A very rainy hour-and-a-half drive up along the coast in a rented cherry-red Fiat 500 brought us to La Rochelle, the picture-perfect capital of Charente Maritime. Two solid months of non-stop rain and all of the emotional ups and downs that come with such weather had ignited our cabin fever to the point where we simply had to get out for the weekend to see something new, even if the rain followed us. There is a reason, indeed, for Bordeaux’s local nickname “la cuvette d’Aquitaine.” As we drove, stone pines rooted in sand gradually replaced more deciduous varieties, bringing back to my nostalgic Frenchman childhood memories of family trips to the coast. The rain hit our windshield with considerably less force here, softening into a salty seaside mist along the way.
I had been to La Rochelle just once before over the summertime and had fallen head over heels for this city, its central market, its two great towers and the islands just a short drive away. It’s a perfectly sized city for a weekend getaway for those who starve for the seaside in Bordeaux center. Its packed with great restaurants, bars, shops and cafes in which to spend a sun-soaked afternoon idling around after a few hours at the beach. Because of the business school nearby, the streets are (though seasonally) buzzing with youth. I also kind of just love the way the name of this city rolls off the tongue. “Ça va? Tu as passé un bon weekend?” “Oui très bien, on est allé à La Roshhhellle.” The historical harbor, abuzz with tourists in the summertime, is more quiet on a dewy January afternoon. But the place also seems much more real at this time, the ocean angrier, the fortified walls more slippery, deadly, dark. In direct contrast to this is the bright and warm (and very dry) interior of the restaurant Les Flots, housed in an 18th century cafe, right at the foot of the majestically lit Chain Tower. In 1997, at the age of 22, Gregory Coutanceau (one of two very well known chef brothers in this area) took over this restaurant and throughout the following 12 years turned it into a culinary point of reference by sticking hard and fast to the concept of fresh seafood that has never touched ice. On a windy evening in la Rochelle, the cozy but beautifully dressed dining room is the right place to be, leaning back with a glass of Pineau des Charentes in wait for the tasty amuse-bouche to appear.
We ordered a fresh bottle of Sancerre to sip with six n°3 “La Spéciale de Claire” oysters from Marennes Oléron. They actually brought seven, as the 3’s seemed too small to the staff (which they really weren’t…) Legions and legions from the oysters of the (in every way overrated) Arcachon Bay, these were absolutely perfect in every way. The right size, as big as I like them, but still concentrated with tons of flavor. They were creamy on the surface with a deep bowl toward the end of the shell, where the slippery meat gathered in a single plump, tight little bite. A not-too-briny kiss on the lips from the sea, freshened up with a splash of classic mignonette, made with some sort of cider vinegar, shallots and pepper. Fresh bread and demi-sel Échiré butter from PDO Charentes-Poitou (keeping it local!) served at the right temperature sat there, tempting us from the bottom of the platter.
Before the arrival of the mains, we also tried a dish that brought together perfectly cooked duck magret and halves of roasted baby-beetroot, along with a crunchy, crusty cromesquis of confit duck leg and bits of toasted gingerbread crumble here and there. The juicy hunks of flesh sat in a brilliant red pool of the meat’s cooking jus dyed with deep red beet blood. This sauce gave a wonderful depth of flavor to the dish. The salty, gamy taste of duck paired nicely to the sober, earthen sweetness of the beet, and the crumble of gingerbread here and there added a hint of wintertime warmth and coziness, relaxing us on a chilly evening. The cromesquis (type of croquette) contributed a nice grainy texture and crunch to the dish, although the shreds of pulled duck leg inside could have been just a tad less dry. Filling this little ball with voluptuous rillettes instead, for example, would add a great creaminess to an otherwise quite lean starter.
There were two entrees on that menu that we simply had to try that night. Ben ordered the ris de veau (calf sweetbread), served with langoustines from La Cotiniere Port of the nearby Oleron Island. Served alongside was a little garden of roasted vegetables – a tender little Brussels sprout next to a clove of garlic here, some wedges of skin-on baby potato, spring onion and peeled carrot there, a touch of kohlrabi and a tower of parsnip like a lighthouse at the end of a long, rocky dock. The veggies sat in a creamy pumpkin sauce and were brightened by the occasional sliver of sour-bitter yellow grapefruit, which also helped clean the smoke and marine musk of the langoustine. But back to the sweetbread, which came in a very generous portion: a jiggly, soft, super smooth and tender bit of thymus meat that had been soaked in milk or cream before, and escalopé (breaded) very lightly for a gorgeously crunchy, crusty pan-seared coating. This combination of textures that I love so much in my mollejas – crunchy, grainy crust with soft and smooth interior – was perfectly executed in a very large hunk of the stuff. The sweetbread was sitting in a pool of reduced balsamic and dried tomato vinegar, whose slightly burnt and acidic flavors cut beautifully the indulgent creaminess of the gland-meat. A very busy dish, but not necessarily too busy. Perhaps the pumpkin cream beneath the veggies could have been a bit closer in flavor to the vinegar reduction to allow better harmony between the two sides of the plate. As it was, this was a beautiful and immensely entertaining plate to both behold and devour.
But the restaurant’s specialty, the lobster fricassée, stole the show that evening. A whole lobster (two juicy claws, one plump tail, butterflied) and some earthy, tender morel mushrooms came served on a bed of creamy black truffle risotto, doused with a nutty porcini cream and a tremendously flavorful chicken jus (no doubt the cooking liquid from another menu item). A single leaf of baby spinach stuck casually on almost sarcastically, as if to suggest a touch of modesty in such an obviously and sinfully extravagant dish.
There was a lot going on. It was so indulgent, in fact, that I had to stop several times to let out a giggle, my cheeks flushed and my eyes glazed over in sheer euphoria. The creamy, thick risotto, seasoned with plenty of freshly shaved black truffle was already a lot to handle. Add to that the combination of pungent, earthy porcini cream and the rich, roasty-toasty essence of perfectly caramelized chicken. Fat little morels, beautifully woodsy in flavor, contributed a chewy flavor and the ultimate “land” counterpart to the marine protagonist of the dish. The lobster was perfectly cooked and seemed to last forever. The tail had a tight, elastic snap when bitten into, while the claw meat offered a smoother, more delicate texture. Thrice I passed to Ben’s plate hearty forksful of this fricassée, yet plenty remained on my plate, which was incredibly generous in portion considering the ingredients involved. A dish that can only be described as stupidly good, a shameless heap of riches, nevertheless assembled with so much tact as to make these ingredients shine even better together as they do on their own.
We both finished this meal giddy-happy and with no room left for dessert. We stayed for a while after to relax, however, taking in the atmosphere, the mellow mood of our fellow diners, the cognac cart in front of us packed with gorgeous bottles… At one point I contemplated whether or not to try to buy one of the blown glass structures with an octopus inside, which graces each of the tables at Les Flots. In the end I decided not to. The warm, full feeling in my belly and the epic collection of content on the ‘Gram would prove to be souvenir enough of this night.