troisgros: patrilineal… (2021)

As my taxi pulled into the gravel carpark, a smartly dressed woman from the front desk was already stationed and waiting for me outside, along with a valet.  I got out and greeted her, and, as a reflex, apologized for the amount of luggage I had with me (overpacking is a terrible vice; I don’t […]


As my taxi pulled into the gravel carpark, a smartly dressed woman from the front desk was already stationed and waiting for me outside, along with a valet.  I got out and greeted her, and, as a reflex, apologized for the amount of luggage I had with me (overpacking is a terrible vice; I don’t recommend it). She dismissed it with a wave, and continued with pleasantries. But, as the hatchback slowly rose, revealing my mound of suitcases, she stopped mid-sentence and let out a barely audible “ah putain…”  

I still laugh about it today. 

Before I get on with telling you more about 2022, I had promised to rewind and deposit some notes about my trip to Maison Troisgros in October of 2021.

I won’t bother with the history of the family. It’s well-documented on the internet: four generations of Troisgros chefs running what would be the longest operating restaurant with three Michelin stars, if they hadn’t moved the restaurant in 2017 (the stars technically attach to the address, not the chef, and thus, by physically moving the restaurant – not to mention renaming it from les Frères Troisgros to le Bois sans Feuilles – they reset the clock). For decades, the restaurant was located in the town of Roanne, right across from the train station. But after a considerable investment, the family’s restaurant was relocated to a manoir a few kilometers away in the commune of Ouches. 

Like many European webpages for high-end resorts and restaurants, the Troisgros online site is heavy on design, light on information. I found it terribly unhelpful, and a nightmare to navigate. I hope that my experiences can help fill in some of those gaps. 

The Troisgros family operates three different properties in the area.

In the town of Roanne is Le Central, the family’s casual restaurant (or, as they call it, a “café-restaurant-déli”). If you arrive here by train, as I did from Lyon, you’ll find it right across the street from the station under a wide, striped awning. The set menu is an eclectic assortment of family favorites, dishes inspired by the season, or ones from the family’s travels. 

My friend and I shared a skillet of frog legs, which arrived golden-brown in bubbling-hot garlic butter. We also had a beautiful bowl of ruby-red steak tartare, coarsely chopped but immensely tender, served with fingerling potatoes wearing a nice, roasted crust.  There was also a curious dessert called “la Japonais à la Framboise,” which, as best as I could surmise, was essentially a warm île-flottante with a warm, raspberry core.

If you can arrange a noon-ish arrival into Roanne – whether by car or train – lunch at Le Central is an ideal way to pass the time until afternoon check-in at one of the two other Troisgros properties.

We are now in the period of transition, when the third generation of Troisgros – Michel and his wife Marie-Pierre – is passing the culinary baton onto the fourth.  Their son Leo is now the head chef at le Grand Couvert, the restaurant at the family’s property called la Colline du Colombier.  From what I can tell, this bucolic farmstead, about a half-hour drive from Roanne, is comprised of the restaurant, and five overnight guest units: two, small farmhouses (each sleeps four) and three freakishly modern living pods, called “les Cadoles” (each sleeps two).  I wasn’t able to visit la Colline du Colombier on this trip, but if I return to the area, I would love to spend the night and have dinner. 

Instead, I opted to spend both nights at Maison Troisgros. It is the family’s flagship property and home to its three Michelin-starred restaurant le Bois sans Feuilles (“the forest without leaves”).  

Set in the countryside – about 15 minutes from Roanne – this estate is surrounded by farmland. In the immediate perimeter are a series of gardens and green spaces, as well as a pool. Beyond, there are copses, a winding brook, and a field of horses to explore.  

It’s not hard to tell which part of the manor is original – the stone walls are a good indication. But which parts were added later – save the restaurant, attached as a modern glass structure – is less clear.  

In the original part of the manor, on the ground floor are a series of high-ceiling, communal spaces, one of which serves as the breakfast room. Upstairs are a dozen guest bedrooms, which, judging by the two rooms I saw – mine and my friend’s – are furnished with the type of colorful, quirky modernism that only the French seem to be able to pull off.  Both of our rooms were surprisingly spacious, and included every amenity you might need. There are a couple of additional guest quarters across the garden in a separate structure, which I didn’t see.

Dinner at le Bois sans Feuilles was wonderful. And because we had two nights, we were able to cover a wide range of dishes between us, ordering from the menu the first night, and taking the tasting menu the second. 

Michel Troisgros and his son César (brother to Leo at le Grand Couvert) are the chefs here. They steward a unique inheritance of culinary modernism, one of the last remaining patrilineal institutions of its kind. Holding firm to the tenets of the nouvelle cuisine advanced by Michel’s father Pierre and uncle Jean (and others, like Alain Chapel, Roger Vergé, Michel Guérard, and Alain Senderens in the last midcentury), their cooking takes a lighter, fresher, and more seasonal approach to traditional French cuisine. 

The highlights included a delicate rosette of John Dory filets and shaved black truffle, which was served in a rich, truffled cream sauce. That first dinner also included Jean and Pierre Troisgros’s famous version of saumon à l’oseille – arguably the dish that launched the Troisgroses into global, culinary stardom. Ever skeptical of culinary iconography, I wanted to measure its worth for myself. So I requested it.

I had been told by friends, who have worked under the Troisgroses that the ingredients for this dish are prepared for every service, always on standby for VIPs and those who ask for it (it’s no longer on the menu). Indeed, it is an exceptional version. The simplicity of it might have rendered it unremarkable if it weren’t for the flawless temperature and texture of the salmon and the tartness of the fresh sorrel, which cut an elegant line through the buttery fumet.

The Troisgroses’ unique brand of cuisine acidulée was also showcased in a blushing strip of rouget on the second night. The filet wore a thin, green coat of sauce of startling acidity that sliced into the fattiness of the fish. This was fantastic, as was a plate of grilled sweetbreads served with pimento and shiso. 

From the menu, we chose three desserts, all of which were flawless examples of French classics. There was an almond soufflé, rising beautifully from its copper ramekin. The baba was fantastic too, featuring forest fruits (as its name “Baba de Bois” suggested). The cake was wrapped in sheets of thinly sliced apple and crowned with fraises des bois. If I recall correctly, it was doused with gin, not rum, for its woodland fragrance.  But the warm, plum tart – with its garnet-colored pinwheel of sliced plums in an ultra-flaky puff pastry shell – stole the show.  It was my favorite dessert of 2021

Here photos from my first and second dinner at le Bois sans Feuilles.

I suppose most people come to Maison Troisgros for the food. I did. And, rightfully so: top to bottom, it’s fantastic. The breakfast here, like at most European establishments of this caliber, is extraordinary (in many cases, it’s the highlight). And I marveled at all the homemade treats left in my room throughout my stay – an orange blossom water brioche cake, buttery shortbread cookies, and a strangely refreshing fermented drink made from raspberries on the estate (I suppose Americans might call it a shrub), each accompanied with the recipe. 

But Maison Troisgros is one of the few properties I’ve stayed where everything else about the place is equally compelling. Very similar to my experience at la Ferme du Vent – a part of the Roellinger family’s Maisons de Bricourt – here, I felt as if I were a guest of the house, and not a guest of a hotel. Setting aside all the hardware – the plush amenities, the food, the nature; all the things that can be achieved with enough resources  – the magic of places like Troisgros is actually in the software. It’s in the ownership and its staff, which is trained to be intuitive and observant – as any host would naturally be about their guests.

On a cold and rainy afternoon, I decided to do some work in one of the living rooms downstairs – I favored the big one, trimmed in pistachio, with a giant fireplace. I found a staff member and asked if I might have some coffee.  She told me to settle in and she’d come find me. While the coffee was brewing, another staff member came in and started a fire. Now, I hadn’t asked for a fire. But on a dreary day, in a drafty old country house, it was simply a sensible and caring thing to do. It is this keenly attentive act of service and that quiet afternoon beside the crackling embers that I will remember most from my stay. 

This sort of simple and sincere observation of guests is sorely lacking in hospitality these days. Restaurants and hotels now rely increasingly on the internet and databases to get to know their customers. It astonishes me that this kind of shallow mining for information – birthdays and anniversaries, your favorite sports team, or musical band, or a speech you once gave; bits of intel to be dropped or worked into conversations or greetings – passes as “personalizing” an experience. Actually, I find it horrifying. Or that showy displays of attention – like having the entire staff rush to the entrance, like the von Trapp family, to greet you as you open the door; or the exclusive course-in-the-kitchen that every diner gets to have – count as world-topping service.

But then again, maybe it’s not astonishing. Maybe this explains why so many establishments that mistake superficiality for service – restaurants that have rocketed to the top of the charts no less – are gone, fading, or soon closing, and why maisons like Roellinger, Pacaud, Bras, and Troisgros endure decades on.

Maison Troisgros – all of it – measures up to its worth. What few disadvantages it has for its smallness – there’s no spa, for example (the front desk lent us bikes and gave us directions for the spa a few miles down the road, and made reservations for us as well), and the pool’s not heated – seem like petty grievances against an avalanche of charm and care; the stuff that really matters to me. I hope I get to return to this very special place. 

Note: All three of the Troisgros family restaurants are open to the public; you do not need to be an overnight guest at their properties.

Here are photos from my stay at Maison Troisgros.

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