Exploring the high end dining of Brittany

Saturday, June 21st , 2008

Brittany is a surprisingly hard place to get to from the UK given how close it physically is, at least for those of us used to flying from Heathrow. There are numerous regional airports, but no direct flights from Heathrow. We ended up starting our journey in Nantes (Easyjet fly there from Gatwick) and then driving up the coast towards Lorient.   We stayed at Château de Locguénolé, a very pretty chateau with a lovely lake (pictured) in its extensive and carefully planned grounds. The goal was to eat at nearby Amphitryon, a place with just two Michelin stars but a score of 19/20 in the Gault Millau (ahead of many 3 star places). I had been tipped off by a couple of people about just how good this was, and they were spot on.
The place could hardly be more unassuming, in a parade of shops in the outskirts of the sleepy and not particularly attractive town of Lorient. The room is rather depressing, with rough plaster and low ceilings, but any misgivings disappear when the food appears. I will not repeat the review in this blog, but the depth of flavours extracted from the superb local produce were remarkable. The spider crab soup which Stella ate was perhaps the best soup I have ever tasted, having simply remarkable depth of flavour. All four of us easting reckoned our main courses were 20/20 standard, and how often does that happen? In one case when we praised a particular sauce the waiter produced a separate sauce boat of more of the same, and I sat dipping my bread into it and grinning like a child, so magnificently flavoured was it. I was personally disappointed by the desserts, which strayed into wacko ultra-modern territory, but I could see that they were well constructed even if I found them the least good part of the meal.
This was going to be hard to top, but Oliver Roellinger (its gardens are pictured) managed to. If you are planning a trip, it is quite near Dinard airport, which Ryanair fly to from Stanstead. There are rooms to stay, but these are actually a few miles from the restaurant (a hotel car ferries you to and fro).  The hotel is quite impressive (see the second picture) with a lovely view (see third picture) over the beach and Atlantic Ocean, and attractive gardens attached with extensive herb and spice plantings. Spices are a key feature of Roellinger’s cooking, and are used artfully in a very controlled way.  For example a superb dish of John Dory with a sauce of 14 Indian spices does indeed taste Indian, but not in that dismal mild “curry sauce” kind of way that French restaurants sometimes try when experimenting with spices. Here the spices were distinct and not blurred together, but were held back in a carefully controlled fashion in order not to overwhelm the fish. The seafood tried over two meals at Roellinger was superb e.g. fine Brittany lobster, magnificent sole, perfect sea bass. Lamb and sweetbreads were also brilliant, as were the fruit, including the best raspberries I have tasted.
These three meals really put into perspective for me the gulf in standards between the countries on either side of the English channel. If we just take the 2 star Amphitryon, this was better food than I have tasted for years in the UK, and if I compare it to the Waterside Inn or Gordon Ramsay then the comparison is all the more striking. I have never had a main course that tasted as good as any of the ones at Amphitryon at either of these British 3 stars, not even in the days when Ramsay was actively cooking at his restaurant. Sometimes I read articles saying that Michelin is biased towards France, but anyone who believes that must be smoking something I need to try.  
I’ll be back reviewing London restaurants next week. Fortunately, I have a trip to the Riviera to look forward to in July.