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Belmond Afloat Takes You From One Michelin Star to Another

A cruise down the Saône river to visit Michelin-starred restaurants was just what the doctor ordered.

TRAVEL WAS A NECESSITY FOR ME PRE-PANDEMIC. But having toured more than 130 countries, I decided that any future trip must be ultra-special. I had signed on, just before Covid grounded travel, for the Belmond Afloat epicurean barge cruise — billed as “12-star,” referring to the total number of Michelin stars that passengers will accumulate as they dine through Burgundy. The trip was put on hold until this summer. And when we finally got the green light, nothing was going to stop me from hopping on a plane.

Belmond, a ne plus ultra luxury travel and accommodations company, operates famous hotels such as the Cipriani in Venice and the five-star Venice Simplon- Orient-Express train. It was acquired in April 2019 by LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton. Our six-day cruise aboard the 129-foot Napoléon took us down the Saône river from Saint-Jean-de-Losne to Lyons. The boat holds 12 guests, but the Americans canceled due to the pandemic. So, it was just me, my husband, Bill, and one other Canadian couple.

We stopped for our first lunch at the two-Michelin-starred La Côte Saint- Jacques in Joigny, which lost a star in 2000, won it back, and then lost it again in 2015. My experience was every bit as exquisite as when I had dined there many years ago. Chef Jean-Michel Lorain was still at the helm and he came out to chat. (Did his smile tense a bit when I brought up Michelin?) A dish called “floating island” is Kristal caviar balanced on egg-white foam set on black-garlic jelly covered with horseradish cream. Equally artful were the chanterelles, sea asparagus, and flowers scattered atop brill sitting on almond velouté — a beautifully composed dish accompanied by foamed meunière sauce and fresh, puréed fava beans. Among many brilliant wine pairings — the Maranges Premier Cru Clos Roussots 2017, perfectly embraced Charolais beef in a Burgundy cassis sauce.

We alit from our barge the next day, at Seurre, and drove to Chagny-en- Bourgogne for lunch at the three-starred Maison Lameloise. Under Éric Pras, who replaced Jacques Lameloise in 2008 as head chef, the cuisine is precise and delicate. But the timing wasn’t so precise, as our four-hour lunch had long pauses. My favourite course was the sweetbread in a quinoa crust with coco beans, caramelized Florence onions, and elderberry juice — crunchy on the outside, soft and pillowy inside. The Domaine des Terres de Velle Volnay Premier Cru Le Ronceret 2016 was showing so well that I kept asking for more, messing up the sommelier’s careful pairings.

The next day, we toured the fabled Hôtel-Dieu in Beaune. We dined that night on the terrace at the one-star L’Amaryllis, a charmingly transformed 19th-century flour mill that chef Cédric Burtin purchased in 2010. We sipped on Louis Roederer Brut Rosé Champagne, popping the préambules and amuse-bouches into our mouths — a fresh herb tartlette, crunchy deep-fried snail, all morsels of delight with the bubbly. Chef Burtin’s signature (and most popular) dish was a wow — hunks of seared foie gras in a warm foie-gras emulsion with basil-vinegar and onion.

Service at our next stop, the one-star Aux Terrasses, was a bit of a letdown. But not the food. Chef Jean-Michel Carrette’s style was daring and delicious. His philosophy translated loosely, was “You are here. Go with the flow.” Our feast included foie gras with flower petals and slivers of cauliflower, trout on drenched green beans capped with caper leaves, and a most perfectly cooked (i.e., rare) pigeon. My favourite wine match was the langoustines with Domaine Pignier Côtes du Jura Cellier des Chartreux 2017, a Jura Chardonnay aged underneath a veil of yeast.

The three-star Georges Blanc restaurant in Vonnas should have been stellar. Chef Georges Blanc has created a Village Blanc for the gourmand, replete with hotels, a bakery, and a chocolate maker. His son Frédéric is now an executive chef. The 310-euro menu was an extravaganza with only one standout dish: a generous helping of Osetra caviar on a crabmeat base with fennel sauce.

The gastronomic highlight was Paul Bocuse in Collonges-au-Mont-d’Or. The restaurant lost one of its three stars in 2020 after 55 years, and famous French chefs have derided this as controversial, even scandalous. Others say the restaurant was in a time warp with a menu unchanged since 1972. Bocuse died in 2018 and Gilles Reinhardt has been executive chef since 2010, unwilling to remove some iconic dishes. Bresse chicken en vessie à la mère fillioux is cooked in a pig’s bladder along with truffles, white wine, and foie gras — all poaching together and intensifying flavours. Decades ago, when I was a university student in Aix-en- Provence, I ate here but couldn’t afford the fancier dishes. The Bresse chicken was worth every bite.

This was service at its very best. After our amuse came foie gras terrine; lobster in an iced lemongrass bouillon with Tradition Elite caviar; and grilled sole dressed in Hollandaise — all beautifully presented. The Cuilleron Condrieu 2019 paired wonderfully with the foie gras and fish, as did the Bernard Burgaud Côte- Rôtie 2016 with the meats. For the finale, with desserts and chocolates, the restaurant’s fabled mechanical organ played to celebrate a birthday at our table.

Upon our return, my husband and I had no desire for fine dining. We ate salads for days. But then the old hunger returned — as it inevitably does — for the culinary creations of talented chefs and the wonderfully opulent experience of premium restaurants.

 

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By Margaret Swaine


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