Saturday, December 24, 2011
L'Aquarelle - A Pearl in the Oyster
If you are headed down to the Charente Maritime region of France (La Rochelle, Rochefort, Royan, St. Palais-sur-Mer, Santes et al.), there are probably two things on your mind: oysters and wine. Once you get beyond the seafood, however, this is pretty much a gastronomical wasteland. One glaring exception is the Michelin-starred L'Aquarelle, a pearl in the tiny village of Breuillet, a hop, skip, and jump outside of St. Palais-sur-Mer, home of the alleged best zoo in France.
Co. and I happened to be in these familiar stomping grounds for a pre-holidays visit, just in time for the latest sou'wester tempest to hit. With 120km/hr winds and torrential rain lasting the night before, we were just hoping the restaurant would still be standing for our Friday evening reservation. Sure enough, there it was, all aglow in the quiet, quiet still-rain soaked streets of Breuillet, not another human, animal, or vegetable in sight. Upon entering the restaurant you get the feeling of being home, a nice refuge from the imposing climatic forces of a late December by the sea.
L'Aquarelle details all are available at their informative website, once you get past that weird condom transforming into a dinner plate introductory motif. Twenty years my junior, chef Xavier Taffart brings his strong credentials to the kitchen and flaunts his creative skills well (be sure to check out the food images there). Tapping into our collective unconscious, Taffart's cooking seems to draw from the Jungian archetype of the circle - yin/yang, anima/animus - which is apparent in several dishes. That he has more up his sleeve than is apparent at first glance was clear when we ordered the 6-dish 55€ menu degustation and found that it consisted almost entirely of items that were not available on the regular menu. (For another 20€ the menu degustation is accompanied by five glasses of pre-selected wines.) When in Rome, or in this case, Bordeaux country, order a local wine. And so we did, and this turned out to be a real gem, a 2009 Villanova rouge. Fruity and midway between light and strong, this wine reminded me of some of the top riojas I have sampled in Spain.
The meal commenced with a three-part amuse bouche: a bettrave mousse, cigarette lardons et creme, and a celery mousse, all outstanding, but the highlight was the beet mousse, which was served in a candied shell resembling an egg (yin). My photo shows what it looks like when you crack the egg before snapping the picture.
The first official dish was a warming combination of a couple tender gnocci in a soup comprised of onion and cheese. There is no photo, which demonstrates what happens when you completely eat the dish before thinking of snapping a photo. Up next was a circle of foie gras pot-au-feu (yang), with herring eggs and haddock mousse. This is what it's all about, really put me in the holiday spirit - or was that the third glass of Villanova?
Dish 3 was comprised of a creative combination of cabillaud 1/2 sel, pulpe de topinambours, mayonnaise vanille, and citron. Yes, the topinambour raises its ever prevalent (in French restaurants) head again, with some flowers and mushrooms thrown in to round out the (this time) square-shaped dish.
The next dish was my personal favorite (Co. would vote for the foie gras hands down) lotte curry (anima), with sweet onion, asparagus and seminole, betraying my predilection for Asian spices.
The obligatory interlude before dessert was next on the agenda, as the fully-stocked chariot of cheeses was brought to our table. I savored a few choice morsels, the slab of comte, strong and essential.
Next, we were informed by our attentive yet not quite ready for prime-time waiter (youth!) that our next dish was not dessert, but pre-dessert, which was a way to tell us that there were, in fact, two desserts. The pre-dessert was less ordinary than it may have appeared - mango creme sandwiched between a wave of sugared potato (quick: potato. Fruit or vegetable?), its delicate curves reminding me of the turbulent waves of the sea a couple kilometers to the west. This was damn good.
Not to be outdone, however, was the actual dessert, or dessert no. 2 for those of you who are counting - a trio of edible, miniature geodesic domes (animus): a candied shell encapsulating jasmine creme, with a couple faux cherries to boot, the latter composed of crushed apple. Visions of Futuroscope, the science theme park 60 or so kilometers to the north, entered my mind.
Along with the post-meal cafe came a cart jam-packed with any child's fantasy of stocking stuffers - candies, cakes, macaroons. At this point, no sense overdoing it, but what harm can a couple of little cakes on the house create?
So, overall, I am more than satisfied that the tempest did not blow away L'Aquarelle before my scheduled visit. The price/quality ratio is a deal closer: a six-course meal, a bottle of wine, coffee, and some extras thrown in came to a mere 138.50€. It's hard to find fault with anything food related, but if there is a nit to pick it would have to be the piped in music that further confirms Frank Zappa's famous quote that people wouldn't know good music if it bit them on the ass. Muted, but not quite enough, just go with the subdued baroque under these circumstances. And that white concept spoon - I go one way, it goes the other - really needs to be rendered to the trashbin. But these are minor quibbles. L'Aquarelle is truly deserving of its Michelin star. It's not around the corner, but add this venue to your reasons to venture southwest of Paris, even during the off-season.
22, rte Cande
1. According to Aurelie Taffart, our proprieter-hostess, the restaurant's current location is a rental and the couple is in the process of building a permanent home for L'Aquarelle, which will remain in Breuillet, so it shouldn't be too hard to find.
2. Thanks to LB, whose Google search was better than mine, and who recommended L'Aquarelle as a can't miss option.
3. With one of our mainstays by the sea in Royan - Le Petit Bouchon - closed for the season, Co. and I gambled on La Jabotière, which sits next door to the casino - and lost. Nice waitstaff, a view of the sea, and they really seem to try, but the food just wasn't up to snuff.