The French Alps have recently emerged as a gastronomic destination on par with Burgundy and Provence. Many people now travel to the region purely to enjoy its outstanding and inventive restaurants. In fact, in the recently released 2012 Michelin Guide to France, the only new three-star restaurant is chef Emmanuel Renaut’s superb Flocons de Sel in Megève.
Renaut trained in Paris with Christian Constant when the latter was head chef at the Hôtel de Crillon. He is part of a remarkable generation of young Constant-trained chefs that includes Eric Frechon and Yves Camdeborde. After running the kitchen at Claridge’s in London for several years, he returned to France to open his own restaurant in Megève, which quickly garnered a couple of Michelin stars. He moved to his current quarters in a stylish chalet just outside of the village two years ago.
Having recently enjoyed a spectacular meal at Flocons de Sel, we were not surprised to learn of Renaut’s third star. On a snowy Saturday afternoon, we joined a dining room full of other people who had decided to savor a leisurely lunch instead of skiing. We were immediately impressed by the exceptionally charming service in the simple pine-paneled space adorned with a collection of cuckoo clocks.
We opted for one of the tasting menus. The first dish was a beautiful vegetable mille-feuille, which featured fine layers of carrots, Swiss chard, leeks, potatoes and celery root garnished with fresh herbs and a dribble of hazelnut oil. It set the tone for an exquisite meal. Our next course was a delicious beet gnocchi with wild celery, Beaufort cheese and aged Xérès vinegar. A royale (light custard) of crayfish from Lake Geneva was sprinkled with turnip greens pickled in Campari.
After tucking into the best cheese tray in the Alps, we were duly astonished by the desserts, including a Chartreuse-flavored soufflé with freshly made vanilla ice cream and a wonderful compote of bitter oranges. Advance booking is absolutely essential.
For a simpler but no less gratifying version of Renaut’s cooking, I suggest Flocons Village, his bistro in Megève itself. It occupies the cozy premises of a former antiques shop and features a regularly changing menu that runs to dishes such as pork pâté with red cabbage chutney, braised lamb shank with polenta, and freshly baked apple tart.
To enjoy a terrific traditional Alpine meal, head for Le Vieux Megève, a delightful restaurant in a village chalet that specializes in cheese preparations such as fondue, raclette and tartiflette.
I also recommend the cozy and charming L’Alpage, the cheese-themed restaurant at Le Fer à Cheval hotel just outside of town, which is only open for dinner.
The most stylish restaurant in Megève is Les Enfants Terribles, a very good contemporary French bistro at the Hôtel Mont-Blanc in the center of the village. Come early for a drink in the hotel bar, decorated with whimsical drawings by the French writer and artist Jean Cocteau. Start with a rich chestnut soup, wild hare terrine or some oysters, and then enjoy a perfectly prepared sole meunière or spit-roasted chicken for your main course.
Chamonix is as much a gourmet destination as Megève, with a remarkable choice of excellent restaurants for such a small town. The best is the two-star Albert 1er, the gastronomic restaurant at the Hameau Albert 1er hotel. This handsome wood-paneled dining room was redecorated several years ago in modern French country style, and it’s a delightful place to discover the superb cooking of chef Pierre Maillet, the son-in-law of hotel owners Martine and Pierre Carrier. Maillet’s menu changes with the season, but we loved our starters — white truffle-garnished risotto and duck foie gras served in two preparations: en terrine accented by quince gelée, and sautéed with cep mushrooms and baby artichokes. Main courses were outstanding, too — lightly smoked trout with Jerusalem artichokes and beets, and veal sweetbreads with parsnips, salsify and wonderful pommes soufflés (fried potato slices puffed up like little crunchy golden pillows). The dessert trolley is also not to be missed.
The most talked-about restaurant in Chamonix is one-star Le Bistrot at the Hôtel Le Morgane. This relaxed and modern wood-paneled dining room offers a great value two-course €17 lunch menu, but to really appreciate chef Mickey Bourdillat’s outstanding contemporary French cooking, it’s better to come for one of the dinner tasting menus. We opted for the four-course menu, which began with a superb polenta foam with octopus, snails and parsley juice; and continued with fillet of sole stuffed with mushrooms, and guinea hen with asparagus and foie gras, before cheese and dessert.
Perhaps the most popular restaurant with the locals is Atmosphère, located in the heart of Chamonix. The dining room overlooks the Arve River, and it has efficient and friendly service. The menu offers a variety of Savoyard specialties, including a delicious preparation of crozets — a locally made confetti-like pasta with morel mushrooms and Parmesan — and a fine fondue with cep mushrooms. I would also suggest the veal tartare with a caper-and-tuna sauce or the suckling pig shoulder with gravy and braised fennel. For dessert: faisselle, a soft, freshly made cheese, with wild blueberry preserves.
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