The Epicurean's Atlas: Le Bois sans Feuilles
ADDRESS 728 Route de Villerest, 42155 Ouches, France
T here are few people outside of France who have heard of the Route Nationale 7 (RN7). But within France, Marie and Jean-Baptiste Troisgros’ decision in 1930 to move their cafe from Chalon-sur-Saône to take over a hotel in Roanne (the Hôtel des Platanes, opposite the train station) would have been understood as an entirely reasonable desire to be next to the RN7. Before motorways, and certainly before cheap short-haul flights, this was the best way for Parisians to travel down to the sunny south, and on their way they became hungry. It is no surprise then that when the Troisgros’ gastronomic talent was added to their excellent location the restaurant thrived, first under Marie and Jean-Baptiste, then under their sons, Jean and Pierre. What is impressive is that the third generation, Pierre’s son Michel, has maintained that reputation so that while the RN7 is defunct, overtaken by autoroutes and airlines, the Troisgros enterprise flourishes.
Pierre, who retired in 1996, was an innovator, working at Maxim’s in Tokyo and pioneering fusion techniques back home at the family restaurant before the term was invented. He and his brother Jean, who died aged just 57, were among the pioneers of nouvelle cuisine in the 1970s, all of them influenced by the legendary Fernand Point at La Pyramide, 75 miles farther south along the RN7. But this interest in foreign techniques was allied to a passion for local products – something that is de rigueur for chefs today but went against the internationalist grain back in the 1950s. The first Michelin star for Troisgros – as the restaurant was then called – came in 1956. It was in part thanks to the dish of salmon steak in sorrel sauce that became their signature. By 1968, they had the full trio of stars, and that is still the case more than 50 years later. “Inspiration often comes from a particular ingredient,” says Michel. Expertise is knowing what to do with that ingredient: “It is extremely difficult to make a significant dish with just one or two elements, but great cooking can always be recognised by its simplicity.” To which it could be added that there are many simple dishes, but few truly great cooks.
Appropriately for a restaurant that is an essential part of the story of 20th-century French haute cuisine, dishes are often witty takes on the classics: snails in saffron and mint, oysters with sorrel and buckwheat, “hide-and-seek langoustine”, spicy Challans duck with raspberries, veal sweetbreads with aubergine. Neither Michel nor his son César, who is also now in the kitchen, are afraid to use spice where warranted, and the Asian influence is still perceptible in ingredients from soy sauce to sake.
“A wine list must always have those precious, coveted nuggets, but it cannot only have those”
The wine list, too, blends classics with something to pique the interest of the most jaded connoisseur. There is first-class Côte-Rôtie (“It is not too far from here,” Sommelier Christian Vermorel points out), and rarities and back vintages from Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, Henri Jayer and Louis Carillon. “We love Burgundy, both white and red,” says Vermorel. It doesn’t hurt that Jean-François Coche-Dury and Eric Rousseau of Domaine Armand Rousseau, two of the region’s most admired producers, are good friends of Michel and his wife Marie-Pierre. But there are also interesting bottles ranging from less highly regarded regions of France – the Côtes Catalanes, the nearby barely known Côtes d’Auvergne – to an array of sakes. “A wine list must always have those precious, coveted nuggets,” said Jean-Jacques Banchet, the long-serving Head Sommelier who retired in 2015. “But it cannot only have those.” His successor, Vermorel, has followed the same principle.
By 2017, when Michel moved the restaurant – now named Le Bois sans Feuilles (“the wood without leaves”) – from Roanne to Ouches, just a few miles away, it was no longer said that Troisgros was opposite the station but that the station was opposite Troisgros. In Ouches, instead of a cramped townhouse, the establishment occupies an ivy-covered farmhouse that is now a 15-bedroom Relais & Châteaux hotel, surrounded by meadows, woods and even a vineyard. Their presence in Roanne is maintained by Le Central, one of several offshoots that include a nearby casual bistro opened by César’s brother Léo and an outpost in a Tokyo hotel.
In Ouches there is room to breathe for guests and chefs alike. The kitchen garden – more than a garden, with its cherry, fig, medlar and quince trees – supplies the table, and the ambiance inspires the cooks. Just as the restaurant now encircles a centenarian oak tree, the Troisgros family has embraced its destiny, to act as a link to Michelin’s most glorious era while leading the way into France’s culinary future.
The journey south has changed beyond recognition, but the restaurant maintains its glory: after all this is, as the Michelin triple-star rating has it, a restaurant qui vaut le voyage – one worth the journey, however you choose to travel.
Photos courtesy of La Maison Troisgros, Claire Dolmaire, Felix Ledru