Last weekend was the last of the May holidays in France. (Usually, there are four long weekends in May. This year, we got the short end of the stick, with two of those holidays falling on Saturdays. Still, France in May is a sweet place to be.) Nick and I took advantage of the long weekend to visit La Rochelle, a port city on the western coast of France, just south of Brittany and just north of Bordeaux. We spent Saturday evening on the nearby Ile de Ré, eating crêpes and mussels and watching the soccer match with some friends. Alec Lobrano describes the Ile de Ré as a French Nantucket, and while I’ve never been to Nantucket, the comparison seems apt. Sunday we took a drive into the surrounding countryside, stopping at an archeological site and an abbey before lunching in Cognac. Afterward, we took an interesting tour of the Otard distillery, housed in the castle where François 1er was born. Sadly, the cognac tasting at the end of the tour was a bit of a let-down. Fortunately, we had the anticipation of dinner at Les Flots, back in La Rochelle, to boost our sagging spirits (pun intended).
Les Flots (meaning: the deep, or the sea) is helmed by Grégory Coutanceau, a chef whose father and brother run La Rochelle’s most highly-regarded seafood restaurants, the eponymously named Coutanceau. He’s got the restaurant business in his blood, and it shows. After taking a leisurely apéritif on the lively rue de la Chaîne, Nick and I made our way to the restaurant to meet with two friends for dinner.
I was immediately impressed by the casual elegance of the dining area, including the outdoor patio, where we were seated. With the medieval Tour de la Chaîne in the background, I admired the modern silvery-edged chargers and beachy hurricane lanterns on the table. Even the bread was artfully presented in its basket, and the butter was served at spreading temperature. (There are few things that irk me more than ice-cold, rock-hard butter in a restaurant, because there’s really no excuse. If I were a Michelin reviewer, any place that served cold butter would lose a star immediately.)
In addition to the bread, a small plate with four tiny slices of sun-dried tomato-anchovy bread and a cup of herbed crème fraîche was placed on the table for us to nibble while making our menu and wine list decisions. Which took a while, because that wine list is a tome. We decided on the 39 euro Menu du Marché, and I chose a bottle of white Burgundy, which turned out to be astoundingly good for the price – only 32 euros!
Our choices made, we were soon brought an amuse-bouche consisting of a tiny cup of chilled cream of broccoli soup with a dollop of whipped broccoli cream on top, a sliver of smoked sturgeon, and a swipe of dark gastrique sauce.
Then, to start, I had a fillet of rascasse, coated in tapenade and served over a ragoût of tomatoes and capers. It was sauced with a foamy artichoke emulsion, and garnished with a round of crisp bacon.
I noted that it was almost like a “deconstructed” (maybe “reimagined” would be a better word) puttanesca sauce, but whatever you want to call it, it was darn tasty.
Nick began his meal with a rosy-pink saddle of lamb and a tiny Staub pot (I just love anything served in those little guys) of spelt risotto, topped with a basil crisp. The whole dish was seasoned and cooked to perfection.
Our friend indulged in the seafood platter, a basked filled with ice and piled high with all manner of shellfish, which served as both appetizer and main course.
As for me, I had the “gigot” of rabbit – a rabbit leg cooked and served to resemble a leg of lamb. It was stuffed with olives and sat atop a round of polenta, fried crisp on one side. The only fault of the sauce, a mouthwatering vinegar reduction, was that there wasn’t enough of it.
Nick and our other friend had the blanquette de coquillages, a light stew with shellfish (in this case razor clams, although I wouldn’t be surprised if it changed from day to day) and swordfish in a leek and white wine broth.
I was beginning to appreciate the reasonably moderate portion sizes, considering we still had dessert to come, and it was one I was pretty excited about, too. The Mango-Chocolate “Harmony,” with piment d’espelette jelly and Valrhona Manjari chocolate, was the first decision I made when choosing my menu. I’m pleased to say it did not disappoint.
An insignificant tuile topped a trendy verrine with layers of mildly spicy pepper jelly, fresh mango, and both chocolate mousse and chocolate ice cream. Nick had an easy time choosing his dessert, too, but somehow neglected to photograph it (Or I forgot to remind him). Either way, he really enjoyed it, a layered affair featuring pistachios, citrus, and lemon thyme.
Finally, a plate of mignardises arrived at the table, with a large cube of strawberry pâte de fruits and a small glass of spiced apricot compote with vanilla cream for each of us.
If there was a weak spot in the meal, this was it. Strawberry, in my opinion, is one of the hardest pâtes de fruit to make, because the necessarily long cooking time and all the added sugar almost always reduces the delicate flavor of strawberry to a jammy or fruit roll-up taste. The apricots may have been a touch over-spiced, as it was hard to discern the fruit behind the clove and cinnamon. But the vanilla cream was great – smooth and intensely flavored with Tahitian vanilla.
All in all, it was a fantastic meal, made better by the warm, summery-feeling evening and the picturesque location. By contrast, we had a full view of the kitschy Brazilian-themed place next door, where people were brought ice cream with sparklers stuck into it or drinks in glasses that looked like pineapples, alligators, or skulls. It was fairly amusing, with the added bonus of making me feel very happy to be dining where I was dining. As we ate, the Stade Rochelais, La Rochelle’s rugby team (whose colors, in case you were wondering, are yellow and black, and were flying at many many bars around town) won a big match, so when we left the restaurant to make our way back to the hotel, we found ourselves in the midst of a city-wide party in the street, with singing, face paint, general revelry, and of course lots of beer. We didn’t wait up with the crowd for the team to return triumphantly home, but we enjoyed the fun and convivial atmosphere while en route. Street noise notwithstanding, I slept like a baby that night, with a belly full of wonderful local food.
On this day in 2008: La Boulangerie par Véronique Mauclerc
Originally published on Croque-Camille.