It drives me nuts, the brutishness of the Brexit debate, so my flight to Nantes, by France’s Atlantic coast, was unusually sweet, and driving on the wrong side of the road, perversely pleasant. I was heading to the tiny island of Noirmoutier, and driving into a peachy sunset over the ocean was fabulous. I could have taken the 16th century paved causeway, had it not been momentarily submerged by the twice daily tide. Instead I used the modern bridge, the kind of rural infrastructure benefit that comes with EU membership.
It didn’t work. Boy did it not work. Nobody came
The Netflix culinary series Chef’s Table is not to everyone’s liking. I love it. The mix of characters, their quirky stories, the exuberant joy of Milk Bar’s Christina Tosi. New episodes have stirred up the recipe a little but overall it remains tasty. A while back, the audience was introduced to Alexandre Couillon and his wife Celine, once childhood sweethearts at school on Noirmoutier, now married restaurateurs, him cooking, she running the rest of the show.
They do fish. La Marine, their restaurant, overlooks a tidy port where the day’s catch is landed, supplementing the plentiful supply of oysters, clams and mussels from the shallows surrounding that causeway. Each and every day of the year is a bounteous harvest. Their only problem at the outset was the absence of customers. Visitors traditionally come here for some summer sun. The rest of the year it’s a Ghost Town.
The Couillons struggled, supporting local fishermen while staring balefully at their empty dining room’s pretty tables and chairs. La Marine had belonged to Alexandre’s father and was run as a seaside caff, open for a few short weeks each summer. When Papa retired Alexandre, in an act of madness, gave up cheffing around with the likes of Michel Guerard and returned home permanently to bring culinary panache and metropolitan gourmandising to this tiny, unknown backwater. All year round.
It didn’t work. Boy did it not work. Nobody came.
Astonishingly, they managed to stay open for six years, buying fresh fish, before throwing it away, day after day after day until, broke and demoralised, they decided to jack it in.
By the kind of chance that borders on Act-of-God, that year a Michelin inspector had apparently called, (they’re anonymous), having heard of this madman out in the boondocks lavishing passers-by with lobster and fruits de mer, produce normally whizzed up to Paris for the well-heeled citizens of the 16th. In France, single Michelin stars attract travellers. La Marine finally got on the map. Before long Alexandre had two stars. The phone didn’t exactly ring off the hook but they were in business, at last.
Despite the isolation, La Marine has now evolved into a small, modern establishment where taste reigns. On entry, I bumped into my favourite chair in the world, Moroso’s soft version of Ron Arad’s Big Easy, facing its double soft sibling. The light, modern dining room is refreshingly free of artifice, urban smugness, or rural chintz. Alexandre’s commitment to local produce is total, forcing Celine’s front of house team to scuttle back and forth, ferrying the flow of new season produce erupting from the kitchen. I went on a freezing cold Monday in early March: the streets of the surrounding village, l’Herbaudière, were deserted. The restaurant was full.
Amuse-bouches do their job, tantalising taste buds through an increasingly adventurous assortment of spankingly fresh fish – raw, chopped, marinated, smoked – seasoned, infused, and dressed with herbs from the garden, climaxing with a second mackerel portion, liquefied inside a macaron, spiked with truffle and coffee. There’s no sashimi but Alexandre studied Ikejime in Tokyo and the fresh flavour palette he explores owes as much to method as proximity to the ocean.
Did I mention local? That day’s new golden mini radishes were picked just before service and dipped in a pine emulsion from the forest. Asparagus, weeks before the rest of us get our buttery fingers on it, was offered too. Sourdough is baked to order, served hot from the oven with homemade seaweed butter, and the wine list is dominated by the surrounding Vendee, with reasonable mark-ups.
Dinner starts proper with the world’s oddest signature dish
Dinner starts proper with the world’s oddest signature dish, Huitre Noire: Erikaa, a single large belon oyster farmed specially for Alexandre. It comes doused in jet black squid ink sauce, looks unappetising but tastes sublime, a visual nod to an environmental disaster twenty years ago when the MV Erika broke up and disgorged its cargo of heavy oil onto the coastline of northwest France, destroying marine and shorelife for years. Other courses follow this gesture of remembrance offering their own local narrative, possibly with a tad less melodrama.
Large scallops dived within sight of where I was sitting are sharpened by a fizzing lemon sabayon, barbue (brill) is an exercise in the perfect timing required for fish cookery: pearly white, flaky, meaty. Even the humble pollock, once cat food, is elevated to star status, Lieu Jaune de Ligne, with griddled cabbage and Vendee Truffle.
Someone in the kitchen has a sweet tooth, the display of mini desserts, petit fours, liquorice marshmallow, even a sweetened beetroot cube, climaxes with a glacée of fresh cream smoked over the dining room fire, smothered in a version of the island’s ubiquitous takeaway souvenir, caramel sauce.
Downlit tables are spacious, and the Japanese-style screen dividers used inside and out aren’t bamboo, but Châtaignier bouchot poles, used locally to grow mussels, have been salvaged to great effect here.
Upstairs has been converted to a hotel of five rooms, La Maison Moizeau, where clean lines continue thanks to Paris design studio otso, fashioning traditional materials for modern use inside a two storey glasshouse, an airy pavilion for relaxing, reading and breakfasting on home produced ingredients: a sweet, towering brioche is the pâtisserie de petit déjeuner of dreams, to be dunked in an early morning bowl of coffee for maximum satisfaction.
Trés Bon. C
La Marine/La Maison Moizeau, 5 Rue Marie Lemonnier, 85330 Noirmoutier-en-l’Île, France
+33 2 51 39 23 09; alexandrecouillon.com