Bordeaux, France

Three Michelin stars and a private chateau

A surprise birthday excursion

For Samantha’s 30th birthday I treated her to a decadent long weekend away in Bordeaux, in the south of France. On Saturday Samantha knew nothing of the trip, beyond that we were doing something and that she needed a weekend bag. After staying at her mum’s, we were driving south — what looked like the usual drive home to Brighton, Sam was expecting some event in Sussex. Leaving the motorway at Gatwick airport was a complete surprise; we parked and I informed Sam that she’d be going somewhere much warmer than England, I also provided a bag of her summer clothes — because all those winter coats and boots she’d packed weren’t necessary.

At the tail end of October Bordeaux is meant to be about 16C, and on a warm day you might expect 20C if you’re lucky. However, the weather for this particular weekend was an anomaly; on Saturday it was a staggering 31C, and it would stay above 25C the whole time we were there, dipping back to normal just as we boarded the flight home.

Sam was still unsure about where we were going, and after we’d gone through security (hand luggage only), we sat down for a coffee and croissant and I gave her a small, personally designed card which read:

You are invited on a romantic excursion
to the “UNESCO world heritage city” of

For three nights you’ll stay at
Petit Hôtel Labottière
your “private chateau”

Perhaps you’ll enjoy a day trip to the romantic vineyard town of
or try the fresh oysters at

There’ll be plenty of opportunity to try France’s heavenly food.

An exquisite evening meal at
Le Gabriel
“Look forward to a very special moment”

A birthday dinner at
Le Pavillon des Boulevards
“this pleasant setting is the ideal
spot to enjoy fine gastronomy”

A fabulous lunch at
Le Chapon Fin

“astutely inventive &
delightfully flavoursome”

This was a weekend all about Samantha, something designed to really treat her, which is why it revolves around really really good food. If you want the best food, where’s better to come than France? Sam’s metaphorical 30th birthday cake would be cooked by Michelin starred chefs. One star for each decade noless.

We flew with EasyJet and landed at Merignac airport in the early afternoon. The €1.50 bus into town was waiting outside the airport and 45mins later we were in the centre of town, towing our hand luggage along cobbled streets to our hotel, Petit Hôtel Labottière.

Petit Hôtel Labottière

Petit Hôtel Labottière
Petit Hôtel Labottière

I described Petit Hotel Labottiere as a “private chateau”; it’s a lovingly restored stately home hidden in the centre of Bordeaux. With only two rooms it’s exclusive, and Trip Advisor users rate it as the best place to stay in town. Just off Rue Fondaudège, behind an understated turquoise door lies this 18th century residence. Inside there’s a sitting room with a grandfather clock, to the right an exquisite dining hall with ornate chandeliers and cabinets filled with ancient books; it’s here we’d have a luxurious French breakfast each morning. The hall opens up onto a gravel courtyard and faces the old mansion; Daniel Korber, the owners’ son gives each guest a tour of this impeccable building where his parents still live.

The rooms themselves are off to the left, not in the main building, but in a more recently built annex. They are modern but classically appointed. Antique sculptures and oil paintings decorate the room, there’s a desk with a lock and key — and hidden compartments, and an old style wardrobe. When you open the curtains and heavy shutters the window looks down on the courtyard. It’s delightfully French. With a charismatic owner and a fabulous homemade French breakfast, it was perfect for Sam.

Our room at Petit Hôtel Labottière
Our room at Petit Hôtel Labottière

When we arrived Lea greeted us, she’d look after us throughout our time here (and would make our lovely breakfasts) — about our age we got on with her very well. While we waited for Daniel we sat in the courtyard with some cold beer, the sun blazing down on this peculiarly hot autumn afternoon. While we’re in the courtyard, let’s wax lyrical about the breakfast.

On Sunday morning at 9am it was warm enough to sit outside. Our petit déjeuner consisted of fresh French baguette and croissants; two types of paté (duck and fish), smoked salmon, jams, chorizo, a selection of cheese, omelette, two canelé — Bordeaux’s pastry speciality, a delicious raspberry tart, fresh fruit, chocolate and “grandma’s cream” — an old family recipe that Daniel’s grandmother would make for him as a treat. It was all served on beautiful crockery and silver platters. We had coffee and hot chocolate to wash it all down. Daniel joked, “You must eat it all. You can’t visit Bordeaux and be half starved”. Every part of breakfast was delicious, and we gorged ourselves on this feast every morning; some bits changed — the salmon swapped for sausages, or the raspberry tart for a pear one; everything tasted divine.

Breakfast in the garden
Breakfast in the garden

Anyhow, back to Saturday, and Daniel met us in the courtyard. He gave us some guides and pointed out places to eat and drink, places to see and places to avoid as they’re “too touristy”. Lea showed us to our room, we rested on the double-mattress double bed and then set off out to enjoy our first evening in Bordeaux.

Le Jardin Public

At the end of the street is the north entrance to Bordeaux’s largest city park, known simply as the public garden. Given the weather and proximity we’d spend a lot of time just wandering through here. Tonight in the warm evening sun it looked particularly lovely; a group of photographers had gathered by a monument resplendent in light to make the most of it. There’s a large lake in the middle, and plenty of fields to lie down in. The leaves on the trees were turning red and yellow, a few were already scattered on the floor. Autumn was here, but we were in summer clothes.

Place de la bourse

Continuing our stroll into town; Bordeaux’s old town is small and easily explored on foot, we passed by Quinconces where teens were riding horrible looking fairground rides, and passed the tram and bus stops, down to the riverfront. The Garonne river cuts through the city, and alongside it there’s a fantastic boulevard with gardens and views of Bordeaux. On a weekend evening like this everyone was making the most of it; folk on bikes, scooters and roller-skates rolled by and families sat with picnics beneath trees. The city was enjoying a late resurgence of summer. What perfect weather.

Keep walking along the river and you reach the picturesque postcard view of Bordeaux; Place de la Bourse reflected perfectly in Miroir d’eau, the world’s largest reflecting pool. We arrived at 6pm, and the sun was dipping perfectly between the streets casting long shadows on the “mirror”. Hundreds of kids were playing in the water; the square fills up and the children splash about and parents walk through in flip-flops. A dance troupe brought out some chairs and begun an avant-garde routine, miming to each other with short sharp dances. The square then drains itself of water, the large granite tiles are left with a thin glistening layer of water on top, creating a magical reflection. It stays for ten minutes until the mirror emits a fog which fills the air with an eerie low hanging cloud. Then the cycle repeats.

Panorama of Miroir d’eau
Panorama of Miroir d’eau
Dance act on Miroir d’eau
Dance act on Miroir d’eau

The French eat late, and our dinner reservation was a couple of hours away, if we had one. I’d booked online and had no reply, I called up and was told the restaurant was fully booked, only to receive an email shortly after confirming my reservation. It was also booked at 7:30pm, when the restaurant is closed until 8. It was of course fine. But while we waited we meandered about the city’s thin streets, snacking on the smallest of pain au chocolat as we were famished (we’d had no lunch). Outside Bordeaux’s opera house we people watched until it was time to eat.

Le Gabriel Restaurant

Le Gabriel Restaurant
Le Gabriel Restaurant

For tonight’s dinner we’d begin the first of Sam’s Michelin-star birthday treats; a meal at Le Gabriel. The building sits right in the centre of Place de la Bourse, looking out at Miroir d’eau and the Garonne river. Confusingly there’s a downstairs bistro with the same name, and many Trip Advisor reviews get the two mixed up. The Michelin guide in its brilliant understated-ness says:

An exceptional setting depicts this establishment in the central pavilion of the famous Place de la Bourse facing the water mirror. Its delightful 18C sitting rooms are perfect suited to the creative, flavoursome cuisine. Look forward to a very special moment.

Le Gabriel Restaurant decor
Le Gabriel Restaurant decor

On the second floor a soirée of waiters greeted us, “Bonsoir”; they led us around the corner into a whitewashed room with white tables, white linen and white seats. On the walls were two pieces of modern art; abstract and not usually our thing, they fascinated us throughout our meal. We chose the 7 course “Menu découverte”:

Ce menu est composé de sept plats. Il est le reflet de l’imagination et de la créativité du chef et de son équipe. Les proportions adaptées des mets vous permettront d’apprécier dans son intégralité notre invitation à un voyage culinaire exceptionnel.

Our waiter was Romain, his English was excellent and with each course he’d delicately explain what we’d be eating; pointing with his little finger, and holding a black serviette, his routine was exact. Sometimes service at high-end restaurants can feel a little stiff, and it did start that way, but as the evening went on, and as we discussed with Romain the intricacies of each course, the sauces and every minute detail of what we were eating, we shared our enthusiasm and everyone relaxed a little.

Langoustine with beetroot and rhubarb
Langoustine with beetroot and rhubarb
Lightly smoked lamb with truffle
Lightly smoked lamb with truffle

This meal is up there with the best meal we’ve ever eaten, which was at The Burlington in 2012. The fresh uncooked mackerel with an explosion of citrus caviar was superlative, and the following foie-gras and ginger was guiltily fabulous; these were the best two courses and they were perfect.

We weren’t sure when the food would end, we lost count of our courses, the amuse-bouches distracting us. The courses just kept coming. From 8pm, we were the first there, we watched two other couples come and go, and we didn’t leave until 11:30pm. It exceeded all my expectations, which were very high to begin with.

Along the old streets of Bordeaux we walked back to our hotel, the autumn night air so unusually warm we were in short sleeves at gone midnight and even needed a touch of air-con to cool down our room.

Chartrons market and L’Entrecôte →