La Bouitte, France
My first encounter with René and Maxime Meilleur – the father-and-son team behind La Bouitte, a restaurant tucked high up in a tiny hamlet in the Savoy Alps – was in Chelsea Square a few years ago. They had descended from their snowy peaks, with 12 of their staff, to London to cook for the 50th birthday party of a British businessman who is a fanatical skier and a regular at the restaurant.
It was a noisy and cheerful affair with a jazz pianist, and I must confess I do not remember exactly what they served in the lavish buffet save for a vague memory of their signature dish – duck foie gras on corn-flavoured pancakes enhanced with acacia honey and a balsamic vinegar reduction.
Just after Easter this year, as the skiing season was nearing its end, my wife and I visited our Chelsea friend at his Méribel chalet. And so we decided to invite him, his French wife and a Dutch house guest for lunch at La Bouitte, or “little shack” in Savoy dialect.
From Méribel – or indeed any of the winter resorts in the Trois Vallées – you can reach La Bouitte on your skis. The Dutchman and our host did just that but I felt a bit rusty and preferred to drive there with the two ladies. It took about an hour along mountain roads winding up through spectacular Alpine landscape.
The setting is one reason to visit, but there is a good story too. More than 30 years ago, the Meilleur family decided to ditch their skis and turn their home into a restaurant. Ten years later, they decided to leave behind the local specialities they first served – fondues, raclettes and so on – and concentrate on creative cooking. Over time they transformed themselves into one of the region’s top tables, winning their first Michelin star in 2003 and their second in 2008. They enlarged the restaurant and opened some comfortable and cosy bedrooms.
The Meilleurs are a welcoming family and their staff are unstuffy and youngish, though they probably need to be trained and polished a bit more if La Bouitte wants a third Michelin star. (On the day we visited, our table cloth was not perfectly ironed and one of the waiters poured still water into my half-filled glass of sparkling water.)
And while some of the dishes in our “surprise” menu would easily qualify for the top gastronomic accolade, others were disappointing and one a mistake.
Let’s begin with the successful dishes. These included langoustine royale, served virtually raw (the Meilleurs recently visited Japan) on a bed of Carnaroli rice flavoured with smoked tea and grapefruit. A foie gras mousse as a mise en bouche and an inventive concoction of rhubarb water and rhubarb whipped cream served in a tulip-shaped cognac glass also worked; candied lemon from Menton stuffed with lemon cream and topped with meringue was first rate. The selection of regional cheeses was also pretty faultless.
Now for the not-so-wonderful. Our Dutch companion found his revisitation of mozzarella and tomato quite revolting to look at: under the skin of the cheese a tomato-flavoured foam had been injected so that when cut it oozed out over a pond-green jellied sauce underneath the mozzarella. All that was missing was a live frog jumping out of the cheese ball. The main course of roasted lamb was not only minimalistic – a pity because the lamb’s cuisson was excellent – but spoiled by a strange and over-pungent aubergine accompaniment.
When, nearly three hours later, it was all over and done, we left in cheerful mood – some on skis, the others by car. Everybody had gone out of the way to make us feel at home and the final bill could have been worse. Does La Bouitte deserve the three Michelin stars it is so keen to secure? Not quite yet. As they say in the mountains, the skis still need a little waxing.
Hameau de Saint Marcel, 73440 Saint-Martin-de-Belleville, France, +33 (0)4 79 08 96 77, www.la-bouitte.com. La Bouitte will open for the summer season from June 30 to September 2
Tim Hayward returns next week