La Rochelle chef Christopher Coutanceau describes himself as a “cuisinier-pêcheur”, a fisherman cook – a reference to his passion for the superb fish and shellfish that comes into this port town on France’s Atlantic coast every day. He has been going to La Rochelle’s daily fish market, la criée, since he was three years old, and this year won the Michelin Guide’s first ever award for gastronomie durable (sustainable gastronomy).
This is a reflection of his fervent defence of traditional fishing – as opposed to the devastating methods used by the factory-sized ships that now ply many of the world’s seas and which waste a huge amount of everything they catch – and his anti-waste philosophy as a chef.
Coutanceau believes that, with seafood becoming an ever scarcer and more imperilled resource, every fish caught should be valued and eaten, and that threatened stocks should be allowed to regenerate. Informing this philosophy is the idea that today it has become a privilege and a real luxury to eat wild seafood. (More and more of the fish served by many restaurants is farmed.)
In La Rochelle, Coutanceau showcases his passion for fish at two different addresses: his eponymous Michelin two-star table and his casual seafood bistro La Yole de Chris. Both are excellent.
The best way to discover Coutanceau’s cooking at his gastronomic table is to order the signature menu, which comes as seven or nine different dishes, and changes according to the catch of the day and the seasons. Standout dishes from a menu recently served here included grilled oysters with pomelos and coffee, scallops in lime butter with caviar, mackerel marinated in olive oil with black garlic vinaigrette, and a remarkable seawater granité with lime.
Coutanceau’s minimalist touch derives from his respect for the fish and shellfish he cooks; the idea being that nothing should ever overwhelm the taste of the seafood itself. Instead, the natural sweetness of scallops, for example, is highlighted by the citric brightness of lime, with the caviar adding saline notes and texture.
At the relaxed and very popular La Yole de Chris, you can start with oysters, a sauté of tiny live Atlantic shrimp of an exceptional sweetness, or a carpaccio of smoked monkfish with shellfish, before tucking into sardines, tuna or octopus grilled over a wood fire, baby squid en persillade (with garlic and parsley), or sole. A variety of shellfish, including lobster, crab and clams, is also available, and desserts include a baba au cognac and an excellent salted-butter caramel éclair.
Wondering which of these two restaurants you should try? Ideally, it’s worth spending a night in La Rochelle so you can go to both, because between them they serve two of the most beautifully cooked catch-of-the-day menus to be found anywhere in France.
Restaurant Christopher Coutanceau, Plage de la Concurrence, 17000 La Rochelle. Tel. +33 (0)5 46 41 48 19. Signature menu: nine dishes €160, seven dishes €120; average à la carte €150. www.coutanceaularochelle.com
La Yole de Chris, Plage de la Concurrence, 17000 La Rochelle. Tel. +33 (0)5 46 41 41 88. Average à la carte €60. www.layoledechris.com
From France Today magazine