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Auberge du Vieux Puits | Fontjoncouse | Jun ’14 | “perfect masterpieces”

10 Jul
  • Rating: 20/20
  • Address: 5 Avenue Saint-Victor, 11360 Fontjoncouse, France
  • Phone: +33 4 68 44 07 37
  • Price (after tax + tip, wine and champange): €190 ($258 at 1 EUR = 1.36 USD)
  • Course Progression: 4 amuse – 5 main – 1 cheese – 1 dessert – 3 mignardises
  • Value: 5/5
  • Dining Time: 180 minutes
  • Chef: Gilles Goujon
  • Style: Creative
  • Michelin Stars: 3

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The hour-long drive from Carcassonne to Fontjoncouse passed through a number of rural villages, many the colour of light sand. Dwindling in population as we got further and further from the highway, and each successive village seemed increasingly unlikely to contain gastronomic temples. Finally we were confronted with a short 15 minute segment up a windy and secluded mountain path, and arrived in the smallest town of them all – Fontjoncouse (population: 131 [2008]). But as we approached the scenery changed. A multinational crew, hallmark of a Michelin starred restaurant, was preparing for lunch service.

And in this remote corner of France, I had a fine-dining meal, where for the first time, I thought every course was perfect (i.e. 5/5). In fact, in a trip that featured so many memorable meals, L’Auberge du Vieux Puits (Inn of Old Wells) stuck out as one of the most memorable. I would rate it as my favorite meal this France trip, out of a galaxy of multiple-Michelin-starred restaurants we tried (L’Arpege, L’Ambroisie, Ledoyen, Le Parc Franc Putelat).

A comment on Gilles Goujon’s working method: Chef Gilles Goujon chooses to focus on a few dishes at a time, and each of dishes represent a single idea developed to a very high level. And the fruits of his labour are his perfect masterpieces.

Gastronomically, the sauces here are some of the most intense sauces I’ve ever tried – there is no concession to modernity or corner-cutting in the preparation of these fantastic sauces. Many of the dishes evoke rustic French and Catalan cooking, and the flavors are clear and shine through with intensity. Most chefs would be happy with creating some of the most delicious dishes known to the diner. But Gilles Goujon has presentation strategies that elevate these dishes to an even higher level. His tools are elaborate sugarwork (a pearl containing smoke, polished to lustre; fake-cherries and fake-lemons for dessert; a crystallised courgette flower to evoke a Mediterranean salad), and interactivity: few dishes are served “complete” straight from the kitchen to the diner’s table – instead, the diner has to either take part in serving the meal, or witness the finishing of the dish before his/her eyes. I smashed a pearl with a hammer to release its smoke, and cut open an egg to reveal its “rotten” truffle puree core. I watched as a spoon of saffron cream was dissolved by the pouring of a bullinada fish stew, and witnessed cream being poured into a vol-au-vent. The diner does not just tuck into the dish with forks and spoons, we are active witnesses to the dish being finished, participants to a theatrical show. One feels here a playfulness and sense of mischief.

The Auberge du Vieux Puits is a rare place: most restaurants are skilled at extracting flavors, but presentation is secondary. What I mean by secondary is not that the presentation is not wonderful, but that the presentation technique in non-essential. For example, in my post on Ledoyen, I posted a video of Le Squer making his turbot dish for home-viewers. At the end, his “zebra” truffle stripes are dispensed with, since they are just ostentatious ornamentations; Le Squer merely spoons some mashed truffle over the finished turbot. At Auberge du Vieux Puits, in the best dishes like the “rotten egg” dish, the temporal element of presentation is all-important. We are meant to feel the surprise of seeing rotten egg come out the egg. In the oyster dish, we are meant to see the pearl in all its glory, but the “finished” presentation is a cracked pearl. The “bullinada” being poured into the spoon; yields a “finished” presentation that will look messy, but half the fun and excitement is seeing it being poured.

(Another type of restaurant has dishes with good presentation, but poor flavor. Pete Wells, the NYTimes critic, recently wrote a good critical piece on this phenomenon)

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As a last comment, I think that the chef is one of the bravest in France. It takes a certain kind of bravery, perhaps even foolhardiness, to open a restaurant in the middle of mountainous nowhere. For 5 years from 1992-97, the Auberge saw little business, and was forced to throw out almost all of its purchased produce, since Chef Goujon did not believe in serving frozen food.

There seem to be four sources of information for Gilles Goujon’s career, two Slate articles written by Nicolas de Rabaudy on chef Goujon’s backstory ( [2013]) and ( [2009]), a Quora post by Julien Vache on the promotion of Chef Goujon to three Michelin stars, and finally a French Wikipedia article also fills in on some other details (without attribution though) such as his motivation for becoming an MOF (to bring more publicity to this remote restaurant).

I won’t belabor the biography, but in short order: Gilles Goujon trained as a chef under Roger Verge at the Moulin de Mougins, and then Gerald Passedat at Le Petit Nice. At 30, he decided to take on a failed village hostel called Auberge du Vieux Puits for the equivalent of 34,000 Euros. The mayor of Fontjoncouse had believed that the only way to attract visitors to his sleepy village was to create a destination restaurant. For 5 years, Goujon and his wife Marie-Christine had almost no customers, since the Auberge was situated in a remote corner of France. Since he did not believe in serving frozen food, he would throw out a lot of fresh produce, and by his own admission, was despairing of the situation. To create a higher profile for the restaurant, he trained and won MOF honours for himself in 1996. The restaurant began to attract a local clientele from Narbonne, Carcassonne and Montpelier, drawn by both Goujon’s growing reputation and his very reasonable prices (15-25 Euro set menus). In 1997, he was awarded a first Michelin star,  increasing customers by 35%. In 2001, he was awarded a second star, increasing customers by another 53%. A misstep in 2008, chronicled by Julien Vache, temporarily delayed his ascension to three-star ranks. But in 2009 (for the 2010 guide), he was notified that he would be awarded three Michelin stars.

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  • Amuse bouche (5/5)
    • White shell, liquid truffle ball. (5/5) An intense burst of truffle flavor. Liquid truffle is one of the great truffle preparations of the world, especially when bitten into, a la bonbon.
    • Snail and garlic in choux-pastry (4.75/5)
    • Goat cheese millefeuille (4.5/5)
    • Tartlet of carrot and cumin (5/5)
    • All of them had well-developed, well thought-out flavors.

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butters: beetroot + pink pepper, seaweed + oyster jus, Espelette pepper

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  • Gillardeau Oyster, Seawater Jelly, Sugar Pearl Containing Smoke, and Cream of Chives (5/5)
    • “With a hammer, please smash the pearl”. A waft of intense wood-smoke arose.
    • First class sugar work, a pearl which was very lifelike.
    • A piece of art, evoking joy of discovery of the unexpected. The pearl was the first surprise, the interactive smashing and presentation of the smoke the second second surprise. By subverting expectations twice, once on serving the dish to the table (with sugar pearl), and once on interacting with the dish (by smashing said pearl), Chef Goujon created a masterpiece.
    • Texturally, the uniform texture of jelly and the diverse textures of meaty Gillardeau oyster, gave it a great contrast of textures. Superb in presentation and conception

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  • En hommage à Roger Vergé. <<Le Poupeton>> fleur de courgette chrystal farcie d’un sorbet tomate basilic, marinade catalane aux anchois de l’Escala et huile d’olive maturées (5/5)
    • A crystallised courgette flower, with tomato basil sorbet in the center atop a Catalan marinade with anchovies and mature olive oil.
    • The first thing about the dish, is that it feels conceived first with the Catalan marinade of Mediterranean ingredients – chopped tomatoes, courgettes, red pepper, and black olive – in a “tartare”.
    • But that is not the first sensation to hit the mouth. It is the cold of the tomato-basil sorbet, which shone with tomato flavor. The sweetness and the cold, mixed with the “tartare” of various ingredients, became a delightful taste of a cold Mediterranean salad, with the coldness taken literally.
    • Aesthetically, this was crowned with a crystallised courgette flower (which was amazing to behold), and overlapping slices of courgette. This symbolised the delight I feel when seeing great flowers, each flower telling of the beautiful qualities of the land. The terroir here was the Mediterranean. In presentation and taste, this dish was inspired in conception and perfect in execution.

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  • L’oeuf poule Carrus <<pourri>> de truffe mélanosporum sur une purée de champignons, briochine tiède et cappuccino à boire, une râpée de truffe tuber aestivum (5/5)
    • The signature “rotten egg” dish of the restaurant. A complicated dance of steps. First an egg is presented on top of mashed mushrooms.
    • Then to the side, a dish of truffle milkshake and truffle brioche is served. It will remain there.
    • Back to the main dish, with the fork, one splits the egg open, to reveal a filling of a thick, opaque, black truffle sauce. The egg has gone bad!
    • A sabayon is poured over the split rotten egg.
    • And the pièce de résistance: truffle (summer truffle) is shaved over the plate, which has been filled with the dried grass that lines chicken nests.
    • The aesthetics of the dish are impeccable. The plate evoked a nest in which the rotten egg was found. In the center, a piece of interactive art. Splitting the egg, the pungent smell of truffle (I can only imagine how it will taste in black truffle season) was of a piece with the pungent smell of rotten egg. The yellow sabayon brought colour of the “yolk” halfway back to normality, symbolising a resuscitation of the dish. The dish evoked a rustic French farmhouse. The discovery of a rotten egg is usually an unqualified “bad thing” to happen, but Chef Goujon has given us happy memories of a delicious rotten egg, in his own way revaluing this “bad thing”, and has made a jewel of a common event in rural farm life.
    • Gastronomically, this dish was perfectly conceived. The egg was delicious, and the accompanying truffle milkshake and truffle brioche were infused with strong fungal flavors. Mushrooms and egg; two of the most common ingredients: but in the hands of a master chef like Goujon, they are transmuted into the highest art.

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  • Filet de rouget barbet, pomme bonne bouche fourrée d’une brandade à la cébette en “bullinada”, écume de rouille au safran (5/5)
    • With a saffron mousse on a spoon, mounted above the plate, a Catalan fish stew – the “bullinada” is poured in a concentrated stream onto the saffron mousse, filling the plate with one of the most complex fish stews, a hint of sour, tangy, fragrant, and submerging the mussels, onions, peppers, and potato stuffed with red mullet puree with the stew.
    • The red mullet was perfectly done. Soft and seared perfectly. I had taken a bouillabaisse eating tour of Marseille two years earlier, but was left disappointed by the quality of fish stew on offer. I could not believe what I was eating. This was by quite some distance, the best fish stew I had ever eaten, a true celebration of the Mediterranean terroir. I had found what I had not found in portside Marseille, in a inland mountain village two years later.
    • Most of the dishes I had eaten so far evoked a sense of place: The rotten egg, a French farmhouse; The courgette flower, the Mediterranean salad; this dish, the treasures of the Mediterranean sea; The oyster was the only one which seemed to come from a particularly fertile corner of Chef Goujon’s mind, a creation all of his own.

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  • Filet de Saint-Pierre contisé à la truffe mélanosporum, oreille de cochon et artichaut rôtis au jus de volaille, réduction acide-amer de Noilly
    • I did not have this dish: but it was a John Dory, stuffed with black truffle, with roasted aritchoke, and a darkly rich chicken jus. “Pork herb”.

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  • Vol au vent d’autan <<contemporain>> comme une capitelle aux morilles, crêtes de coq, rognons de lapin et sol l’y laisse, réduction de rancio sec crémée (5/5)
    • A vol-au-vent is typically a hollow puff pastry, but here Chef Goujon chose to represent the hollowness by putting four sides of puff pastry around a mound of morels, topped with a mushroom foam. To the side, local Musseron mushrooms from the Aude region, rabbit kidney, sweetbreads.
    • A thick cream was poured in the middle of the vol-au-vent, suppressing some of the mushroom foam, mixing with it, and seeping out from under the construction to mix with the savory offal ingredients. I was left licking the cream sauce after this dish was done.
    • Superb: again, multiple innovations in this dish: vol-au-vent as 4 sheets of pastry vertically stacked together with foam within, pouring the sauce downward to mix with the foam for interactivity (notice that the puff pastry sheets had minimal contact with the sauce, minimising sogginess), and coating the offal and mushrooms. Tremendous. A genius at work.

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  • Chariot de fromages, affinés surtout des Corbières… mais aussi d’ailleurs (5/5)
    • One of the most comprehensive cheesecarts I have ever seen; overwhelming almost in its comprehensiveness of Aude cheese. I had a number of first rate cheeses from this cart, though my transcription of the names is admitted spotty. If anyone can read the descriptions better than I can, please let me know.
    • From left to right: (Cow) Bleu de Driola [sic] (5/5, sweet and tangy) ; (Cow) Laguiole 18 months (5/5); (Sheep) Le Claoosoo [sic] Fromagerie Hyelzas (5/5); (Goat) Crottin (3.25/5); (Cow) Bamalou; (Goat) Cendrie Feume la Balneutier [sic]; [Goat] Crottin. (5/5)
    • Local cherry jam


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  • Faux citron de Menton délicatement cassant, sorbet citrus bergamote et kumquat du Japon du Mas Bachès, crème thym citron, sablé fleur de sel (5/5)

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  • Salut vielle branche: de genévrier, poires confites en chutney, fruits du mendiant et crème de baies de genièvre (5/5)

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  • Fausse cerise finement cassante, sorbet noyau, tiramisu mascarpone à la pistache sur un clafoutis sablé et jus de mélasse à la verveine (5/5)
    • Three desserts, all in the theme of evoking the original ingredient. A false Menton lemon, with bergamot sorbet, kumquat and cream with thyme and citrus, was indistinguishable from the real article for a split second when it was first presented.
    • Then, a cherry with tiramisu mascarpone, cherry compote, and shortbread platform.
    • Then, a chocolate branch, with juniper cream, and pear chutney. By its side, a tall glass of fruit sorbet.
    • All of these desserts were hugely imaginative, and delights to eat and behold.

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  • Les mignardises du Vieux Puits (5/5)
    • Chocolate caramel; orange chocolate
    • Lime basil macaron
    • Rhubarb tart with strawberry mousse