posted 31 May 2005

I was impressed with the seafood displays in the markets in Villefranche and Beaulieu, which put the assortment available in Tallahassee seriously to shame. But that was before we came here to Brittany. Wow! I wish I had a few more months (or years!) to explore the culinary possibilities.

I've also long been impressed with the cold seafood platters served at Bofinger in Paris. Rachel Sinnett and I split one back in March and thought it was darn good, but Rachel—now hear this—it was nothing! You've got to come to Brittany in May!

When we asked our friends and colleagues here for local restaurant recommendations, everyone mentioned two, the Hostellerie de la Pointe Saint Mathieu in Plougonvelin and the Hotel Sainte Barbe in Le Conquet. We've tried both, and both are good, but they're not in the restaurant guides, and it took us a while to figure out why. It's because they rely heavily on outstanding fresh seafood, simply prepared, rather than on any great culinary sophistication.

The first time we went to the Sainte Barbe, we each ordered the medium menu. I had the starter-size cold seafood platter, then the brochette of scallops with beurre blanc sauce, then rare grilled breast of duck (with sauce of prune purée, cream, and pink peppercorns), then "coupe caraïbe" (coconut ice cream, pineapple, stewed raisins, whipped cream, caramel drizzle). David had thickly sliced raw scallops with lime juice, filet of lieu (Atlantic pollock) with algae butter, then a share of my duck, then upside-down caramelized apple tart with ice cream. It was all very good, but the highlight was the cold seafood. I ate every bit (well, except for some of the tiny periwinkles), and it took a long time, so poor David (who is rather less enthusiastic about raw molluscs and shuck-it-yourself crustaceans than I am) had rather a long wait between courses. As we left, we turned to each other and said, more or less simultaneously, "Wow, next time I want that for my main course" and "Whew, I hope we don't have to do that again." Well, after some discussion and negotiation we agreed to go back there once more. I promised to order just the seafood, so that David would have several courses to eat while I dealt with it, and he brought along a book.

It was great. First, unlike Bofinger, the Sainte Barbe doesn't waste any platter space on ice. They just pile up solid seafood. Second, the seafood is better. (So is the view, ordinarily, but the view you see in the pictures is what we got—solid white fog.) Their idea of one person's worth of seafood is a two-pound crab (mostly hidden under the other stuff, but you can see its "elbow" sticking out to the right of the bowl in the lower picture), 24 large langoustines (the pink things), six large oysters, eight clams, and a bowl full of periwinkles (Littorina sp., very small blue-black gastropods). On the side, you get vinegar with shallots (for the oysters, in the white ramekin; it's okay, but I prefer lemon), dark bread (also for the oysters), a cork with three large pins in it (you use a pin to pull the tiny periwinkles out of their eensy shells), an oyster fork, a long skinny crab fork, a serious shell cracker, a huge bowl for shards, and half a pint of mayonnaise (piped into a decorative swirl; that's it directly below the seafood). They crack the large crab claws in the kitchen, and they open the oysters but then put the lids back on so they can be stacked (with lemon slices and some seaweed to wedge them in place). The clams you have to open yourself with a table knife, because they lose all their juice if opened in advance in the kitchen. The oysters are great, but very different from the Apalachicola variety (larger, more transparent, crisper, brinier). The langoustines (like all those on this trip) were a revelation. I'd often had them before in France, but invariably overcooked and too small. They periodically come around to collect your bowl of wreckage and replace it with a fresh, empty one. I ate the whole thing except some of the smallest langoustine claws and some of the periwinkles (you could spend hours eating periwinkles).

David ate all his couses, then read his book while I finished. Additional entertainment was provided by a party of 20 men who all ordered the seafood platters. Talk about a heap of seafood! Piles of crabs; acres of oysters! Waitresses came and went in relays, bringing more food and carrying away the shells. And halfway through, the eaters were served a "trou Normand"—a scoop of apple sorbet in a large wine glass of Calvados (apple brandy). I'm told it renews the appetite wonderfully. David was extremely patient.

Seafood platterAnd, yes, that's a glass of wine by my plate, but don't get excited. When David drinks red, I let them pour me a glass so that it can be breathing while he drinks his first. We then switch glasses, they refill mine, it breathes while he drinks mine, etc.

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