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Bras: The Chef Who Is Awarded Hats, Stars

August 16, 1987|DAVID SHAW | Times Staff Writer

LAGUIOLE, France — Every few years, it seems, a new star streaks across the French culinary firmament. He--or, on rare occasion, she--is suddenly spoken of in hushed but excited tones by the cognoscenti as the "next great chef."

Gastronomes, critics and tourists scurry to the master's dining room from all corners of the globe, eager to be among the first to sample his newest and most daring creations.

For the past two or three years, Michel Bras has been the name thus bruited about.

Last year the Gault Millau Guide France awarded him four toques (chef's hats)--the maximum possible--and named him one of four "chefs of the year."

This year the venerable Guide Michelin gave Bras his second star, its second-highest award, one star short of Mt. Olympus.

But scurrying to Michel Bras' restaurant is not so easy. It's in the small town of Laguiole (population 1,235) in the Auvergne region of southern France, about midway between Lyon and Toulouse, 350 miles directly south of Paris. The nearest cities of any consequence are Rodez (population 26,346), 35 miles away, and Aurillac (population 33,197), about 50 miles away. The nearest major city, Clermont-Ferrand (population 151,092), is 105 miles away.

Cheese-Aging Cave

Bras' restaurant is called Lou Mazuc, after the man who owned it when it was a cheese-aging cave. That cave now is the main dining room, a vaulted stone building that is easily the most attractive room in the Alpine-style structure. (The restaurant also has 13 guest rooms for overnight visitors.)

The town of Laguiole is known primarily for its cutlery and, in winter, its busy ski slopes. But Lou Mazuc is closed during the winter months, and the primary attractions when it's open--from April 1 to Oct. 18--are the beautiful nearby Gorges de la Truyere and Gorges du Lot and the charming medieval town of Conques, about 40 miles away. For the bucolic at heart, there are also thousands of cows grazing in the surrounding pasture land.

Bras' extraordinary food is worth the trip all by itself, though. (After all, Michelin's definition of its two-star award is merite un detour , "worth a detour.")

Bras makes full use of local herbs, flowers, fruits and vegetables in his cuisine--so much so that he provides diners with a book listing and describing all of them so people will know exactly what they're eating.

Most of Bras' ingredients are exotic. He makes sorbets, for example, from quince, myrrh, violets, orange flower essence, cardamom, clove, even celery--and uses a wide range of other wildflowers, herbs and plants, some I'd never heard of: pourpiers, bourrache, sarriette, amaranthe, arroche, fleur de serpolet , bayam, pimpernelle .

Wild mushrooms are indigenous to the area, and Bras has a whole section of his menu devoted to them: pigeon stuffed with young leeks, leaves of amaranthe and one kind of mushroom ( gyromitres ); a tarte with nuts and another kind of mushroom ( cepes ); lambs' brains pan-fried with shallots; leaves of arroche and yet another kind of mushroom ( girolle ).

We especially liked his thick cut of local beef, pan fried with butter, Swiss chard and the small, delicate variety of wild mushroom known as mousserons .

On the palate, Bras' cuisine is much simpler than it sounds, with clear, distinctive flavors, no heavy sauces, and it's far less rich than almost any other food we encountered in two weeks of dining in France.

He makes a wonderful gargouillou (cake) of young vegetables--whole baby vegetables, stacked on top of each other on the plate--and he also makes splendid terrines (one of crab, courgettes and basil, another of rabbit, garlic and pourpiers ).

We also enjoyed his roast lamb with sorrel, goat's milk cheese and baby turnips, as well as his salmon specialty, a most unusual triple-decker "sandwich" of pieces of salmon, leeks and an onion confit (preserve), served between layers of thin, crisp, surprisingly tasty lard.

Bras' desserts were the best part of the dinner. He has a separate menu listing all 19 of them, including several that exemplify his zest for unexpected combinations: a parfait with shavings of citrus fruit skins, preserved leeks and a coulis (sauce) of orange and cinnamon; a cake made with walnuts and chicory in a coffee coulis , and a cold mousse of lemon and gentiane in a cassis coulis .

My favorite dessert had no vegetables or flowers in it but it didn't need any. It was a warm biscuit, oozing a thick, hot, indescribably delicious blend of liquid chocolate, coffee, vanilla and walnut butter.

Prices are stunningly high throughout France this year--much higher than even the diminished value of the dollar would seem to warrant. But Bras' prices, while not exactly bargain basement, were considerably lower than at any other quality restaurant where we dined. He has a fixed-price, five-course menu at $37 per person and a fixed-price, seven-course menu at $55.

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