In the tiny village of Bommes, in the heart of Sauternes wine country, lies Château Lafaurie-Peyraguey. Now that it has been transformed into an intimate Relais & Châteaux hotel, it’s all that France’s most knowledgeable gourmets are talking about.
Lafaurie-Peyraguey has been renowned for its wines for centuries. A Premier Cru Classé, it was the second entry on the original 1855 classification of Bordeaux wines created at the request of Emperor Napoleon III. The reason for its new allure is the restaurant Lalique, the turf of the next great French chef, Jérôme Schilling.
Declared a grand chef de demain (major chef of tomorrow) by the Gault&Millau guide in 2018, the Alsatian-born Schilling was awarded a second Michelin star in the French Michelin guide this year. He also won an M.O.F., or Meilleur Ouvrier de France award, the highest accolade the country offers to its craftsmen and -women, at the 2022 edition of this prestigious government-run competition in Grenoble.
Topping off the year during which Schilling emerged as a gastronomic talent on par with the late Joël Robuchon and Paul Bocuse, Lalique debuted on La Liste, a French-run ranking of the world’s 1,000 best restaurants, compiled by threshing some 600 different restaurant guides through a date-processing algorithm. It received a score of 92.5 out of 100.
People have been whispering to me about Lalique throughout the year, but since the proof is in le dessert, I did my own detective work and booked a dinner at Château Lafaurie-Peyraguey on a recent weekend.
Upon arrival, I was greeted by the charming general manager, Tristan Beau de Lomenie. Our first order of business was visiting the wine cellars, which included a magnificent Lalique crystal barrel filled with amber wine. Then we ran into Schilling. Wearing a tall, pleated paper toque, the 40-year-old bristled with energy but diligently presented his impressive gastronomic biography. He’s cooked in the kitchens of some of the greatest chefs in France, including Robuchon, Roger Vergé, Thierry Marx, and Jean-Georges Klein, head chef at the Villa René Lalique, the château’s sister hotel, in Alsace.
“My brief here was to create a gastronomic expression of the château wines,” he told me, a mission I puzzled over all afternoon. The château has a small production of white wine, but it is revered for rich, sweet Sauternes, which means that Schilling had a very narrow and challenging set of marching orders. Sauternes teams well with foie gras and blue cheese, but it was difficult for me to imagine what else Schilling could create while avoiding a menu that was repetitive or, worse, cloying.
The elegant, minimalist dining room was designed by Swiss architect Mario Botta, and it is decorated with Lalique crystal appliqués, including 120 leaves that are layered over the ceiling. When the first course, of scallops, arrived, I was astonished by Schilling’s trio of preparations—a carpaccio with bergamot, grilled with parsnips and cream, wrapped in a potato crust, and accompanied by white-truffle mayonnaise. It was the only course in which Sauternes did not make an appearance.
This sumptuous meal continued with hake confit in grape-seed oil, made from grapes grown on the estate, complemented by prawn tails under a veil of seawater and anise hyssop. Garnished with Sauternes-infused anise-hyssop leaves, the dish seemed entirely logical despite its intricate complexity.
Eager to please, Schilling loves to tantalize by using his steely technical talent on presentations of a single kind of produce. The highlight of the four different preparations of porcini that followed was a shudderingly good mousse of vieux Sauternes with a sauté of porcini and pecans, a rich spectrum of textures and percussive, earthy, buttery flavors.
Sauternes teams well with foie gras and blue cheese, but it was difficult for me to imagine what else Schilling could create while avoiding a menu that was repetitive or, worse, cloying.
Next up was a pair of plump, mauve pigeon breasts, which had been marinated in crushed Sauterne grape pips for two days before being roasted in a wood-burning oven fueled by grapevine roots and oak logs soaked in Sauternes. The pigeon was dried before being served with smoked beets and nectarines in a pigeon jus. Tenderized by the polyphenols in the grape pips, the meat was so tender it barely needed a knife, and the elegantly viniferous flavor of its flesh endowed it with an elegant but primal sensuality.
The meal concluded with a playfully high-spirited dessert, baba (sponge biscuit) consumed with Glenturret whiskey and accompanied by chestnut cream, smoked-chestnut ice cream, a verjus condiment made with Sauternes grapes, and a gel of whiskey.
I left the table thinking that if Schilling cooked this beautifully while adhering to Denz’s mandate, he’s really going to become one of the great chefs of France when he spreads his own wings sometime in the future.
In the meantime, I can’t wait to return to the château in the spring. Perhaps I will stay in one of the newly renovated Art Deco–inspired rooms, which opened last December after an extensive renovation. I also look forward to seeing what Schilling does with two of the most exceptional products of southwestern France, its white asparagus and the head-spinningly succulent beef from Bazas.
Alexander Lobrano is a Writer at Large for AIR MAIL. His latest book, the gastronomic coming-of-age story My Place at the Table: A Recipe for a Delicious Life in Paris, is out now