Seeking unforgettable meal in Brittany
Later this summer, my wife (whose parents are French) and I will be taking our 11-month- old son to Brittany to meet his French relatives. We'll be staying with family in St. Brieuc and eating well the whole while (homemade dishes; sausages from the market; plus, I'm sure, at least one visit to the local creperie; etc.). But we hope to leave the little guy with his grandparents for a night and hit the road in search of a knock-our-socks-off restaurant meal or two.
We're willing to travel an hour or more and will be staying overnight in whatever town we land in. I've read a bit about what appear to be the most hyped Brittany establishments, O. Roellinger and Jacques Thorel's restaurant at L'Auberge Bretonne, and I'd love to hear from anyone who's dined at either and cat attest to whether they're worth the splurge. I've also read about a place in Rennes, La Table d’Eugenie, that sounds intriguing. But what I'd really appreciate is suggestions for less-discovered places that perhaps outperform those higher-profile spots...
I went a lot at Roellinger (not for a few years alas, but no report I read suggests that anything changed, nor does what I know of the Roellingers and their houses). I believe it is one of the best restaurants in the World. It is a very special place: the house where the chef was born -- his mother still lives upstairs. You bell at the door to enter, and the place is absolutely unspectacular, as are the service and the food.
The cooking is very subtle, with an extremely fine balance of spices and different tastes. This is not to say that it cannot be intense and is not very tasty. Roellinger is always respecting, putting forward his products – he is far from letting them untouched, but is also not putting himself between them and you (like, say, so many creative chefs).
The first courses and mises en bouche of marinated fishes are amazing, benefiting of course from the ultra fresh fish (fish is always from last night, except or course for those that require some maturing like the sole), and from surprising seasonings that always serve flavors. I remember in particular mackerels marinated with exotic fruits vinaigrette. Or oysters (local specialty) with a tiny slice of foie gras, and emulsion of hazelnut, and a leaf of “ficoide glaciale” (if I remember correctly), a plant that tastes like oyster. Everything in this composition what at the service of the full development of the taste of the oyster inside your mouth.
Raw seabass dices with “celtic” vinegar (a reduction of apple vinegar, with, once again, a secret combination of spices) also very noteworthy.
A sole with mashed potato involving just a few spices is a masterful demonstration of his art, for it sounds like a non gastronomic dish but is actually a culinary experience. The John Dory “saveur de l’ile aux epices” is more complex, more surprising, as it involves a secret combination of twelve spices, mango, and cabbage (the recipe changes constantly, John Dory and twelve spices being the stable element). The cocoa and Xeres lobster is one of my best memories. It is served in three services, the middle one being an amazing (and mysterious, as I have no idea how he does it) lobster cappucino, which is both sweet and intensely marine.
The degustation menu is a real composition: it is coherent, really tells a story (he calls it “une image du pays malouin”). There are many various and innovative flavours, but it never feels like you are a being a lab rat: they are not experimenting on you but only offering very fined tuned creations (unlike Gagnaire or Barbot, in my opinion). Also it is not too much, and, despite the abundance of ingredients, every dish, and the whole meal, feels like a unity.
Don’t miss the cheese plate, also very personal, and your plate is prepared with special care.
The meal ends with the same refinement. With a list of coffees (I advise the Papoo one, that has a hot chocolate flavor), a little box of spices in precious wood brought to your table, subtle and delicious sweets, caramels. They have great cigars as well, handled by the charming Rodolphe, the Maitre d’.
Again, it is unspectacular and subtle. In particular, it is impossible to enjoy it if you are, say, just jumping out of your car on a Saturday morning after a stressed week of work. You need to be relaxed, available, have had a few walks along the bay overseeing the Mont Saint Michel.
The Roellingers offer amazing places to stay, like Les Rimains, on top of a cliff with the Mont Saint Michel and its bay at sight from your bed. They will indicate nice trekking options (which they practice a lot themselves). You can also have ride on their old sailboat with the Chef, if you are lucky. In the garden of Les Rimains, they also rent some "apartments" in luxurious wooden houses, with a professional stove.
So it is a very rewarding but very demanding place – it may be the reason why the full three star recognition took so long to come. But clients have known better for over twenty years: it just is one of the best, incomparable restaurant experiences ever. In my opinion, that is. And that of its many faithful clients as well.
Thanks for the very thorough post on Roellinger. Inspired by it, we called to make a reservation--but unfortunately, there are no tables available the entire month of July!
Do you happen to know anything about Maison Tirel Guerin in St Meloir des Ondes, near Cancale? It was recommended by a French friend of my father-in-law...
It is a good local table and hotel, comfortable and pleasant. It is recommended if you're around but not worth a trip. It is a Best Western hotel. In the neighborhood, the castle of Roellinger where he serves more simple and impeccable seafood is much more interesting, with the view on the Bay. It is called Chateau Richeux. And you can sleep there (but maybe this is fully booked in July too?).
Sorry about the Roellinger failure. I suggest you still try to call them in the next few days before you plan go, there always are last minute cancellation and they will appreciate your commitment.
I am unfortunately not aware of anyway that the Roellingers find a table for you if they do not have one (such as recommending yourself from s.o., etc). There are places where that works, but the Roellingers, if anything, have lessened their capacity over the years and are not so much into bending the rules (maybe their German name?).
I believe Thorel and mostly Abadie (l'Amphytrion) in Lorient fit more your quest for an unforgettable meal in Brittany. Thing is, the cuisine is much more creative at Abadie's, but the place is not charming. Never went to Thorel, but this is a place usually much appreciated for a high level very traditional cuisine, is also a very cute hotel, and the coast of the Morbihan is much more pleasant for your morning lovers' walk than anything near Lorient.
If you are very much into food, exceptional simple fishes, and do not pay much attention to the surrounding, l'Amphytrion is a very good choice -- some consider it the best table in Brittany (see François Simon, or lefooding.com, or GaultMillau, who gives him maximal rating 19/20 --save their inconditionnal love for Veyrat and its 20/20).
Abadie's website not working, but here are some of his recipes in French:
I just had an excellent meal at Le Baron Rouge in Rennes. I don't know if it would be worth a very long drive, but it's a great old space, and the staff couldn't have been more interested in us having a good time. Wine list was also interesting. My colleagues said that their sister restaurant Leon le Cochon is also very worthwhile.
FWIW, from the Menu Formule I had a duck tartare (great), a caserole of pork cheeks (really, really great) and a tarte that was topped with salted butter caramel (a traditional Brittany preparation).
I also rank Roellinger as one of the best restaurants anywhere, but since you can't get a reservation there, I spent a few days in Plancoet, which is a short drive from Cancale, at Jean-Pierre Crouzil's charming Hotel l'Ecrin, and was amazed at the level of cuisine and service in the restaurant, which has a Michelin star. I would rate this as an ideal spot for a romantic, overnight getaway.