September 2, 2008By Richard HesseArchive

In Love with La Rochelle

coutanceau, la rochelle
Seaside dining is costly at Coutanceau.

Over the summer vacation, I fell in love with La Rochelle. Like an aging professor who falls for a student, I am besotted. It’s a delightful town, with its tight grid of arcaded streets leading down to a historic port where it’s still easy to imagine sailing ships being warped out into the channel before heading off to trade African slaves.

That slaving heritage is dealt with squarely in the town’s New World Museum, which also doubles as the Fine Arts Museum, while the great voyages of discovery to the southern hemisphere are admirably remembered and explained in the new Natural History Museum, which brilliantly melds a 19th-century setting (complete with carved specimen cases and a collection of stuffed fauna) with the latest display techniques and clued-in approaches to anthropology. It leaves the Musée de Quai Branly’s heart of darkness trip for dead.

La Rochelle is also the fiefdom of the Coutanceau family. Father Richard and son Christopher run the eponymous restaurant that nestles in a concrete bunker looking out to sea, while another son, Grégory, runs no fewer than four places in a town that boasts 350 eateries.

Most of them do a roaring seasonal trade in tourist food: mountains of mussels, shiploads of fries, acres of pizza. Many of the locals and some of the tourists head for the Teatro Bettini near the central market when they want a pizza. It bustles and hustles all evening, turning out hundreds of pizzas and managing the perfectly timed arrival of other Italianate dishes from a separate kitchen with apparently seamless ease. A truly professional and friendly operation. If you go, make sure you’re seated in the vicinity of the pizza oven, for the theater.

Coutanceau is professional, too, as you would expect from a two-starred chef who could just about field two soccer teams with his staff (check out the Web site). The food is also of a quality you would expect from a two-starred chef, but my girlfriend and I were not overwhelmed by the experience.

The mouclade, a dish of mussels in a curry cream sauce that can be had in most of the local restaurants, was prettily presented – several layers of tiny mussels in an oval dish – but the very devil to eat elegantly. It was also lacking the wow! factor one would hope for in a starred restaurant. Katherine’s stuffed squid was perfectly cooked and presented, but came with no surprises either. We spared a thought for the commis (chef’s assistant) who had chopped all the vegetables (is Coutanceau one of those born-again chefs who believes you have to kill a commis for Christ?).

I then had the signature civet of lobster, and Katherine the stuffed pigeon. All very nice and deceptively simple. I love lobster, and it was exactly the way I like it, with a good strong sauce to stand up to the forceful flavor of the crustacean. The pigeon was juicy and tasty, but came second to a remarkable one sampled some time back at Christian Constant’s Les Cocottes in Paris (at scarcely more than a third of the Coutanceau price).

At dessert time, Katherine was taught by the waiter how to put her spoon into the crème brûlé, for which she was duly grateful. Here the dessert is called “l’Emotion,” and its pedigree goes like this: honey-vanilla crème brûlée with fresh-fruit minestrone in a passion-fruit infusion, served with delicate saffron jelly and a sorbet made from two varieties of peach. Katherine, who is what Henry James might have described as “contradictious,” had an inkling of what she was letting herself in for, but was not expecting the lesson on how to put a spoon into her pudding, which produced much subsequent mirth. She also has a very low opinion of those who mess around with her favorite dessert.

The service was admirable, and we sat facing the ocean as the sun settled in the west, although we could have been more comfortably seated in our low-backed easy chairs. The tables are large and round, and couples are seated en enfilade, at an angle of slightly less than 90 degrees, so that you need to crane your neck to look into the beloved’s eyes. Katherine also noted that all the women diners were sitting bolt upright on the edge of the stylish chairs – the only way they could keep their feet from swinging in space (she does exaggerate so, that girl).

So yes, the dining is fine at Coutanceau, and the ocean is truly lovely. You could probably eat there for €100 a head if you chose the cheaper menu and wine options. But I fancy this will have been a once-in-a-lifetime experience for us.

Last weekend, on the final day of the summer break, I was in Chartres on a visit inspired by Philip Ball’s recently published Universe of Stone, a Biography of Chartres Cathedral, a masterly, nonacademic summary of the state of knowledge on the cathedral. I lunched facing the north porch in a little place that has not been open long and is deserving of custom. The young couple who own it have ambitious plans. He cooks well, and she is a pleasant presence in the dining room. The people of Chartres, he told me, very quickly adopted the place at lunchtime. Just so you know.

And a final note about La Cagouille, whose owner contacted me to point out that I had failed to mention him in my piece. If I had gone back to Jonathan Nossiter’s Le Gout et le Pouvoir when I reviewed the restaurant, I would not have committed such an oversight. My apologies to André Robert.

Richard et Christopher Coutanceau: Plage de la Concurrence, 17000 La Rochelle. Tel.: 05 46 41 48 19. Closed Sundays. Fixed-price menus: €52 and €95. A la carte: around €100-120.

Teatro Bettini: 1, rue de Thiers, 17000 La Rochelle. Tel.: 05 46 41 07 03. A la carte: around €25. Closed Sunday and Monday.

Le Cloitre Gourmand: 21, Cloitre Notre Dame, 28000 Chartres. Tel: 02 37 21 49 13.

Richard Hesse

© 2008 Paris Update

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