Bordeaux's Culinary Rebirth
In a region known more for its wines, a food revolution is taking place.
I never thought I would write “Bordeaux” and “culinary” in the same paragraph—Bordeaux was never about good food, and certainly never about exciting food.
I’ve been pondering why after running into great food this year in other famous French wine regions—Beaujolais, Burgundy, Provence and the Rhône—everywhere I went, there were small restaurants upping their games.
If you were creating an avatar to reflect what these places were doing, it would look like a combination of Ferran Adrià and Joël Robuchon, with a hint or two of Alice Waters.
In Beaujolais, Romain Barthe pulls out all the stops at his Auberge de Clochemerle. In the Rhône, at Tain-l’Hermitage, Nathalie Monterastelli does food upstairs and wine downstairs at her tiny La Cave de Taurobole.
In Lyon, Christian Tetedoie’s foie gras is the best I’ve had in a year, and I live in the Gers—the French department that has its own association for the promotion of foie gras and wanted to ban California wine after that state outlawed foie gras.
I loved every bite I had at these establishments, and then I thought about whether I could have done the same in Bordeaux. For years, Bordeaux has had no real cuisine of its own. Sure, it had all the fatty stuff we love—duck, foie gras and steak, all of which came from elsewhere—but nothing homespun, inventive or artisanal. It was always the wine that brought us to Bordeaux, not the food. The food was just fuel.
Today, all of that is changing.
Dine at a chateau, and the food will still be secondary. After all, if you’re drinking wine that costs more than your trip to Bordeaux, the estate isn’t likely to go crazy experimenting with the food.
But in the city and in nearby Saint-Émilion, if you want a reasonably priced wine from the nearby vineyards of -Pessac-Léognan, from the Côtes de Bordeaux or from the villages next to Saint-Émilion, then the restaurant options are increasingly exciting.
Even though alcohol consumption in France decreasing, interest is growing in local fare. Thus, restaurants with small and interesting menus are finally making an appearance.
Luxury burger bars and pop-up cafés have joined a raft of these small, perfectly formed restaurants to supplant the traditional behemoths of the past.
That food is taken seriously in France’s wine capital is obvious when the renowned Ferrandi cooking school has opened its first outpost outside of Paris in Bordeaux. The school is the cradle for many of France’s current great chefs, and over 20 percent of graduates go on to launch their own restaurants.
What wines go best with the newly minted wealth of Bordeaux’s varied cuisines?
Of course, Bordeaux comes out on top. Modern Bordeaux reds, richer and suppler than in the past, pair surprisingly well with dishes other than red meat.
Merlot and Cabernet Franc, the two grapes of Saint-Émilion, can go surprisingly well with oily fish, salmon and fish & chips.
Cabernet Sauvignon may not go with chocolate (sorry about that, I tried hard to like it), but goes well with many vegetarian dishes. And white Bordeaux—especially when there’s some Sémillon in the blend—is a natural for many spicy dishes.
The new Bordeaux and its new cuisine are casual and easygoing. You can taste your way through Bordeaux—even the first growths—by the glass. You can get formal, but then you would miss out on why Bordeaux is now one of the most happening culinary cities in France.
Bordeaux’s Top Tables
La Paille en Queue features the spicy, creole cuisine from the Indian Ocean island of Réunion with Caribbean influences. Predictably, rums lead the carte des boissons.
At Une Cuisine en Ville, Philippe Lagraula easily mixes Asian and French flavors and pairs them with wines from all over southwestern France.
Filet mignon of veal with popcorn and polenta is an exciting take on the traditional that matches the Right Bank wines so prominent on the list at Le Davoli.
The Basque touch at C’Yusha shows in the pork with pimento, black pudding, apple chutney and cheese. Wines come from all over France—astonishing in Bordeaux.
Top-quality sandwiches and burgers come out of Camion d’Olivier, a food truck with three locations. Highly regarded pastry chef Laurent Lachenal makes the buns.
Le Clos d’Augusta features cozy ambiance and simple foods with a twist, like beef with sweet potatoes and sea bass with cabbage and turnips.
Next summer, watch for the opening of Joël Robuchon’s L’Hôtel de Bernard Magrez at Château Pape Clément. This attempt at three Michelin stars won’t be inexpensive, but it should be a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
In Saint-Émilion, forget the tourist trap cafés in the main square:
Go to L’Huitrier Pie for fish. Hake and oysters from the coast match white wines from Entre-deux-Mers. Chef David Abt’s whipped foie gras appetizer is a winner.
Bistrot Vignobles on rue de la Porte Bouqueyre serves beautifully presented yet simple dishes in a lovely garden. Try the selection of vegetables and fish served on a hot plancha.
Great burgers are on the menu (you can ask for a slice of brie to make it a cheeseburger) at La Table 38. Pair them with a glass of Saint-Émilion, of course.