Enjoying nouvelle cuisine is always an experience I cherish when traveling to new places, especially in France. And when an establishment is rated two Michelin stars, I try to make sure good company and a lot of time is reserved for the occasion.
Richard & Christopher Coutanceau Restaurant in La Rochelle proved to be just the place for such epicurean delights.
Relaxed, with boyish good looks, Christopher explained to my companions and I that his philosophy about cuisine is anchored on one word – simplicity - with, for example, his favorite fish to cook being sardines and mackerel. Growing up in a family who pride themselves on their cooking skills – their restaurant was first granted two Michelin stars in 1986 – both Christopher and his brother, Gregory, followed in the tradition and trained as chefs. But while Christopher took over his family’s fine-dining restaurant, previously run by his father, Gregory opened two others in another part of La Rochelle with a greater emphasis on casual dining.
Christopher’s menu varies with the season and the produce available but can range from seafood such as oysters, lobster and assorted fish to foie gras and beef. To complement the food, he has an extremely well-stocked cellar containing over one thousand different wines with an estimated 15,000 bottles stored beneath the floor of the restaurant itself. Among them is a Ragnaud Sabourin Heritage, a blend from the 1902 and 1903 harvests, at a cost of about 200 dollars a glass.
Though not a fan of oysters, I tried some of my partner’s, poached as a starter in shellfish and langoustine broth and dressed with parsley and dill. Eaten with a slice of home-made lemon roll, the combination presented a pleasant balance of flavors and was very delightful indeed. Still, my heart, or should I say, my eyes and belly, focused on the terrine of foie gras soaked in lemon and ginger sorbet, served with kumquat marmalade and freshly-baked breads. The wine chosen to accompany it - a 2009 Vin de Pays Charentais-Mainart, Maison des Maines from a nearby region known for its production of Cognac – was the perfect complement, enhancing the succulent flavor of the soft, choice morsels of meat.
Our main dishes were more than satisfactory - pan-fried fillet of John Dory that came with a delicious vinaigrette made in the abovementioned Cognac region and filet of beef cooked just enough to entrap the flavors within it and served with a Saint-Emilion sauce.
With a well-seasoned sweet tooth, I am a lifelong admirer of the exquisite French flair for mouth-watering desserts. That’s why Christopher’s moelleux au chocolat et beurre sale, superposition au grue de cacao caramel a la fleur de sel et sa glace – basically a gourmand’s dream of chocolate soufflé with ice cream and sea-salt caramel – was my first choice. Making a perfect chocolate soufflé is an exact science – a few seconds too long in the oven and the whole thing becomes a dry, drooping disaster on a plate.
Christopher’s, however, blew me into another dimension of space and time.
I’ll be back for more. www.coutanceaularochelle.com
For more famous chefs read Top Chef 2012