May 23, 1999
Gifts From the Sea on Brittany's Menu
CHOICE TABLES / By JACQUELINE FRIEDRICH
rittany's rugged, windswept northern border begins immediately west of Mont-St.-Michel. The weather here seems to change every five minutes, and the panorama transforms itself dramatically twice a day -- when the tide flows in and when it retreats.
This is a land of seafood -- huge platters of fruits de mer: oysters, tiny clams, crabs and, in season, mussels and scallops. The catch of the day might also include John Dory, red mullet and cod. For carnivores the specialty in late spring is pré-salé lamb, the "pre-salted" lamb that is nourished on the salty marsh grass of the bay of Mont-St.-Michel. Indeed, Cancale's oysters -- both plates (flat) and creuses (larger, crinkly-shelled) -- and Mont-St.-Michel's pré-salé lamb have put each town on the roster of France's "100 sites remarquables du goût" -- places with a unique local specialty.
Jean-Marc Charles for The New York Times
The fishing port of Cancale, famous for its oysters.
Cancale is a lively fishing port and a popular tourist destination. At low tide its oyster and mussel "parks" are clearly visible offshore. And when the tide comes in, so do small fishing boats. A friend and I watched spellbound as fishermen with raw red hands released crabs from tangled nets.
About 10 miles to the west is the walled town of St.-Malo. Largely destroyed during World War II, it has been meticulously restored. Today it is an important port, a tourist center and, it seems, a converging point for American students.
The concentration of good restaurants, the combination of Cancale oysters and pré-salé lamb and the allure of the Maison de Bricourt, a temple of gastronomy, lured me to the region in mid-April.
Maison de Bricourt
or serious eaters Olivier Roellinger's restaurant is as much a pilgrimage as Mont-St.-Michel. The restaurant, which has two Michelin stars, had been on my "to do" list for years -- ever since I began reading how this autodidact, now 43, took inspiration from St.-Malo's role in 18th-century spice trad ing as well as the region's contempo rary larder to create his distinctive cuisine.
The Maison de Bricourt, in Mr. Roellinger's childhood home behind Cancale's main square, has three small dining rooms. The one where I was seated looked out on a pond and lots of fat ducks. The room itself had a studied spareness. There were few things and they were beautiful -- handsome stained wood floors, for example, and elegant Limoges porcelain. That esthetic carried over to the food, such as an exquisite amuse-bouche of bites of monkfish on wood skewers posed on a slab of jet-black beach stone. The juicy fish gently tasted of the Roellinger version of tandoori spices, which included cumin, coriander, red pepper and sheep's-milk yogurt. A perfect appetite whetter, as were three cockles on a circle of sea salt made to look like a bed of ice. My favorite was filled with a delicious tartare of John Dory and sesame seeds.
I was eating alone -- my companion was out of commission that evening, having been felled by a wayward oyster -- so I ordered the $110 menu (one of two at dinner), which started with a small drum of crabmeat, sweet and juicy as could be. A fragrant soup of seasonal vegetables and tiny shrimp gave way to delicate inch-sized abalone with parsley butter and excellent mashed potatoes, all of which went magnificently with an oak- and mineral-flavored 1996 Chablis Premier Cru Vaillons from Dauvissat ($25 for a half bottle). (My waiter, who could not have been nicer, was eager to explain the history of the rare, minuscule abalone.)
A large portion of small lobster was sheer delight, its meat beautifully accentuated by an exotic sauce composed of rocou (the root of an African shrub), citronelle, tamarind, galanga and allspice. A dab of fig paste was a curiously apt garnish, adding a concordant sweet note.
In "John Dory Retour des Indes" chunks of fish were superb foils for a sauce with 14 different spices, among them cucurma, ginger, lily petals and star anise. Nuggets of Brittany lamb were suffused with the flavor of cumin, caraway seed and niora, a Spanish pepper -- brilliant with a 1995 Saumur-Champigny Les Poyeux from the Foucault brothers ($40), an exciting red mingling cassis, oak and minerals.
The star on the cheese tray was the farmhouse crème fraîche, so rich, so subtle. (That and the restaurant's home-churned butter alone merit a visit.) A crepe enveloping pear-and-vanilla scented cream preceded a flaky napoleon filled with pineapple cream and accompanied by a mug of hot rum spiced with fresh ginger, citrus zests, mace and pepper. The sweets plate, with goodies like wafer-thin tuiles wrapped around chocolate-caramel cream, extended the gourmandise well into the night.
A more casual restaurant under the same ownership about five miles away, Le Coquillage, has a magnificent setting, but the service was lamentable and the quality of the food was mixed; I'd be tempted to return, however, for the sunset and the seafood platter, which looked gorgeous.
he Quai Gambetta, facing Cancale's port, is lined with restaurants. Le Surcouf was the most tempting, with its handsome deck, its sober yet stylish blue and white décor and its appetizing menu. It is an attractive setting for the cooking of Francis Marx, the chef-owner.
His rye bread was a stellar accompaniment to Cancale oysters, though his appetizer of new potatoes and crab meat was a showier tour de force: mellow potato slices arranged like a galette over delicious crabmeat. Buttery roasted salmon was nicely accompanied by fresh egg noodles. Rabbit in a flavorful brown sauce, served with carrots, fava beans and wild mushrooms, was homey and savory. Marx's crème brûlée was classic and his crepes oozed with butter and sugar flavored with eau-de-vie de cidre.
Jean-Marc Charles for The New York Times
Le Surcouf in Cancale.
From the small wine list we selected a half bottle of 1997 Reuilly Blanc La Raie from Claude Lafond ($10), a supple sauvignon blanc; and a '97 Menetou-Salon Rouge from the Domaine de Châtenoy ($24), a delightful, light pinot noir.
Service was gracious and professional -- very much in the image of the restaurant.
À la Duchesse Anne
uilt into St.-Malo's ramparts, À la Duchesse Anne, which opened in 1945, is a step back in time, the type of restaurant featured in French movies as the provincial trysting place in which a good meal always precedes the cut to the hotel bedroom. Its two dining rooms have beveled glass windows, delicate white curtains, breakfronts lined with copper pots and ice buckets and seriously professional waiters in short white jackets.
When we arrived at 8 o'clock on a rainy night the restaurant (which has one Michelin star) was already half full, the animated, well-heeled crowd digging into platters of oysters and huge langoustines.
We started with a classic fish soup with excellent garlic croutons and clams stuffed with garlicky snail butter -- a delicious, old-fashioned pleasure. Main courses were also trips down memory lane. Fillets of sole "Duchesse Anne" were sandwiched in puff pastry, layered with diced mushrooms, placed on a sauce based on cream, fish stock and wine, and glazed. We enjoyed every bite. The blanquette de veau tasted better than it looked. Chunks of gristly, gray meat in a gray sauce, the stew was nevertheless tasty and satisfying. Among the classic desserts were excellent profiteroles and tarte Tatin, with its caramelized apples and perfect crust.
The wine list had few attractive choices for under $30. Serge Dagueneau's brawny '97 Pouilly-Fumé (around $23), however, stood up to the assertive fish soup and clams.
had been searching everywhere for pré-salé lamb. Invariably, there was a reason why a restaurant didn't have it: it wasn't quite the season; quality wasn't consistent, and so forth. Then I spotted a restaurant near St.-Malo's ramparts whose menu listed "agneau de la baie du Mont-St.-Michel." Sounded right. And Brigitte Delaunay, a smart and friendly young woman, assured me that this was, indeed, pré-salé lamb. It was not entitled to the pré-salé appellation, however, because the lamb had not spent the required 60 days grazing on the salt marshes. To dispel any doubts, she showed me her supplier's bill which featured "agneau pré-salé." Had it not been for the lamb, I might have overlooked Delaunay, a tiny two-room restaurant decorated in the overheated style of French mass market furniture stores -- with wallpaper "wainscoting" and busy pink and blue drapes.
But there was that lamb, and the menu and wine list further whetted the appetite, as did the farmhouse ciders and Breton beers. And everything lived up to its promise, starting with an amuse-bouche of peppery mackerel rillettes and continuing with soupe parmentière aux huîtres, a buttery broth with chopped leeks and diced potatoes. Cancale oysters had been slipped in at the last minute. Merely heated, they were fabulous and added an intriguing briny note to the soup. And the lamb: three fat chops, their juices flavored with tarragon. Delicate, simultaneously tender and firm, they were nicely complimented by a 1996 Bourgogne from Domaine Tollot-Beaut et Fils ($31), a light but well-made pinot noir.
An individual kouign-amann, a dense puff pastry overloaded with butter, was so crisp it needed to be cut with a serrated knife but was delicious, with its side of homemade vanilla ice cream and a flourish of caramel sauce. It proved a satisfying end to a second search: for a restaurant with traditional regional desserts.
perfect restaurant for Sunday lunch, Jean-Pierre Crouzil (named after its gregarious chef-owner) is located in an unprepossessing building in Plancoët, a Podunk of a town about 15 miles southwest of St.-Malo. Inside all is comfort and warmth, with the provincial elegance of wood beams, thick carpets and tables of families in their Sunday best.
Jean-Marc Charles for The New York Times
Oysters at Jean-Pierre Crouzil in Plancoet, southwest of St.-Malo.
That feeling of prosperity and contentment is echoed in Crouzil's haute bourgeoise cooking, which has brought the restaurant two Michelin stars. Cancale oysters, for example, were gratinéed in their shells in a foamy sabayon cooked with Vouvray. The wine-tart sauce, mixed with the briny oyster juices, made a toothsome backdrop for the fat mollusks. Less successful were dwarf langoustines accompanied by flavorless potatoes.
The farmhouse quail was excellent, the duck even better. Thick, rosy slices of filet surrounded the fork-tender thigh, which had been stewed in pinot noir. The whole sat on a deep, peppery sauce and was garnished by, among other things, a healthy slice of succulent sautéed foie gras.
Although the cheese tray was unambitious, desserts were lovely, starting with a sweets plate featuring mini-lemon meringue tartlets and tiny coffee eclairs, and continuing with a sensational moelleux au chocolat, an individual chocolate cake with a molten interior, and a spectacular pear soufflé served with a succulent spiced poached pear.
Among the attractive choices on the wine list is the 1993 Château Pavie-Macquin ($62), a fine-boned St.-Émilion. And the young staff was friendly and thoughtful, always anticipating our needs.
Bill of fare
All of the restaurants accept major credit cards. Prices are based on a meal for two, with a moderately priced bottle of local wine, and include the 15 percent tip factored into French tabs.
Only the Maison de Bricourt separates smokers from other diners. The hours given are for late spring, when I visited. During the busy summer season most restaurants extend their hours.
Jean-Marc Charles for The New York Times
The Maison de Bricourt in Cancale, a pilgrimmage for serious eaters, has two Michelin stars.
Maison de Bricourt, 1 Rue Duguesclin, Cancale, (33-2) 188.8.131.52. Closed Tuesday and Wednesday at lunch. Separate room for smokers. Menus at $42 and $70 (lunch only); $78, and $110. About $200.
Le Surcouf, 7 Quai Gambetta, Cancale, (33-2) 184.108.40.206. Closed Tuesday and Wednesday. Menus at $16 (at lunch except on Sunday) and $25. About $100.
À la Duchesse Anne, 5 Place Guy La Chambre, St.-Malo, (33-2) 220.127.116.11. Closed Sunday night and Wednesday. Menus at $13 (weekday lunch only) and $70 (Saturday and Sunday). About $100.
Delaunay, 6 Rue Ste.-Barbe, St.-Malo, (33-2) 18.104.22.168. Closed Sunday and Monday. Menus at $16, $21, $30 and $38. About $100.
Jean-Pierre Crouzil, Plancoët, (33-2) 22.214.171.124. Closed Sunday night and Monday. Menus at $48, $63, $66, $83 and $92. About $180.
Le Coquillage, Le Point du Jour, St.-Méloir-des-Ondes, (33-2) 126.96.36.199 or (33-2) 188.8.131.52. Closed all day Monday and at lunch Tuesday and Thursday. Menus at $18, $28, $30, $37, $43 and $78 for a large plateau de fruits de mer and dessert. About $100.
Le St.-Cast, Route de la Corniche, Cancale, (33-2) 99.89.66.08. Closed Sunday night, Tuesday night and all day Wednesday. Menus at $18, $27 and $35. About $100.
La Cancalaise, 3 Rue de la Vallée Porçon, Cancale, (33-2) 184.108.40.206. Closed Monday and Tuesday. About $35.
Copyright 1999 The New York Times Company
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