View from our Dorado Beach Hotel terrace.

"Positano, like Capri is more of a way of life than a tourist destination.  La Marina Grande is the small main beach."

These two teenagers fighting were so amazingly close you could hear their tusks clanking

Rafting in the Rio Paquare, Costa Rica was an exhilirating, heart thumping experience

" On the way to Tilcara and Humahuaca, the landscape is unreal, the color tones of the earth, and the huge mountains, are all overwhelming"

I ticked off another destination on my bucket list and, in retrospect, am finding it hard to determine which vacation I loved more: the South African Safari http://singita.com/ or a recent trip to the Galapagos Islands.

Brittany July 1997

By: Esilda Buxbaum

Introduction

France has steadily moved away from it's rural agricultural heritage over the last thirty years. Changes in Brittany have been particularly noticeable. The traditional coiffe,or headdress, we had commonly seen on the streets in the southwestern part of Brittany, is now seen only at folkloric festivals, on special occasions and in museums. Chaumieres, or thatched roofed cottages, are also mostly history. The cost of installing and maintaining a thatched roof today makes it more likely to show up as a folly on an expensive home than on a farmer's cottage. Nevertheless, in spite of the fact it's been said "you can't go back," we've been promising ourselves a return trip to Brittany for almost thirty years. We hoped a budget that allowed for multi-starred meals this time around would provide more than adequate compensation for any loss in quaintness or charm over the years.

Traditionally, Brittany's gastronomic reputation has rested on the freshness and quality of it's fish and seafood rather than on haute cuisine, but we haven't been able to overlook the prowess of Alain Passard, Bernard Pacaud and Jacques Le Divellec, three notable Breton expatriate chefs, who have served us superb meals at L'Arpege, L'Amboisie, and Le Divellec, in Paris. On our last visit to Armor,the country by the sea in the local Breton language, we were content to sate our appetites with raw oysters, steamed mussels and an occasional boiled crab with fresh mayonnaise. On this trip we were eager to taste the cooking of some of Brittany's best resident chefs. We started in Nantes, leaving the highly touted Olivier Roellinger, who a reliable source had predicted would be the next chef to get three stars, to serve the crowning dinner of our tour.


Brittany, France July 1998

Flowers bloom all over Breton villages in window boxes and town squares, but the most impressive displays are the hortensias(hydrangeas) with their balls of of color running the full gamut of blues, purples, magentas and pinks


Nantes

Le Domaine d'Orvault

Not knowing how we'd feel after a long layover at Orly and a connecting flight to Nantes, we bypassed starred restaurants in favor of a bucolic setting when making our first night's reservation. As luck would have it, we were not only in the mood for a good dinner after a nap and a walk, but Jean-Yves Bernard's kitchen provided us with a dinner well beyond our expectations and one worthy of a star, by our standards.

A Relais & Châteauxuntil recently, the Domaine is now associated with the Relais du Silencegroup. We looked for signs of the difference. The refrigerator in the minibar was out of order, but a request for a pitcher of ice water after dinner was filled within minutes. Suffice it to say the comfort, service and the charming grounds with their lush gardens, large trees and flowers were all pleasing to us. We noted that several of the less expensive and less formal inns in last year's Relais & Châteauxguide were no longer in this year's guide.

A light rain abruptly ended our brief walk, but a glass of the local Muscadet, in the bar opening to one of the terraces, enabled us to enjoy the greenery and connect with the local terroir. The dinner menu was large with several prix fixe menus and extensive à la cartelistings. We selected the two least expensive menus, both of which offered a choice of two dishes for each of three courses. At 165 F and 200 F, we were delighted with our meals and thought two of our dishes were worthy of a multistarred restaurant.

Although Muscadet is excellent with oysters and mussels, both raw and simply steamed, we selected a Pouilly Fumé from the other end of the Loire Valley as the ideal accompaniment to our menu. One from J.C. Dageneau that was priced at 180 F proved to be most enjoyable.

A first course molded custard of shellfish and seaweed with a deeply flavored briny cream sauce was unexpectedly impressive and compared favorably with our memory of a recent dinner in what we consider New York City's best seafood restaurant. It was garnished with a few tiny steamed mussels in their shells and a large clam shell filled with baby clams and mussels tossed with butter and minced herbs. The seafood was all perfectly cooked. An artichoke custard with a red pepper coulis was less impressive, but only by comparison. We were off to a wonderful start.

A rather creative dish of squid on a bed of perfectly al denteblack ink noodles with saffron sauce and a bit of tomato concassé was a knockout in taste and appearance. Monkfish was another excellent choice, if not quite a competitor for the center of attention and conversation of this course.

Included with the 200 F menu was a rather creative salad course of baby greens tossed with diced strawberries, a balsamic vinegar dressing and a slice of fried Gruyere cheese, that I first mistook for a large crouton. My immediate reaction at the very idea of fruit, lettuce and cheese, was worthy of being recorded on camera, or so I was told. Oddly enough, the balsamic vinegar brought the berries and salad together. I found myself enjoying the dish, although I approached it with some trepidation.

Desserts were simple but good. We had very thin fruit tartes, one fig and the other rhubarb. The tarts were cooked to order on a pastry disk and served with a scoop of vanilla ice cream.

Orvault turned out to be an unexpected bonus. The one flaw in the service was that our wine languished in a cooler out of our reach although our glasses were low or empty.

Michelin no stars; GaultMillau 14/20; Relais du Silence; Tables et Saveurs de Bretagne


Passage Pommeraye, Nantes, France July 1998

In Nantes, don't miss this gallerie from the from 1843 still serving as an elegant mulitlevel urban shopping mall.


La Roche-Bernard

L'Auberge Bretonne

Jacques Thorel's inn in La Roche-Bernard was to be the alpha to Roellinger's omega. This was a stop we were counting on for one of two memorable meals in Brittany. Unfortunately our meal was very uneven. We chose the six course 540 F menu which started off with a wonderfully sweet, succulent and perfectly done roast languostine in a tea cup of buttery and briny bouillon. Our enjoyment and enthusiam for dinner ended with an unforgiveably over cooked lobster. The sauce was flavorful and loaded with girolles, but nothing could compensate for the texture, taste and essence of the lobster that was lost in the oven.

Cheese and two desserts followed the lobster, but our hearts were no longer in the meal. Under other circumstances we would have been captivated by the elegance and simplicity of plums in red wine served with a chocolate sorbet. Equally lovely was a second dessert of pear poached in cassis with caramel ice cream on the side.

A tomato stuffed with spider crab meat came between the languostine and the lobster. The tomato was watery and the crab meat was dry. It needed a redeeming course, but unfortuantely it was folowed by the aforementioned lobster. It's clear from the langoustine, the sauces, and desserts, that glorious food can be prepared in this kitchen, but it was not consistently brought to our table.

To compound our disappointment, we acceded to the sommelière's suggestion of a white Burgundy priced at about twice what I might have budgeted, if I were so foresightful as to budget my indulgences. After the lobster course, we could only focus on the relative value of last night's Pouilly Fumé. We enjoy good wine as an accompaniment to good food. Rarely have we rejected a sommelier's choice based on price and, as often as not, the recommendation is likely to be less expensive than the wine we might have otherwise picked. In retrospect, we felt this selection, and the cartein general, to be pricey and the sommeliere a bit pushy. Once the spell of the charming reception, lovely dining room, with its garden views, as well as the first course, was broken, repeated attempts to sell us a red wine with cheese, a port with my blue cheese and a wine with dessert became annoying rather than a service.

Michelin 2 stars; GaultMillau 17/20; Relais & Châteaux, Relais Gourmand; Tables et Saveurs de Bretagne


Vannes


Vannes, France July 1998

This patisserie not far from the port in Vannes was recommended to us as serving the best kouign-amman, a wonderful traditional buttery Breton pastry. A stop for afternoon tea was well rewarded


Moulin de Lesnehué

It's easy to choose expensive inns and ensure a perfect stay, but we researched the Guide des Auberges et Hotels de Charme en France to see if we could find some bargains. The Moulin de Lesnehué, outside of Vannes, seemed perfect. We were delighted to find the setting as charming as its picture, but let down to find no outdoor terrace or place to sit and enjoy the serenity. Once inside our room, we were no longer aware of the charming surroundings. It was, however, clean, comfortable and a bargain. The crêperie on the premises was no longer in operation, but there were two one star restaurants in the area, not that I could ever get my full of crêpes in a week. For all the wonderful seafood and fine cuisine we were to discover, nothing is more memorable than a buckwheat crêpe with a bit of Breton salt butter and a local country egg mirroir (sunny side up) - and a "bowl" of cider, of course.

Régis Mahé

The restaurant is considerably more sophisticated than it might appear from in front of the Vannes train station just across the street. The dining room was full for dinner and we were pleased we had the foresight to call for a reservation earlier in the day. Chef Mahé brings a Mediterranean style to the fresh Breton ingredients in his kitchen. As half the créperies in Brittany now double as pizzerias, it seemed unreasonable to pass up this promising restaurant because the chef and his style were imported from the Mediterranean.

The 285 F menu featuring a pigeon and langoustine dish seemed like the best buy, but the four course 360 F menu offered a compelling lobster risotto. It had something to do with the need a thrown rider has to get back in the saddle. Fortunately the lobster was not over cooked, and the risotto was fine if not as exciting as some we've had in New York, albeit at higher prices.

Nothing however, could have charmed us more than the wonderfully textured solettesserved with coco beans in a warm vinaigrette sauce as our first course. A subtle addition of a very finely ground tapenade was so elusive a taste that we had to ask the waiter to identify it. The luscious sea bass that followed was equally well cooked and served with veal jus and coarsely mashed potatoes. The potatoes alone, would have been a treat.

We returned to the nearby Loire valley for our wine choices and enjoyed a bottle of Pouilly Fumé and glasses of Bonnezeaux with dessert.

Service was excellent and attentive. Early in the evening we were bothered by the smoke drifting over from another table. We noticed one empty table in the corner and asked it we could move there. We were told it was reserved. Without our saying another word however, our waiter went over to the smoker's table and returned to let us know they planned not to smoke after their food arrived. They finished dinner earlier than we did and were offered coffee in an adjoining lounge. We had not made a point of the smoke and were quite pleased with the unexpected attention to our interests. For all I hear about how the French laugh at American concerns about smoking in dining rooms, we have repeatedly found instances where chefs and restaurant owners seem to share our opinion that smoke interferes with the appreciation of good food.

Michelin 1 star; GaultMillau 17/20;


Bénodet

Domaine de Kereven

Much of the Breton coast is reminiscent of New England, but sitting here, with the beach a few minutes away and facing a large green lawn bounded by a cornfield, we felt we were out on Long Island. A crisp glass of Breton cider offered by the congenial manager, in exchange for our patience while our room was made up, reminded us that we were in Brittany. I don't know if it was the cider, the setting, or the fact that it was served in a fine wine glass, but it was a most pleasant glass of cider and it was hard to pull ourselves away to check out the town of Bénodet and it's rather family oriented beach. While not quite unspoiled, it did not develop overnight and is not as over built as many other beach areas. We sought out the local one star restaurant, found it had a very interesting menu, and made reservations for the evening.

La Ferme du Letty

Once again we lucked out with a reservation for a table in a place that was to fill up for dinner. With both Monsieur et Madame Guilbault greeting guests and seeing to the comfort of diners, we assumed the chef was a hired hand. We were wrong. The kitchen is in the very able hands of their son Jean-Marie. That's good news for locals and future tourists alike as it's doubtful he would leave this simple but beautiful old stone farmhouse voluntarily.

An extensive à la carte menu led us quickly to the relatively simplicity of ordering one of the six, not counting the children's meal, prix fixe menus. The seven course degustation menu at 495 F was just too much for us to eat that night. The rest of the menus from the 98 F menu on up, were inviting. We opted for the 310 F menu featuring lobster. Third time is the charm. We were each served half of a sweet roasted lobster cooked to absolute succulent perfection and served with a bit of lobster velouté on the side along with some crushed potatoes to soak up the juices.

First course choices included a small, but very rich portion of wonderfully cooked langoustines and tiny morels with a few sea greens in a bit of morel velouté,and a salad with foie gras and langoustine which proved less interesting and less satisfying.

Even further away from any local vineyards, we chose a bottle of white from the Rhone. At 174 F a St. Joseph from B. Grippa was satisfying but not as outstanding as a bottle of his red we remembered from a trip to the Rhone valley. Glasses of Coteaux de l'Aubance with dessert continued our research into the sweet wines of the Loire.

The craqueline aux fraises, included strawberries, whipped cream, strawberry coulis, strawberry meringue, vanilla ice cream and crisp caramel disks. Both the whipped cream and the ice cream were rich with vanilla bean seeds. I may have worried about the tourism in France in July, but I forgot about the strawberries when I was thinking we shouldn't travel in the summer. The berries here were very well treated and, needless to say, so were we.

Michelin 1 star; GaultMillau 17/20; Tables et Saveurs de Bretagne


Intermission

We saw castles and churches, explored the rugged south coast from the famous and fascinating salt marshes of Guerande to the old fortified city of Concarneau, and we bought some of the famous sel gris from one of the vendors at folding tables along the marshes, but we hadn't stopped to bask in the sun or enjoy the surf. Our plans now called for a long day's drive north, with stops to see the renowned calvaries and parish closes of Guimiliau and St. Thégonnec, and a stay on the Pink Granite Coast for two days to enjoy the beach. It was then that we became aware of the need to learn the tidal rhythm of the Breton coast, as the beaches recede by astonishing distances between high tides. A beautiful beach can become a muddy stretch of algae and rocks.

With less regularity and no warning, restaurants can come and go as well. There was no rapport between our dinner and the Michelin star and warm GaultMillau review of our hotel. It was only when we returned to the front desk to cancel our second night's stay that we noticed the discreetly posted letter from Michelin acknowledging a discontinuance of restaurant service at the hotel. That was the only star in this part of the coast, but we had no trouble, in another beach town along the coast, finding a room in a hotel with a promising menu. Alas, promises were all we got and our beach break turned into a break in our dining pleasures. By the time we set out the next morning, our sights were set on finding a laundromat and a rewarding lunch.


St.-Brieuc

La Vieille Tour

With clean clothes in our bag, and after heading out on the wrong side of the Gouët River, we finally arrived at an inauspicious location in an almost abandoned industrial port area outside St. Brieuc. The unexpectedly bright cheerful and urbane interior together with our warm welcome cheered us up immensely, but it was Michel Helio's food that brought us real pleasure.

Unable to agree on any of the four gastronomic menus ranging from 200 to 400 F, but served only to the entire table, we ordered from the "carte-formule" allowing a wide choice of three dishes for 300 F. We agreed that the langoustines were an appealing starter. Accompanied by artichoke heart fans and a bit of greens and served in an intensely seafood flavored sauce, the langoustines were just short of being over cooked but still tender.

It was our main courses, offering fascinating combinations of flavors, that demonstrated the skill and artistry of the chef. The garnish of caramelized onions and a compote of dried apricots sandwiched between crisp wafers dotted with fennel seeds was a remarkably successful foil to the very flavorful but slightly acidic stock served with tiny fillets ofrouget. Equally interesting, to us, although fish and sausage combinations are popular in Iberian cuisine, was a gratin of thinly sliced potatoes and andouille sausage with roased John Dory (St. Pierre). An onion compote served on cooked tomato halves rounded out the dish.

Although we had thought we were quite sated by our savory courses, we quickly devoured desserts and our faith in France was restored. A warm salad of fresh fruit (sliced peaches, raspberries, strawberries and kiwi) in a bit of fruit soup came with small waffles and vanilla ice cream. A millefeuille of strawberries and raspberries with whipped cream and strawberry coulis was a tribute to ripe summer fruit.

Michelin 1 star; GaultMillau 16/20; Tables et Saveurs de Bretagne

N.B. I see that in 1999, M. and Mme. Hellio have opened a hotel and restaurant La Voile d'Or-La Lagune alongside a lagoon in the resort town of Sables d'Or les Pins halfway between St. Brieuc and St. Malo. I gather La Vieille Tour is closed as I no longer find a listing for it. Their new restaurant sounds as if it's a step up. I can't wait for the chance eat there.


Cancale

Les Maisons de Bricourt

Our anticipation was great as we approached Cancale, but we were aware that our major disappointment of the trip came at another Relais & Châteaux/Relais Gourmand.High expectations are the prerequisite for great disappointments. This is not a mystery novel and I'm happy to report up front, that we were immensely pleased in both style and substance, by the hotel, our room, the restaurant, everything we were served, and the service in general. Indeed, this was a major memory of our trip and a place to which I would quickly return and highly recommend.

We reserved a room in La Maison Richeux, Roellinger's château, also referred to as his folly. For those who have toured the Loire, "château" seems immodest for this large house built in 1925. Nothing, however, should be regarded as less foolish than turning this fine home just outside Cancale into a very appealingly sophisticated and tastefully comfortable inn. We couldn't recall a more inviting place to stay. We had the least expensive room at 750 F. The white room was full of light and crisply furnished with an armoire that was more evocative of a sea voyage than a stay in a French hotel. The understated design carried through into the adjoining white tiled bathroom. I've come to accept the lack of shower curtain in French baths, but the addition of one here would have made this a perfect bathroom for this American. On this very hot day at the end of July, the breeze from the sea and the operable skylight in the adjoining bathroom eliminated any need for artificial air conditioning.

The beach behind the hotel was not so inviting, but we walked along the shore and passed several small areas that were nicer and under utilized by occasional bathers. We arrived early enough to explore Cancale and its beaches, but we were seduced by the grounds of the hotel and decided to enjoy a drink. An order of a Lillet was met with a puzzled look, but a request for a gin et tonic brought an immediate "Bien sûr, gin'tonic."The young woman at the front desk caught my reaction to the waiter¹s suggestion of a boring Heinekin to quench my thirst and suggested a Schutzenberger from Alsace. It was an enlightened suggestion. She was gone when we returned to the building, so this is the first chance I have to thank her.

There's a dining room at la Maison de Richeux serving simple seafood and breakfasts, but the Relais Gourmand is in town at la Maison de Bricourt. The Roellingers also operate a smaller inn, their sentimental home - les Rimains, in Cancale. With grace and consideration for those diners who enjoy more than their share of wine and perhaps digestifs, there is complimentary shuttle service to and from the restaurant for guests at the remote Château Richeux. We understand there used to be a vintage car for this service, presently a minibus performs the duty efficiently, but with some loss of fairy tale experience.

Unfortunately, shuttling several parties at once, may be part of the reason one can wait for some time before getting as much as a menu or carte du vin after being seated in the dining room. Should you not order an aperatif, you can find yourselves fiddling your thumbs for a while after arrival. We clocked almost 45 minutes. Nevertheless, it's an exceptionally charming dining room overlooking a garden and pond with ducks. The garden is lit up after dark and the picture is quite sublime. After our wait, we were ultimately charmed by the attentive service from the moment we ordered until the moment we left the restaurant.

Neighboring St. Malo was home to La Compagnie des Indes and the port through which all sorts of exotic spices arrived in France. In using a wide variety of spices, Roellinger feels he is honoring the great sailing and importing traditions of Brittany. That tradition may be less important than his great command of his spices and skill in using them so effectively. GaultMillau designated him "chef of the year" recently, and for several years he has achieved their highest rating. Michelin has yet to award him that highly coveted third star, but in spite of our annoying wait after we arrived, I wouldn't bet against it coming soon.

One warning we had was that our taste buds might experience overload in reaction to Roellinger's active use of spices not usually found in French kitchens. To find out, we ordered the gastronomic multicourse tasting menu listing ten courses including the cheese tray. In addition, as expected in a posh multi-starred dining room, there is the complimentary amuse bouche before the first appetizer and petits foursand mignardisesafter desserts.

Several of the early courses blurred the distinction between amuse bouches and dinner, with several small complementary or contrasting tastes arranged on a plate. A tiny sea snail with parsley sauce and one equally small mussel in curry sauce were accompanied by a bit of tuna tartar in another small sea shell. This dish was followed by a few quarter inch cubes of raw scallop served in two seasonings. If the Thai inspired peanut sauce was a bit jarring, it seemed more like the mole on a models upper lip than a flaw in the design of dinner. With the raw scallops came a small cylinder of spider crab meat. Both courses offered but a bite or two of each flavor and depending on your prejudices might seem either as if they were doll food or courses in a Japanese kai seki dinner. A better analogy might be to the prologue or overture of an evening's performance in another art and entertainment medium.

Successive courses of warm oysters, solettes, lobster and St. Pierre built in size as the evening progressed and demonstrated Roellinger's mastery of both seafood and seasonings. The bay of St. Michel is also known for the lamb that feed on its salt marshes and medallions from a saddle of baby lamb, garnished with a few white beans and a julienne of vegetables made up our only meat course. We realized it was the first time we had meat for dinner since we had arrived in Brittany. If details we give elsewhere are missing here, it's because the meal was long and complex and while losing ourselves in the pleasure of the dinner, we lost our desire to take notes.

For dessert, very ripe strawberries and raspberries were served with a "mousse" of pistachio nuts that was neither akin to peanut butter nor halavah and as with much of Roellinger's food, exact references to food we knew were not always easy to find. As dinner progressed, we found the sauces increasingly delicate and, while not outrageously alien, they were elusive to deconstruct. And for those who miss the point of this report, our taste buds were always tickled pink and never assaulted. We had an unsurpassed evening here.

Michelin 2 stars; GaultMillau 19/20, chef of the year last year; Relais & Chateaux, Relais Gourmand; Tables et Saveurs de Bretagne

We picked up a copy of The Tables et Saveurs de Bretagneat our first stop in Nantes. Although this is a self promotional guide for a group of Breton restaurants, the standards are generally quite high.

Relais Gourmandrefers to those members of the Relais & Châteauxrecognized as having excellent food as well as providing a high degree of comfort.

Link to a site with frequently asked questions (and answers) about Breton culture and a list of Breton pubs and crêperies.