We embark on an ultimate French culinary adventure. No need to wish us luck. At Le Relais Bernard Loiseau, nothing is left to chance and everything is perfect.
BURGUNDY, France — Because I was married to a French aristocrat for many years — don’t tell him his country is a Republic, okay? — I have lived an extended cultural crash course in Fine Frenchness. It’s an excellent way to cure a girl of an acute case of Francophilia. (I’m kidding.) (Un peu.)
Ahhh, the elusive French Touch. Their maddening, magical je-ne-sais-quoi. You know what I am talking about if you have ever marveled at a Parisienne’s perfect morning café bedhead. Or French women not getting fat.
You may be comforted to learn that this nonchalantly accidental superiority, is in fact, covertly cultivated and contrived. In other words, don’t believe ze hype.
Le Relais Bernard Loiseau, on the other hand, is not hype. The much-lauded, two-Michelin-starred destination restaurant and five-star hotel in Saulieu, Burgundy, is Real-Deal French Touch incarnate. It’s rigorous while seeming effortless, relaxed while running like clockwork. Guilelessly, gorgeously groomed with, yes, a microdose of snooty perfection. It’s recipe that keeps travelers and food tourists coming back for more.
A History of Excellence
In its entry on the chef and gastronomic icon Alexandre Dumaine (two entries before “dumpling”), the bible on foodie Frenchness Larousse Gastronomique cites La Côte d'Or, the restaurant Dumaine opened with his wife Jeanne in 1930, as a “gastronomic shrine.” It maintained three Michelin stars from 1935 to 1964.
“Shrine” remains a spot-on description of its haute cuisine descendant, which is still going strong.
It was on this sacred culinary ground that, in 1975, after a culinarily forgettable decade, chef Bernard Loiseau, a superbly talented young chef driven by his credo of la niaqe (loosely translated as “guts”), took over the kitchen at La Côte d’Or. He made excellent use of it, and Loiseau entered the French cultural imagination as a culinary genius. Président Francois Mitterand and his mistress Anne Pingeot were regulars, as were celebrities, stars, and artists who came for Loiseau’s singular cuisine. Over the years, Loiseau built a mini-empire by charismatically innovating with ingredients-focused cuisine, lighter on butter and cream, using techniques to express those ingredients in a new voice. With his three Michelin stars, illustrious trailblazing, and business acumen (cookbooks, a line of frozen foods, three restaurants in Paris), Loiseau helped lay the contemporary foundations of Celebrity Chefdom. Since his tragic suicide in 2003, he remains symbol of pride and an icon of French gastronomic patrimony.
The Loiseau family and team continue the tradition, creating a tranquil sort of hédonisme at Le Relais Bernard Loiseau. Credit is due in no small part to the vision of his sure-handed widow, Dominique, whose expertise and serenity imbue the gardens, spa, restaurants, and service with the kind of luxury you can’t fake. You feel her in every detail, and the experience is all the better for it. The other family members involved are their children Bérangère (vice president), Bastien (board member), and Blanche (demi-chef de partie at La Côte d’Or).
The vibe around here is a twist on the very classic, and that's its precise charme. This is vintage France, not contemporary Paris.
Perhaps because it’s fusty fussiness, McMichelin-starred prestige can feel out of step with our times. A bit boringly homogenous. It’s no wonder stars are now being awarded to sublime street stalls — a welcome alternative.
But Patrick Bertron, who joined the kitchen brigade at La Côte d’Or in 1982 and rose the ranks to head chef, offers a Burgundian alternative. His table stands out in the Michelin galaxy because of its simple authenticity. Nothing is overwrought. His food may be classic and extraordinary haute, but it’s haute cuisine with a signature. His Breton-influenced menu blends Loiseau classics like frogs’ legs with garlic and parsley and newer, powerful, ingredient-driven dishes with unexpected taste combinations like braised oysters with tapioca.
Le Relais Bernard Loiseau has one of the best wine cellars on Earth. Period. Overseen by sommelier Eric Goetellmann (the adjective “expert” is too weak to describe his knowledge), the cave holds more than 15,000 bottles from 900 labels. Forty superb ones can be sampled by the glass in the specially equipped Wine Library.
While You’re Here
The hotel is perfect for a vinous, romantic Frenchy getaway where the meal is the main course. But unless you're a gastronomic superhero, you won’t spend your entire stay in the dining room admiring the food and contemplating the canvases by painter Bernard Buffet, close family friend (a real privilege).
Transport yourself to the glamour and pomp of Alexandre Dumaine’s glory days over truly stellar breakfasts in his namesake dining room, a listed historical monument. Excellent fun, especially if culinary history thrills you.
Have a less formal (and less caloric) meal of locally sourced and organic ingredients at Loiseau des Sens, the bistro overseen by chef Virginie Jacquet.
Read in the library, play billiards in divine Charles X décor, smoke in the outdoor oak staircase or in the smoking room (eh oui, you’re in France). Read or sip an apéritif in the peaceful garden.
And make time to visit the multiple-award-winning Spa Loiseau des Sens for pampering as only the French know how to do it. The VIP spa suite is a gorgeous indulgence and experience. Here too, one feels Dominque Loiseau’s distinctive equilibrium of naturality and extravagance.
Like the food, the 33 rooms, in categories like Comfort, Superior, Suites, and one dreamy VIP Spa Suite with its own hammam, are a Burgundian fantasy of antique wood paneling, exposed beams, and traditional tomette-tiled floors. Like the cuisine, the decor and amenities are luxe and impeccable with all the right details. Cozy seating areas. iPhone speakers w docks. Lots of little lamps (very romantic) and a candle in the room. Fluffy as hell bathrobes and room slippers. Loads of well-lit closet space. Bathroom you never want to leave. Towel heater. Magnifying mirror. In other words, you are in the French Country House of your dreams — with all the five-star creature comforts you could ever want.
The hotel is undergoing a three-year renovation to the rooms and public spaces that will be completed in phases by 2023, to mark the 20th anniversary of Loiseau’s death.
What to Do Nearby
A one-hour drive brings you to Beaune. And though its museum and cavistes are a pleasure, one might be tempted to pretty much stay put; the hotel is an absolute haven.
If you are sporty, the area is wonderfully hilly cycling heaven. I noted ambitious biking tours running around the villages of Beaune. I prefer boozing to biking, and recommend renting a car and wine-tasting responsibly.
Driving to nearby legendary Burgundy domains takes a good hour, but Meursault and Puligny-Montrachet are worth some effort and the drive is pretty. Julien Wallerand, the second-generation owner at Caveau de Puligny-Montrachet, has glorious recommendations. He knows each plot, whether it is on a hillside, and, if so, how steep the slope, how the family has been working both the land and grape, and which year to buy. In other words, deals, finds, and secrets most French people will never tell you.
Good to Know
Loiseau is an empire. In addition to its locations in Beaune and Dijon, there are two restaurants in Paris, one on each bank of the Seine.
At Le Relais, childcare is available in case your romantic getaway involves offspring.
How to Get There
Though there is train service from Paris to Montbard and complimentary hour-long car service from there to the hotel, the trip is long and requires a change of trains. A better option: Rent a car to not only arrive faster but also to explore the villages and vineyards en route.