmed gently in a touch of butter, then tossed with a sauce of shallots, mushrooms, oysters, cream, and white wine and adorned with a slice of black truffle. You feel the drama, energy, and attention to detail in every dish. Four kinds of butter appear at the table, including an intriguing, intensely-flavored sheep’s milk butter. Little shards of cookies and breads with most dishes make for a light meal with a broad range of flavors. (The variety of homemade breads is amazing, and worth a detour all on their own.)
The choice of wines is, of course, vast. Our dinner samplings ranged from a young and flinty Sancerre to a coveted 1999 Château Gloria, vigorous, open, and a happy companion to the smoked filet of beef.
And in the parade of tiny sweet tastes at the end, I was surprised to fall in love with a sweet eggplant millefeuille, adorned with a rich, intense basil sorbet.
See for yourself and let Marx know if you “get” it.
Yet another reason to head over the Bordeaux way is the modern, enticing, self-confident food of chef Philippe Etchebest at the Hostellerie de Plaisance in the charming village of Saint Emilion, 40 kilometers from Bordeaux. With a single Michelin star (and everyone says, a second on its way), the chef that could double as a rugby player is a meilleur ouvrier de France offering us a food that is at once modern, creative, personal, and sure to please.
The dining room at the 14th-century hotel and restaurant is soothing and cozy, with service that is careful and attentive. Starters here might include an airy sea urchin brouillade, or light scrambled eggs teamed up with a delicate lime cream, offering a fine acidic note to a dish that could easily become heavy and one-dimensional.
Bright sea scallops take on an Asian accent here: a pair of meaty scallops are quickly seared, then topped with a twirl of light rice vermicelli seasoned with garlic and ginger, anointed with a surprising, refreshing turmeric foam. Etchebest flanks the scallops with a pair of spicy madeleines and two rectangles of chilled, seasoned beets. The dish is at once inventive, surprising and satisfying.
But my favorite dish of the meal was his beautiful mousse-like round of extremely light mashed potatoes tossed with a mixture of bruccio – Corsica’s answer to ricotta – and cubes of tangy Granny Smith apple. This ethereal mixture is painstakingly studded with thin slices of black truffle and single leaves of lamb’s lettuce. This is a dish of contrasts, color, texture, flavor, even aroma. A sure success!
The pink-stoned, elegant Hostellerie is owned by the outgoing Chantal and Gérard Perse. Wines from the Perse vineyards to sample here include the rarely seen white Bordeaux Monbousquet 2001, a Saint Emilion made from the Sauvignon Blanc grape, a dry white with a pleasantly crisp acidity and an easy-going personality. Try, for sure, the 1998 Pavie, Saint Emilion Grand Cru Classé -- a blend of 60% Merlot, 30% Cabernet Franc, and 10% Cabernet Sauvignon -- a controversial wine that I found full of life, energy, and intensity.
Telephone: 05 56 59 24 24
Closed Saturday lunch, all day Monday, and Tuesday lunch. 60 € lunch menu. 110 € dinner menu. A la carte, 95 to 120 euros per person, including service but not wine.
Closed Monday. Closed Sunday dinner and all day Tuesday November 1 to April 30. 32 € lunch menu. 60 € menu on Sunday. A la carte, 50 to 105 euros per person, including service but not wine. All major credit cards.