Not to mix spirituality with cuisine, but Domaine de Rochevilaine in Brittany, France granted me the only opportunity I’ve ever had to share a sole with someone.
And what an uplifting experience it was too.
Deboned, drizzled with a savory butter sauce and served tableside, it was without doubt the largest member of that particular aquatic species I have ever seen.
Seated in the classically-furnished restaurant with wonderful views over the jagged rocks below and the coastline across the Vilaine estuary in the Morbihan region, the velvet-soft, fresh fish was but one of a number of fine dishes we enjoyed during a short stay there.
The importance of ambiance as a key ingredient in any memorable dining experience is not lost on veteran hotelier, Bertrand Jaquet, who has created in a phrase, ‘visual amuse bouche’ for guests before they’ve even lifted a knife or fork, in this Relais & Chateaux property.
Pre-dinner drinks are served in one of two delightfully relaxing rooms. Lined with historical artifacts, one room boasts a gleaming brass canon on wood wheels, three large shelves of books, old black and white photographs depicting nautical as well as seaside scenes and a most imposing stone-faced, open fireplace. The other, hexagonal in shape, boasts an even larger, open fireplace, with a stone sculpture of two lions lying between a medieval helmet with a dragon either side. A wood carving of St. Andre hangs near the door with a seal staring curiously across from him. The emblem of two lions permeates the property, with staff saying it is of English origin, not French, perhaps linked to the Templars.
Attention to detail is obvious, with each sitting room having a very distinctive character. In terms of seating, for example, one has sleek rounded leather armchairs while in the other they are straight-backed chairs, made from a combination of wood and softer material.
Tip: ask for a table either in the corner room at the end or window side. From there, the sunsets are simply gorgeous. The dining-room is impressive too, spacious with an oaken floor, diverse 600-year old wood carvings adorning its walls – of a troll-like figure, a bag-piper, two peasants carrying a pine nut and various animal heads; large, framed paintings of medieval ships at sea; hanging lamps; a big, open fireplace; and soft armchair-like seating, leaving one with the distinct feeling of being cossetted.
Staff is extremely attentive, combining a dry sense of wit and conversational repartee with non-intruding efficiency. Also, Jean-Marc Boitaud, a sommelier from the Cognac region, with 24 years experience, is among the best we have ever enjoyed, well-versed in his knowledge of the grape, as well as being warm, friendly and patient in his explanations. Bespectacled, long-time waiter, Laurent Salle, and barman, Jean Yves Bonnicmon, couldn’t be more helpful, even when it came to locating a particular Brittany-made Pastis – Kenavo Pastis Breton – outside of their stock that my wife requested.
The dinner menu at Domaine de Rochevilaine (it also serves lunch), changes daily and runs the entire gamut of culinary delight, from amuse-bouche such as fresh tuna tartare, foie gras and chicken, spinach and cheese pie, to main dishes that encompass fish, seafood, frogs’ legs, escargot, pigeon, lamb, and duck. The level of quality extends to desserts with complex creations such as rolled crepes with pears sorbet, caramel and cider to dacquoise au cacao (layered cake with almond and hazelnut meringue), ivory ganache and chocolate filling.
Aside from the sole, highlights of our dining experiences included a multi-tiered lobster dinner with Breton crepes with a cider sorbet for dessert followed by a delicious array of local and international cheeses, served with violet and raspberry chutney.
Our lobster dinner was a lesson in cuisine diversity – cooking the main component in different ways and by combining it with carefully selected elements, creating complementary-tasting dishes.
The pre-starter, salpicon-style, featured succulent pieces of the crustacean, accompanied by honey, celery leaf and crunchy carrots, served with freshly-baked bread. Combined, these fashioned a balanced mix of sweet and savory taste. Two starters followed, both decidedly different. In one, lobster-claw meat was poached and served with sesame-seed Chinese rolls, fresh cilantro and steamed asparagus while in the other it was roasted and served with asparagus tempura and red and yellow pepper sauces. The main lobster dish was served with pasta, with a bisque and grapefruit sauce reduction poured slowly over it tableside.
Jaquet, who bought the four-star Relais & Chateaux property 18 years ago after managing it for four years previously, ably assisted by his daughter, Cécile, who runs the restaurant, have developed a most comprehensive wine cellar. Throughout our meal, we had the pleasure of sampling some of the finest, including those from Château du Breuil in Anjou; Domaine Yann Chave from the Côtes-du-Rhône; and Domaine du Pas de l’Escalette from Languedoc.
A pleasing ambiance, with visual treats both inside and out, delicious, diverse dishes and a comprehensive wine choice makes Domaine de Rochevilaine a fine dining experience in southern Brittany, a short drive from Vannes.