Bordeaux: City of Earthly Delights

Sometimes you just have to eat the cake, or open that bottle of champagne that has been lingering on the shelf for two years. And
sometimes you just have to travel to a place where gourmet dining and world class wine drinking are the primary activities.

Go ahead. Visit Bordeaux, on the southwest coast of France, city of foie gras and chateau-bottled clarets. You can diet tomorrow, but indulgence for a brief time is good for the soul, if not the waistline.

By Barbara Ramsay Orr

It was the gastronomic allure that brought me to Bordeaux and led me to the Rue Gourmonde in the old part of town.

On the windowsill of my hotel room, there was a yellow duckie. It was just one of the odd little touches of whimsy in the Maison Fredon, a small hotel on Rue Porte de la Monnaie. But it wasn’t the décor that dictated the choice of this stylish hotel – it was the fact that it is directly across the street from La Tupina. I could see the restaurant’s blue and white awnings from my window, underneath which one of the waiters was enjoying a smoke before service began. A less than a minute stroll had me sitting at a table in front of the fireplace.

La Tupina is a tribute to all things traditionally Bordelais, and the fireplace in the centre of the restaurant is not just for show. It is used to cook most of the main dishes – roasted chicken, duck, lamb, perfectly aged beef and local black pig. Aesthetically the space is so satisfying – wooden boxes piled high with fresh radishes and herbs, the open hearth fire where the evening’s chickens rotate slowly, crisp blue and white tablecloths. It feels like a place you would like to come back to, again and again. If I lived here, this would be my local.

The meal began with a starter of country paté with little sour cornichons and excellent bread, fat crisp radishes and a chunk of cold butter, then a thick grilled heritage pork chop with a Bernaise sauce and frites cooked in duck fat. There was, of course, a robust Haut-Médoc to go with the main dish. Dessert was a simple plate of canelés, the little fluted pastries that are a traditional local sweet, served with hazelnut ice cream and small aromatic strawberries. The food was authentic, robust and devotedly traditional.

 Just a few blocks from Maison Fredon is the venerable Marché des Capucins, a traditional farmer’s market with stalls so beautifully arranged they could be art. There are tins of the local foie gras, for which Bordeaux is famous, fresh fish, cheese stalls, bread stores and tables mounded with seasonal vegetables. Both inside and outside the market, there are clusters of casual cafes serving fresh oysters and mussels. I got to the market early to be ahead of the crowds, and treated myself to a ‘dune Blanche’, a rich puff pastry filled with cream mousse, and coffee at Bistro Poulette.

A short tram ride away I found the Cité du Vin, the new museum of wine, which struck me as Disneyland for wine lovers. It is a museum, a wine bar, a wine-rich restaurant, a multi-sensory wine experience, and a totally immersive journey into the culture and history of wine, from Man’s first sip of fermented liquid to the latest trends in winemaking, from all areas of the globe. It’s ambitious in reach and completely and delightfully entertaining, whether you are a wine connoisseur or an infrequent sipper.

Situated on the left side of the Garonne River, in the Bacalan district of Bordeaux, this architecturally dramatic museum is more than a shrine to wine. It is designed to be an immersive journey, an entertaining ‘degustation’ of wine history and its place in
our culture. There are twenty two different modules, all interactive and controlled by hand held devices that give the visitor the ability to activate the many layers of sound, sight and even smell that each module can present.

Fine wine cries out for great food, and Bordeaux delivers on that count. One of the best restaurants in the city is the two Michelin-starred Gordon Ramsay restaurant, on the top floor of the Grand Hotel Intercontinental. 

The elegant Belle Epoque style Intercontinental Grand is the perfect venue for the over-the-top exuberance of Chef Gordon Ramsay. Directly across the square from the hotel is the Grand Opera House and the busy and upscale section of the city known as the Golden Triangle. But inside the Intercontinental, there is no hint of crowds or bustle.

Chef Ramsay’s Pressoir D’Argent, named for the solid silver Christofle lobster press that takes pride of place at the entrance, is a serious dining room. The space was dimly lit, hushed, and beautiful, with white table cloths, sparkling silver and pale orchids reflecting light in the shadows.  At the table, the servers placed silver domed plates on gold-rimmed chargers, exchanged glances and in perfect coordination, removed the domes. Each course was a fusion of ceremony, flavour and design – gorgeous to look at and perfectly prepared.

The meal began with fresh seasonal asparagus, on three separate plates, with three different sauces and three matching wines. Asparagus is always tricky to match with wine, but the three white bordeaux wines were exactly right.

There followed turbot mariniere with seaweed and frigola, plump little mussels from nearby Arcachon, a fat white veal chop and roasted quail. A trio of sorbets, served in a circular container that released a cloud of frosted air when the dome was lifted, preceded desert, a chocolate and hazelnut delight. At the conclusion of the dinner, I was presented with a box of freshly baked madelines, a tasty grace note.

There is more, of course, to Bordeaux, than food and wine. After Paris, this medieval city has the highest number of preserved historical buildings of any city in France. The old quarter of the city, with its narrow streets, quaint squares and winding  alleyways, is on the UNESCO World Heritage list.  You can work off dinner by exploring on foot to appreciate the well-preserved architecture, and to enjoy a glass of good Bordeaux at one of the small wine bars.  Visit the Place de la Bourse, built around the Three Graces fountain. Be sure to see the Mirroir d’Eau reflecting pool, the Grosse Cloche, one of the oldest belfries in France, and Port Cailhau, the royal entrance to the old city, built in 1494. The city’s Musee de Beaux-Arts is one of the best art museums in France and there are numerous leafy parks.

Day trips to visit the legendary wineries of Bordeaux, like Margeaux, Petrus, Latour or Lafite Rothschild can be easily arranged. The resort town of Arcachon is close by too, as is the wine village of Saint Emilion. Active visitors can rent kayaks and paddle along the Garonne River.

But don’t be afraid to indulge in what is Bordeaux’s greatest treasure – its food and wine. You can hit the gym when you get home. While in Bordeaux, eat the cake!

If You Go:

Where to Stay
Intercontinental Bordeaux- Le Grand Hotel. This five-star hotel sits across from the Grand Theatre in the heart of the city, adjacent to the Golden Triangle, the city’s the luxury shopping district. Maison Fredon.

Where to Dine
Pressoir D’Argent Gordon Ramsay’s belle époque style super elegant
restaurant offers challenging and exciting dishes with
expert service.
Intercontinental Bordeaux – Le Grand Hotel, 2-5 Place de la Comedie

La Tupina, 6 rue Porte de la Monnaie Le Cité du Vin, Esplanade de Pontac, 134 Quai de Bacalan