It is surprising that Bordeaux, given its supreme reputation for great wine, is not more of a restaurant city. That is not to say that there is any lack of places to eat in the city, nor that it is difficult to dine perfectly adequately; just that, at the top end, the choice is very limited.
There is La Tupina, which has old‑world charm and a strict Bordelais menu, but not the gastronomic flair it once had – hordes of tourists each week tend to do that to a kitchen. Stick to the simple dishes; the ingredients are still impeccable.
And there are several excellent restaurants in vineyards – I’ve written before about Château Smith Haut Lafitte and Château Troplong Mondot – but just a handful of single-Michelin-starred eateries in the city itself.
One is Le Chapon Fin, an old warhorse of a restaurant with a grotto-like interior and the names of erstwhile habitués emblazoned on its walls – Sarah Bernhardt and Toulouse-Lautrec, to name but two.
The chef, Nicolas N’Guyen, is young and talented. A dish of maigre, a firm‑fleshed, silver-skinned white fish called croaker in English, expertly cooked and paired with sweet spring carrots and a saffron hollandaise, was particularly good, and the wine list, for lovers of Bordeaux, was exemplary.
The service, though, was lacklustre, and the lighting turned what could be an impossibly romantic room into a floodlit cave. It is not the first time I have thought how much better top-end French restaurants would be if their owners took some advice from the lighting designers of restaurants in London and New York; they might find it, shall we say, illuminating.
My favourite place in Bordeaux is an old‑fashioned brasserie: Le Noailles (pictured). Banquettes are suitably claret‑coloured; tablecloths and aprons are starched white; service is bow-tied, affable and professional; the food is comme il faut… and the dining rooms are beautifully lit.
I had plump, sweet oysters, a particularly flavoursome grilled sausage and onglet – hanger steak – cooked rare, with excellent frites and a sweet confit of shallots. Le Noailles also serves lamprey à la bordelaise, in which the rich flesh of this slightly sinister fish is cooked with leeks and red wine and the sauce thickened with its own blood. Order if you feel brave.
A plate of perfectly ripe cheeses, especially a small slab of Reblochon, mopped up the remains of a modestly priced but excellent Château Meillac 2010, or you might opt instead for one of the fruit-laden meringue pies, resembling mini versions of Carmen Miranda’s extravagant millinery. Le Noailles first opened in 1932: it may have been a terrible vintage for the local wines, but it was a very good year for brasseries.