STOMPING IN WITH snow-covered ski boots isn’t the normal way to arrive for a Michelin-starred lunch. But then La Bouitte is no ordinary restaurant. Situated in the tiny hamlet of Saint Marcel on the edge of the giant Trois Vallee skiing area, it is the highest three star Michelin restaurant in Europe and one of the most remote. In winter you can arrive by road but most people ski; c'est une expérience unique.
At weekends the restaurant is booked up months in advance - father and son Chefs René and Maxime Meulliers
are justly famous - but we are lucky enough to have squeezed in for a mid-week sitting. It’s a bright, crisp morning when we set off from Val Thorens ski resort, the runs glisten like frosted sugar and the off-piste snow is a fluffy as Chef Meuillers’ meringue.
The worse part of our journey is actually when we get into the village of Saint Marcel, it is such a tiny sleepy place that the back-roads are icy and we nearly slip right into another couple who are side-stepping down the ice in skis. It turns out they are lunching at the starry establishment too. Who else comes to this tiny village in mid-Winter?
Our fellow guests are a well-heeled bunch; including an American couple in Bognor ski gear, an elegant Frenchman in black with horn-rimmed glasses (who has to be a restaurant critic) and two Blonde, coiffeured dames (one with a little Chihuahua in her designer handbag).
We sit on the sunny deck under the clearest blue sky sipping champagne and enjoying Gillardeau oyster and yuzu pearl appetisers. From here we can see over the snow-laden rooftops to the mountains beyond. This village has been home to the Meilleurs family since the 1970s when they purchased a potato field to build La bouitte, which means ‘little house’ in the local Savoie dialect. When they first opened René and his wife, Marie-Louise, served fondue and raclette to passing skiers but after a visit to the late Paul Bocuse’s restaurant near Lyon, René had what he calls a “culinary epiphany” and the most extraordinary gourmet experience in the Alps was born. Self-taught Rene transformed the humble fare into gastronomic genius. The addition of his son Maxime (who gave up competitive skiing to turn chef) completed the transformation.
So just how good do you have to be to have the world ski to your door in a tiny village 1500 metres up in the mountains –the answer is- very!
The food created by this father and son team is without doubt some of the best I have ever tasted (and Michelin-starred restaurants are a The Luxury Travel Bible speciality). Each course is a treat for the eye as well as the tastebuds. This is a delicate, fresh cuisine which plays with texture and flavour in an entirely unexpected and delicious way. Local produce is transformed into something new and innovative without losing its essence. Roasted jerky duck, Fera fish with puntarelle, pigeon stew on toast are all magiked up with matched wines. A pre-dessert mulled wine with frozen prune foam makes way for one of the specialities of the house, milk in all its forms: meringue,sorbet ,jam. By the end of the meal I am having my own “eating epiphany”.
However the experience is about more than just the food, despite the accolades and the global-acclaim this is still a family restaurant. We feel as if we have been invited to dine in someone’s house (all be it a very elegant one). There is a kitchen dresser filled with pottery on one wall and staff in Savoie costume explain dishes with friendly charm.
We head back to the sunny terrace where our coffee is accompanied by a treasure box of melt-in-the mouth biscurions filled with pistachio crème or raspberry comfit. Our favourite,‘Gisele orange blossom,’ is named after René’s mother.
La Bouitte also encompasses a boutique hotel with cosy, wooden-panelled rooms. After such a magnificent meal we are very tempted to check-in but, not surprisingly, the Relais & Chateaux hotel has no space. So we take the complimentary local shuttle back to Val Thorens.
Hilary Doling 9/3/18