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Restaurant Michel Bras

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From a distance Restaurant Michel Bras looks like a flying saucer that has made a precarious landing on a lush green hillside. And your first impression on arriving is that the contemporary decor is unnervingly ascetic—at odds with the sylvan setting. But all dissonance dissolves in the glass-walled dining room, where the Olympian view (eye-level clouds scuttling over the endless, empty countryside, a fireworks of sunset gilding) makes you understand that here the architecture is the backdrop. The decor is the setting.

Last year Michelin awarded the proprietor, Michel Bras, his third star. The meal I had here was one of the best I've eaten in my 14 years in France. Among the highlights: cèpes, girolles, and green beans in truffle oil; sea bream cooked on a piece of heated slate; and aligot, Laguiole cheese curds whipped with boiled potatoes, a regional specialty made daily by Bras' mother.

The self-taught Bras, 53, is a native of Laguiole (population 1,264). As if to emphasize his attachment to the area, he has adopted as the restaurant symbol a local wild fennel that dies if exposed to synthetic fertilizer or pesticide. Far removed from fatuous Parisian quarrels over the future of French cooking, Bras believes in judicious modernization. "There have always been foreign influences in France," he states. "You can't take the cumin out of Alsatian cooking, for example, even though it's a spice that is not native to the region." It is that sort of common culinary sense that makes Michel Bras so refreshing, and probably allows him to achieve such a balance between rusticity and sophistication, tradition and creativity. He knows that "le bonheur est dans le pré" (the best place to look for happiness is in your own pastures). Opens on April 5th. Dinner for two: $85-$250. Rooms: $165-$300. Route de l'Aubrac; 33-5-65-51-18-20; fax 33-5-65-48-47-02.

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