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Bistros, bars & brasseries
If any small city in the UK was blessed with as many restaurants as La Rochelle, it would become a place of fevered foodie pilgrimage. Here, streets bristle with bistro after bistro, brasseries, bars and many, many seafood specialists. The locals deal with this bounty with a small so-what shrug: why wouldn’t we? But for us Brits, it would be as though Watford suddenly sprouted as many places to eat out as central London.
We’re staying at the traditionally comfortable Hotel Champlain, perfect for exploring the ancient, porticoed streets. How to choose from La Ville Blanche’s riches? There’s everything from Michelin stars to converted boats selling fried seafood by the waterfront. The most heavily populated restaurant area, by the Vieux Port, is dominated by two imposing medieval towers, Tour Saint-Nicholas and Tour de la Chaîne.
Of the three quaysides, two appear to be entirely dedicated to eating and drinking. As is rue St Jean du Pérot, where we’re seduced by the famous Ernest le Glacier. We wallow in caramel ice cream spiked with local salt while watching the nautical life. The beloved André is a kitsch Disneyland of a fish restaurant (if they can drape it with nets, anchors and glass oats, they will), but a bit more our speed, across the inlet on rue Saint-Nicolas, is cool little cooperative restaurant Prao. With its brick walls and beardy barman, it’s the nearest La Rochelle gets to hipster. There’s no microwave, no freezer: they pride themselves on their freshness and locality (sadly, no longer a given in provincial France): we love our black pudding ‘samoussa’ with ‘black butter’ made from vastly reduced apple, and massive, garlicky sausages from a local farm glazed with their own barbecue sauce. Unusually, they also do a splendid Sunday brunch.
They have a gift shop and deli down the road for those essential sea salt caramels and records. Why not? Local insider intel leads us to La Suite, whose chef, Johan Leclerre, is one of the ‘Meilleur Ouvriers de France’ (Best Craftsman of France). But, with its nightclubby champagne bar, snooty staff and tendency to over-accessorise – I’m not sure that foie gras really needs a balsamic glaze and discs of Chioggia beetroot – it’s not really our kind of place.
In a teeny and exquisite square off rue Saint-Nicolas is lovely little La Solette Cour du Temple (11 rue de la Fourche), which benefits – as most places do when off the beaten track – from a very local clientele. We eat tartare and a croustillant de chèvre (goat’s cheese tart) under the trees. Then, rather than having dessert, we find ourselves repairing to Le Panier de Crabes next door (owned by the same people) for a spankingly fresh platter of fruits de mer. These sweet little neighbours provide my favourite La Rochelle lunch.
Rue Saint-Nicolas is also home to the ancient, semi-legendary La Guignette, where supremely saturnine men serve bottles of the eponymous liquor, as neon-bright and sugary as any alcopop. ‘What’s in it?’ I ask one. ‘Wine and fruit,’ he grunts. Hmm. It only opens for a few hours so I’m not sure why they’re so grumpy, but it adds to the enchanting vintage atmosphere. The streets of the old town are lined with shops selling everything from designer clothes to kitchen goods (we nearly acquire a meat slicer in the very well-stocked Culinarion but resist when I realise a) the price, and b) that it wouldn’t fit in our luggage.
A stroll brings us to the mandatory Place du Marché. I had almost dismissed a visit to the inevitable town market on the grounds that, well, when you’ve seen one… How foolish of me – this one is an absolute beauty. A historic marché des halles is open daily for racks of oozing cheeses; piled-up rainbows of soft fruits; fougasses, baguettes and paniers from the bread stalls; and saucissons en croûte, salads, stuffed tomatoes, cheesy baked aubergines and pâtés. And, of course, oysters: we choose from the vast number on offer at Roumégous and take them to La Verre et L’Assiette to down with a glass of Entre-Deux-Mers amid the market’s bustle. This is our sharpener before heading to one of the many informal little bistros that fringe the market.
Our choice – based only on the fusty cuteness of the interior – is L’Alcazar Café (aka Bistro du Marché, 8 rue Gambetta) where we have rough, meaty terrine studded with pistachios and glorious homemade chips with a rosy fillet mignon in cider sauce. For nightcaps, we wind up each evening in the buzzy, bar-lined piazza Cour du Temple. At Les Mauvais Garçons, like the titular naughty boys, we down shooters on the student-rammed terrace.
My husband pines for artisan beer from L’Académie de la Bière across the way, but sometimes it’s fun to pretend to be down with the yoof. He gets his fix later at hip Captain Houblon, with its stock of more than 150 different types of artisan and micro-brewery beers. It’s hard not to fall a little bit in love with this compact, attractive city. But of course, one of La Rochelle’s top draws is the bridge over to the Ile de Ré, a tiny island that’s the distillation of everyone’s French fantasies, a necklace of towns linked by beaches and cycle routes that look as though they’ve been designed by Elle Decor.
We go, with what appears to be an island’s-worth of wealthy incomers, to O Parloir. It’s the sort of place I imagine does well on TripAdvisor, but its swankiness seems to be missing the shabby-chic point of the island. Truly beautiful garden, though, and the mouclade Charentaise (local mussels in a light, creamy curry sauce) is a wonderful evocation of the sea. I also like the duck parmentier (a sort of shepherd’s pie), its mash pierced by a crisp bacon wand. Le Tout du Cru, a little gingham-draped raw bar in an atmospheric alleyway behind the main drag, enchants us. With fine crusty bread and sweet butter, we slurp oyster after oyster and a rather fine, nutty jamón Ibérico de bellota.
Later – much, much later – we head for the deliciously raucous and Le Vieux Port booze-fuelled Le Bistro du Marin with what seems to be every stylish boat owner in the area, for Kir Royales and steak tartare. Oh, and more oysters – why the hell not? When in Charente-Maritime… The ‘5A’ andouillettes de Troyes (sausages made with pork and intestines) – which we can smell before it leaves the kitchen – well, they can keep that particularly delicacy. For a France that often seems hard to find in these homogenous, globalised, McDonald’s days, this corner of the country is pleasingly preserved in aspic. Gourmet aspic, of course.