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The village of Lagrasse in the foothills of France’s Corbières mountains has long drawn visitors to its renowned abbey, which dates back to the eighth century. There are other attractions: the River Orbieu for summer swimming, the shops selling pottery and jewellery.
On the early evening when we visited recently, all the car parks were full, as were the cafés and restaurants that spilled out on to the sunny pavements. Our goal was Le Bastion, at the southern end of the main street. It brands itself avant-garde rurale, a claim that I thought could go one of two ways. Either the restaurant would be extremely exciting or utterly pretentious.
The fact that it falls firmly into the former category lies in its origins and the friendship forged more than a decade ago at a Perpignan culinary school between two then-aspiring young chefs, Fabien De Bruyn and Valentin Renaud. After both had served apprenticeships around France, De Bruyn felt the pull of Lagrasse, where he had grown up, for its proximity to so much good produce. He was also keen to establish a restaurant that would enhance the reputation of the region. Four years ago, the pair saw the space that was to become their stronghold. “It was a complete ruin then,” De Bruyn told me. “But we managed to create what you see today relatively inexpensively, for €100,000, and relatively painlessly.”
The result is a ground-floor kitchen, behind which a group of chefs work cheek by jowl, with a couple of tables opposite. All the other tables — apart from a terrace for outdoor dining — are upstairs in a high-ceilinged room, reached from the kitchen via a set of thick stone steps. I counted 25 of them. That is the only way up for every plate of food, bottle of wine or aperitif, and the only way down at the end of each service.
‘De lacamp à la mer’: veal tenderloin with foie gras butter and truffle petals
The chefs’ approach is to put a great deal of thought into each dish and to keep the choice relatively straightforward. That doesn’t mean they are simplistic, though. There is a six-course “discovery” menu, plus a three-course à la carte menu, which our party of five all chose. We were impressed by the virtuosity and creativity on offer.
The key to understanding these dishes, I realised in retrospect, is to appreciate the second half of each dish’s descriptor as much as the primary ingredient. One first course that began with Charentais melon came alive when barbecued with the addition of goat’s cheese, Sichuan pepper, some local herbs and a carrot, orange and ginger sorbet. The other first course, intriguingly named comme à Termonde (after the Belgian city where De Bruyn’s father was born and where they cook a similar dish with eel), was a colourful combination of hake, caviar and a devilled egg.
It was the quality of the principal ingredients that stood out in the main courses. The fillet of beef was first class and enhanced by melting potato gnocchi inside a crisp coating, but it was the fish dish that really impressed me. Two fillets of red mullet alongside what was described as a reinterpretation of pieds paquets, the French dish that invariably consists of inexpensive cuts of lamb. Here, a stuffed aubergine sat under the red mullet, which had been cleverly deep-fried: crisp and unctuous and best enjoyed with one’s fingers.
From the moment I saw it on the menu, I was intrigued by the meringue-based vacherin and, again, it was the engineering of this dish that added another level of excitement. There was a mountain of meringue with a base of verdant basil pesto, everything held in place from underneath by a lemon sorbet. The combination proved ingenious and delicious.
We drank as well as we ate. The surrounding Languedoc countryside offers a vast array of inexpensive, well-made wines, and from Le Bastion’s wine list we enjoyed an exciting Grenache Gris 2019 from Les Clos des Pères in La Livinière (€25) and the mature but still fresh Campagne des Centeilles Cinsault 2015 (€26), contributing not too much to a bill of €241.
Le Bastion is a restaurant I will return to happily. But next time I will choose a different season. February — when, according to De Bruyn, the game, mushrooms and truffles are unmissable — sounds about right.
50 Boulevard de la Promenade, 11220 Lagrasse, France; restaurant-bastion-lagrasse.fr
Six-course discovery menu €52
Three-course à la carte menu €34
More articles from Nicholas at ft.com/lander
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