The Hedonist: French Alps
What to see and where to be seen
Saturday 12 February 2011
When they told me the food at La Bouitte (00 33 4 79 08 96 77;
la-bouitte.com) was fit for a king, I thought it was an exaggeration. Then I looked in the guest book. There, in his own hand, was an endorsement of a fine night out penned by Juan Carlos I of Spain, one of the many heads of state and VIP nobility drawn by the two Michelin stars of this restaurant in the village of Saint-Marcel in Les Trois Vallées. It helps to have access to a king's counting house if you want to explore the wine list in full: there are bottles priced at €1,700, or glasses of something cheeky at €90.
There's nothing like a busy day out on skis to whet your appetite for a good night out, which in my mind comprises good food, good drink and good company. Having enjoyed a sharpener in the bar at Hotel Kaya (00 33 4 79 41 42 00; hotel-kaya.com) in Les Menuires, where we had earlier polished off a sumptuous lunch, a 10-minute taxi ride down the mountain took our group of eight to La Bouitte.
Michelin stars are hard to find in Les Trois Vallées, and when we were dropped off outside what looked like a life-sized doll's house draped with twinkling lights I wondered if there had been a mistake. However, once I'd settled into my dining chair and read the menu, my mind was put at rest. The prices were reassuringly high and the choices eclectic; I could certainly see why La Bouitte attracted VIPs such as former Formula One boss and ski enthusiast Eddie Jordan, first lady of France Carla Bruni and our own Duke of Kent.
Indeed, this was the place to come for the finer things in life. What the attraction was for Margaret Thatcher, who turned up the summer before last with two bodyguards in tow, I could not quite fathom. Paying out nearly €200 for one of the set menus would surely not have sat comfortably with her corner-shop economics.
We were sitting comfortably, though, sipping a light and dry 2005 Chignin while waiting for the first of our starters to arrive. You don't get two Michelin stars without being serious about your food – and the father-and-son team of René and Maxime Meilleur are nothing if not serious about food.
Our first starter – a platter of glasses containing a choice of different appetisers – was served with strict instructions in which order to eat them in for maximum taste. I wonder if ski champion Bode Miller did the same when he dropped in? Nevertheless, we ate as we were told, starting with the circular French fries speared on sawn-off kebab sticks suspended over a glass of mango fricassée and mayonnaise (as my dining companion pointed out, square chips simply would not have been the same).
Wine waiter Aurora kept us generously topped up with the Chignin while we waited for the official starter to arrive from the kitchen. Inevitably, the murmur around the table turned into a hubbub. I have stayed in hotels where the bathroom sinks are smaller than the bowls our next course came in. The minced trout served on diced vegetables and topped with a poached egg was quickly polished off and more wine duly taken on board.
Mesdames Chirac and Giscard d'Estaing probably have tastes honed over the state banqueting table and may well have overlooked our next course when they visited. Saddle of rabbit is not something you see on too many British menus, but the French are a little less dewy-eyed about what they eat than we are. Put rabbit on a British menu and we think Beatrix Potter; the French simply scan the menu for a complementary sauce. After a few substantial swigs on a 2007 Vin de Savoie Anbin Mondeuse, there were still three courses to go, one of which was a pre-desert selection which included a splendidly tasty sorbet flavoured with lemon and thyme. After a soufflé to finish, it was time for coffee and to reflect on what to do next.
Les Menuires isn't exactly rammed with nightlife, but what it lacks in quantity it makes up for in quality. Le Kube piano bar (00 33 4 79 00 65 10), which is new for this season in Les Menuires, is fine for a quiet drink. But for something livelier, we were told that it has to be Le Leeberty (00 33 4 79 00 68 49). This was also handy, because it was the only place anywhere near our hotel.
You have to find it first – stairs disappear into the darkness behind a door tucked away in the corner of the shopping centre – and when you get there it's loud. We were about six hours late for happy hour, although that didn't matter too much, as the prices cheered us up. A late-night cocktail for €5 and a medium-sized beer at €3.50 is around as good as it gets in the French Alps.
Even Clare, the only smoker in our little group, was happy as Le Leeberty has a fumoir – a smoking room – which avoids the need to puff away in a shopping arcade corridor at two in the morning. Had we the energy, we could have stayed until 4am. But hedonism can only go so far after a day's hard skiing. Liberally dosed with sambuca tots and vodka shots, we were ready for bed by three.
A Hedonist's Guide to... (Hg2) is a luxury city guide series for the more decadent traveller. For more information, see hg2.com
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