After a light breakfast and completely repacking my new luggage, we checked out of our hotel around 10:30 am and took a cab to the train station. On the way, our gregarious cabby chatted with us about my travels and his favorite vacation spots in France. He recommended Mont St. Michel, which I have no doubt is spectacular... but also another tourist central. And I must say, I'd rather walk around the markets and see a little of la vie quotidienne than immerse myself in a group of foreign tourists.
On the train, we were seated facing a woman who struck up a conversation with us about my mom's habit of taking pictures out of the train window. Within the two hour ride, Chantal, a La Rochelle native, offered to give us a tour around her city. My this-is-a-stranger-and-that-means-they-are-Bad guard was up a bit, but how could we refuse an insider's view of the city? We parted at the train station as new BFFs and agreed to meet at 9:30 the next morning.
After setting down our bags in the hotel, we set out to see the city a bit. La Rochelle, the second largest fishing hub on the French Atlantic coast, has a long history as a major port city. The skyline is dominated by three defensive towers, standing watch over the Vieux Port a reminder of days of sieges and religious wars in a town that today is host to more yachts than frigates.
After stopping to pick up some yogurt at the Monoprix, I spent an hour or so scouting restaurants. Appropriately, La Rochelle is all about seafood, seafood, seafood. Ultimately, I didn't see anywhere that looked better than the well-recommended André. A La Rochelle institution, this sprawling restaurant takes up almost an entire city block. We entered at what seemed to be the front door, and were lead through one empty dining room into another, and into another again, and finally into an enormous room with a few diners already seated. After weeks of eating in restaurants that could seat maybe 35 at most, it was quite a change!
André is known for huge seafood platters featuring a dozen varieties of shellfish. They also offered about eight different kinds of oysters on the half shell in addition to the wide variety of fish you might expect. Not feeling too adventurous, I opted for a filet de daurade grillé:
The daurade, or dorado in English (or, more commonly, mahi-mahi in American English) was served on a lemony cream-based sauce with a peppery eggplant mash on the side. The fish was cooked perfectly, very tender and just a little crisp on the edges. The lemon sauce was a perfect accompaniment. Perhaps the best fish I've ever eaten - delicious.
My mom ordered a simple plate of grilled vegetables:
The vegetables had been placed under the broiler with some shredded parmigiano-reggiano. Simple but tasty.
Having ordered more rationally than in the past, we were able to order dessert and enjoy it too. I selected the entremet pommes, caramel à la fleur de sel Ile de Ré:
Ile de Ré is an island just off the coast of La Rochelle that is home to a natural saltern still in production today. Their hand-harvested sea salt, known as the poetic "fleur de sel" (salt flower), is used all over the city with caramel to create incredible desserts. This one had a ton of components: from the top, a salted caramel sauce drizzled over a thick, creamy caramel custard on top of a vanilla crème pâtissière over a layer of caramelized green apples sitting on a biscuit, all over a drizzle of dark chocolate with some green apple mousse dots. There were a lot of flavors to fit into one complex bite, but the almost burnt, sugary caramel balanced perfectly with the salty bite and the bright, tart apple to create something superb.
And of course, after dessert, I indulged in a déca:
André is conveniently located on the Vieux Port, and after dinner we walked out of the restaurant to find the sky painted colors in the cowboy cliché*.
* thank you, John Mayer.
Coming soon: our insider's tour of the white city