Sunday, July 18, 2010

Four years in London

Four years of eating, traveling, of being a slow eater. So looking back, here are some of my favourite moments, in no particular order:

  • Discovering the joys of open-air dining in the Gaudi Park in Barcelona with Luke. First stop, the market; second stop, art. Classical guitar could be heard in the distance as we sat enraptured and amazed that we had fallen in love. Perfect.

  • My three-hour lunch with Angelo, the mysterious Italian, at the Slow Food Osteria Da Mario near the central market in Florence.

  • On the Isle of Skye, driving with my parents down sheep tracks to find one of the world's most remote restaurants. What followed at the Three Chimneys, the food, atmosphere and location, is one of my most memorable three-hour lunches.

  • Cooking English sausages from Parson's Nose, my then local butcher, for three starved Aussies - Warren, Eli and Jamie.

  • Misbehaving and badly with my friend of a lifetime, Warren, at the Loos Bar in Vienna.

  • Going native at a local Parisian market with Al and Luke and cooking a wonderful dinner of heritage carrots, caramelised endive and what has since been dubbed, the yellow chicken- stuffed with fresh herbs and day old croissant.

  • Celebrating something - I can't remember what, at the Ritz with Luke and drinking Ritz 100s, watching as the gold leaf floated to the top of the glass as it dissolved in the champagne.

  • Being introduced to Bob Bob, that's Bob Bob Ricard, by our friend Alana and sampling some of the best kedgeree, I have ever tasted. All on an ordinary London Saturday.

  • Eating oysters with HJ and Luke in NoHo, San Francisco. We'll have another dozen please!
To celebrate four years , I purchased this at auction at one of my favourite places in London- Criterion auction house. There's no signature and no date, so I can only guess when it was painted. In all likelihood, it could be the Queen's coronation. The auction house told me that the painting is circa 1950s.

Here's a close up - it's London in summer. Just like today. (if you click on the picture you can see the detail.)

A man of the sea

Château Richeux is home to Le Coquillage, one of several restaurants run by local Breton and celebrity chef, Oliver Roellinger.

Most famous for the now closed La Maison du Bricourt, for which he won and then returned not one, not two but three Michelin stars expressing his need to have a simpler life.

Roellinger has a formidable reputation. There are very few chefs who have made the front pages of Le Figaro for handing back the coveted Michelin. (Le Coquillage has just been awarded its first star this year.)

So it was with great expectation and excitement that we arrived at Le Coquillage. With views across to Mont St-Michel, this is a restaurant that plays to its reputation.

The drive offers sweeping views of the sea, which on this Saturday evening at the start of summer is hauntingly barren at low tide. The cypress trees bend and stretch in the wind. There is no hint of summer, only the movements of the seasons across sea and land.

This is a fitting picture for a man who says that “the sea has given me everything” from the earliest of his childhood memories in Sant-Malo to the desire to travel. His blends of spices for which he is famous are inspired by his journeys to Madagascar, Vietnam, and the West Indies.

But tonight is about Brittany and a menu dedicated to the sea.

First to the table is bread: the quotidian of life. Served with spiced butter of cayenne pepper, the bread is favoured with seaweed. The taste of the bitter sourdough with what could only be described as the tartness of the seaweed is both distinctive and delicious. Made on onsite and available for purchase, the bread is cooked in an oven designed by the famous Lionel Poilâne.

If our bread introduces a note of the sea, our appetizer offers its riches with smoked mackerel accompanied by crisp breads served with a smoked salmon mousse and transparent radish wafers. Poetically represented on slate and washed rocks, each mouthful is delicate, of outstanding quality, exquisite in favouring.

Our appetites now whetted, our selection begins with a dish of tomatoes, artichokes and marjoram with grilled sardine. Clams cooked with garlic and parsley bretonne method is also ordered.

The tomatoes are of a sunny disposition – saturated, intense in their heritage colours of blush pink, golden yellow and field green. The plate decorated with flowers of marjoram is the perfect homage to the garden from which these fruits came.

The clams are fresh and succulent, remarkably distinct in their favour despite the rich intensity of the garlic and parsley. The only note of disappointment is the squid fritters with fleur de sel and tomato chutneys that was also ordered. Whilst perfectly cooked, this almost conventional dish fails to compare to others.

From a menu of pigeon cooked on wood fire with buckwheat and one of the unique spice mixture of Epices-roellinger (wind power) and lobster grilled cancale-style, it is the sole that wins out.

Four orders are placed and it is clear from the first mouthful that we have been rewarded in our unanimous choice. The delicate sole separates easily from bone, its fine fillets, so perfectly cooked. The butter is delicately favoured – nutty with the zest of lemon. The mash is presented as a trio - classic, then favoured with seaweed and finally with candied lemon. Each one compliments the next. Perfect flavoured - surprising and unexpected.

The cheese cart we leave to others but watch with interest the use of oils and spices to compliment the local Brittany and Normandy cheeses. Instead we select from the dessert cart – the memory of which demands a second pause of appreciation.

Imagine delicate meringues, fresh nougat studded with almonds, a raspberry sorbet. A flirtatious mille fleur and a densely rich and very inviting chocolate tart.

Where to begin? With chocolate mousse tart, a broche style pastry filled with pistachio mousse and the nougat.

It is easy to understand why Parisians drive the distances to come to Le Coquillage to eat from this table of this man of the sea.

At each course, you taste the freshness of each season with local ingredients. Oliver Roellinger’s note that his menu is dedicated to the local suppliers and producers is an appropriate one, for the experience of this bistro is one that celebrates Brittany. I for one cannot wait to go back.

Things to do in Brittany
Mont Saint-Michel: This rocky islet is home to the famous abbey that sits on the border between Normandy and Brittany. According to Catholic lore, the Archangel Saint Michael instructed the bishop of Avranches, Saint Aubert, to build a monastery. From the year 1000 on, and for six centuries thereafter, the Dukes of Normandy and pilgrims have financed the construction of additional structures. It was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1979.
Thalassotherapy: Famous for its sea water therapies, Brittany offers the perfect retreat and therapy for rheumatism, arthritis, stress, weight loss, physical therapy. This is an opportunity to book a day spa, get covered in mud and sea algae, and recharge.

Saint-Malo: Take the boat from the medieval town of Dinan to Saint-Malo. Walk along the fortress and out to the sea pool and harbour. Sample the local moules et frittes – the muscles are much smaller than those found in the Pacific and are delicious.

Dinan: This is the town where I tasted my first true Breton buckwheat galettes: ham, cheese and caramelised onion served with a local cider. Always look out for the label crêperies gourmandes. Standards are strictly monitored by the Crêperie Gourmande committee.
A quaint medieval town with lots of winding streets and boutiques, some touristy, others not. Indulge in some additional striped behaviour with a pullover from St James.

Market: At the local market of Dinard, you’ll find the perfect baguette, slice of Brittany butter, striped shirt and shopping basket. Select from the best in season – from summer strawberries and white asparagus through to heritage tomatoes. Open Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday.

Special thanks to my friend Maya for inviting me to her family home in St Briac. One of the most beautiful places I have ever been in the world.

Dedicated to Gerard McLennan, another man who loved the sea.