Can you smell the fresh salty air? The week before last we were invited by our kind friends Carol and David to join them in the Poitou-Charentes region of France for a few days holiday. David and Carol had rented a huge country estate for the week and we were more than happy to fill one of the bedrooms for them.
Many years ago, I had friends living just north of Poitou-Charentes in the Vendée, so I had some idea of what delights awaited us in the culinary domain: great shellfish, including oysters and mussels especially, a lovely apéritif called Pineau, and - this being a former marshland - eels. I'll be writing more about the Pineau, but for the moment would like to share with you a review of the restaurant that David and Carol introduced us to at lunch on our first day in the area: Le Grand Bleu.
Carol and David had found the address of the Grand Bleu in their trusty Routard guide and tried it earlier in the week with some of their other guests. (The country estate had six bedrooms and could sleep up to 20 in a pinch!) If you have sufficient French to decipher a simple guidebook description, I would highly recommend the Routard series for hotels and restaurants in France and around the world. They are a bit like the Time out or Rough guides, with a casual, frank description of each of the locations. They are a treasure trove if you are looking for cheap, good food off the beaten track.
So we were happy to fall in with the lunch suggestion, bolstered as it was by a Routard recommendation and our friends' appreciation. The restaurant did not let us down.
First, take a look at the photo above. Doesn't this restaurant just look like the epitomy of cheap-cheerful-authentic food? And it was. Looking out over the bay towards the Isle d'Oléron, smelling the fresh sea air, you could tell this was going to be a good experience.
For a starter, my dear Critic began with a fish soup, complete with all its usual accompaniments: croutons, garlic and grated cheese. He was at a bit of a loss what to do with the garlic until I suggested he rub it on the croutons before adding them to the soup with the cheese. The soup was already delicious, tasting of fresh fish and shellfish with a spicy edget to it, but the garlic croutons made it even better.
Myself, I started with oysters. Since I am temporarily unable to eat my beloved raw oysters on the half shell (poor me!) I was obliged to show an adventuresome spirit and try them baked. They were delightful. (It goes to show what you miss when you are culinarily conservative!) Each plump oyster nestled in a cream sauce of sautéed leeks with a touch of curry and was blanketed by a crisp golden layer of cheese, hot from the oven. I was not taken with the presentation of the shells on blue salt, but when the food tastes this good we can forgive a little aesthetic faux-pas like that, n'est-ce pas?
The main dishes were a little less imaginative, but equally fresh and tasty. The Critic chose a tuna dish (which I sadly forgot to photograph for your pleasure): the steak was just barely cooked through, tender and juicy and covered with a tomato, onion and olive sauce. For myself, I ordered the fried cétaux, which turned out to be flat tender fish about 6-8 inches long (25cm), extremely fresh and crisply fried. Cétaux are in the sole family, and have the same tender, nutty flesh as their bigger cousins.
By the time dessert arrived, the camera was forgotten and the wine was flowing. The creme brulee was a little thin, but nevertheless nice. The Critic enjoyed a much nicer rich chocolate cake swimming in a creamy custard. A lovely end to the meal, though not quite as nice as the preceding dishes. Maybe the chef was tired by then or maybe he just didn't find sweets as inspiring as savoury dishes.
In all, the meal cost about thirty euros per person, including apéritifs, wine, starters, main dishes, dessert and coffee, not a bad deal especially when your view is over the bay.
Le Grand Bleu
7 rue Fort Louvois 17560 BOURCEFRANC LE CHAPUS 05 46 85 68 69