This is a version of an article also published by the Financial Times.
Over a recent dinner in the private room of Roux at The Landau in the Langham Hilton hotel, London, the lady sitting on my left opened our conversation with perhaps the most difficult question of all for a professional restaurant reviewer. What, she wanted to know, constitutes a three-star restaurant according to Michelin?
Putting to one side the obvious response, that perhaps this question would be better addressed to Michel Roux Jr, who was sitting directly opposite her and is the proprietor of the two-star Michelin restaurant Le Gavroche, I asked for 30 seconds to collate my thoughts.
The answers I then gave lay as much in the location of the restaurant as in what is on offer via its menu and wine list. Those who have managed to reach this elevated status in England certainly operate in particularly desirable quarters: Heston Blumenthal at The Fat Duck, once a 16th-century pub, less than a mile from Alain Roux at The Waterside Inn on the banks of the Thames in Bray, while the team under Alain Ducasse has the comfort of The Dorchester Hotel and Clare Smyth cooks so appealingly at the much smaller Gordon Ramsay restaurant in London’s Chelsea.
Later on, when it was my turn to speak more widely, I picked up on this question and mentioned my dinner the previous week at Troisgros, in Roanne, south-east France. This restaurant has held three Michelin stars since 1968 and has been the home of the Troisgros family since the 1930s.
An over-abundance of staff and amuses-bouches seem principal ingredients on the evidence of a recent Saturday night dinner in the company of the Roannaise friends. There were half a dozen smartly dressed managers by the front door; welcoming glasses of a 2010 Pouilly-Fuissé in the bar; as well as a succession of inventive appetisers, most notably a spoon containing a slice of Granny Smith apple overlaid with grated mint.
Once we had decided to eat à la carte, we were whisked off to the dining room where, owing to the demands of the upmarket marketing company Relais & Châteaux on its members, they have to change their linen every year (proceeds from the sale go to a village in Mali). There we could enjoy the new swivel chairs; the fact that nothing was laid up on the tables in front of us; and that, tellingly, different shaped tumblers were used for still and sparkling waters.
We began with two very different tastes. The more earthy, a dozen frogs’ legs, crisp on the outside, with a strong hint of tamarind and acidity, a key ingredient in Michel Troisgros’ cooking, and a much gentler dish of home-made pasta – plins – filled with Parmesan and covered in grated white truffles. Then two main courses, described and delivered extraordinarily: scallops covered with wafers of ‘toffee’, which fully justified their description that they will ‘stick to your teeth’, and an effilochage of hare which involved some of the meat, frayed, having been cooked extremely gently alongside a piece of the same animal served rare with cubes of diced quince and pear. I could not do justice to the second serving of the meat, this time with a salad. With these we drank a Bernard Moreau Chassagne Morgeot 2010 and a 2005 Syrah Léone from cult Languedoc producer Peyre Rose.
Our desserts and petits fours followed the same pattern. Simple, strong flavours that were given an inspired twist but whose shape – for example, a mille-feuille of chocolate with pear – was sensible. The cooking here is quite remarkably assured, always evolving to keep up with global trends and, given the benefit of such long-standing custodianship by one family, with a generous attitude to pricing. Troisgros’ nine-course tasting menu is 230 euros.
Whether this relatively keen pricing will still be the case from March 2017 is anybody’s guess. Ruffling the feathers of the French gastronomic establishment, it is set to move, voluntarily and out of Roanne, breaking the physical ties with its bistro, Le Central, which will stay in its prime position opposite the railway station.
A few hours before our dinner, Michel and Marie-Pierre Troisgros had proudly showed us round the building site near the village of Ouches outside Roanne that will house their new restaurant and hotel.
On the right is the former home of a successful local who made machines for Roanne’s textile industry, surrounded by extensive grounds, gardens and a lake full of fish (being inspected by Michel Troisgros, in red, above). It is currently home to a large crane and, as Marie-Pierre Troisgros couldn’t help but exclaim, ‘109 different windows, all of which will need cleaning’. This leads me to believe that prices may have to rise just a little.
But the higher prices will come with extra luxury. The ultra-modern dining room, as yet unbuilt, will surround a large tree (visible both in the photograph above and the model below), and still seat 60, the same number as currently; there will be 15 bedrooms, a couple more than is the case today; and, most importantly, the kitchen will be as close to the restaurant, all of this designed by architect Patrick Bouchain, as it is today.
Whether all this is being planned for her future guests to enjoy or for her two sons, César, already cooking alongside his father, and Léo, just finishing at the Institut Paul Bocuse in Lyons, to manage, is unclear. Whatever the ultimate reasons, Troisgros in its new location will justify a return visit.
Maison Troisgros Place de la Gare, 42300 Roanne, France tel +33 4 77 71 66 97