2000s Archive

The Prince of Tides

Originally Published May 2002
It's no accident that Olivier Roellinger's restaurants sit overlooking the sea. Everything about the Brittany-based chef, says Catharine Reynolds, revolves around its rhythms.

For most Frenchmen, Cancale means oysters. Nestled on the west side of the Baie du Mont-St.-Michel, on Brittany's north coast, the town is an icon of maritime France, and especially of the good things the sea delivers to its markets. Few towns in France haven't at one time had a Breton restaurant named for the rocks that mark its northern horizon, the Rocher de Cancale. And though the area's seafood has been prized since before the 16th century, it took a native son, Olivier Roellinger, to bring gastronomic pilgrims back down to the sea and the source.

That wasn't the plan in 1955, when Roellinger was born. His Jewish father had fled Alsace for Brittany in his youth, and his Breton mother was descended from a leader of a royalist uprising after the Revolution. Raised on romantic tales of pirates and ships that once brought riches across the oceans from afar, as a young man he was on course for one of France's prestigious Grandes-Écoles. Then, one night in 1976, he was beaten up by thugs in nearby St.-Malo and left for dead, with both legs broken and severe damage to his face.

Confined to a wheelchair for two years, Roellinger completely reexamined his life. He realized how deeply he valued human relationships, and he eventually decided he wanted to remain in Cancale, 250 miles from Paris, and to embrace a way of life at once more earthbound and more attuned to the senses than the one he'd previously planned. Cooking fit the bill. A background in chemical engineering, combined with natural talent, enabled Roel¬linger to qualify professionally in 1980 (at the "mature" age of 25). Stints with Guy Savoy, in Paris, and Gérard Vié, in Versailles, followed.

A few years later, the young chef returned to Cancale with his new wife, Jane, to convert the family house into a restaurant, which he named La Maison de Bricourt, since changed to Le Relais Gourmand O. Roellinger. Before long, Henri Gault and Christian Millau, the pied pipers of nouvelle cuisine, were leading a stampede to the Roellingers' door. What they discovered was a completely original cuisine of the sea.

The house sits behind a wall in the upper town, a neighborhood that maritime traders made their own three centuries ago. Perhaps it's because Roellinger grew up within the walls that the welcome here is characterized by such easy informality. (His octogenarian mother still lives upstairs and, he confides, smiling, is not beyond taking him aside to point out shortcomings.) Jane Roellinger—now the mother of two teenagers—usually escorts guests into the domed conservatory, which overlooks a walled garden complete with duck pond. The broad waxed planks of the floors creak under the cane chairs, reminding visitors of their 18th-century origins.

In those days, St.-Malo was France's leading port. Malouin sailors returned with many treasures: silks, porcelains, fine timber, and, above all, spices. Today it is still those spices that distinguish Le Relais Gourmand from the shoals of Breton restaurants lining harbors throughout the region. Roellinger describes his cuisine as "marine, potagère, et épicée"—of the sea, the kitchen garden, and the spice shelf.

His seasonings are subtle, blended, never overshadowing the delicate flavors of the seafood. For his signature Saint-Pierre "Retour des Indes," Roellinger steams John Dory with seaweed and pairs it with a coconut-milk sauce seasoned with trace quantities of dry-grilled mace, star anise, coriander seeds, caraway, Sichuan pepper, clove, vanilla, and turmeric. The flavors serve his goal of "opening people's minds to the entire world."

Dishes like these rely on impeccable ingredients, most of them harvested by a cadre of loyal suppliers, and few can be readily reproduced far from Brittany's waters and its fields of spiky blue-green leeks, floppy-leafed cauliflowers, and drifts of potato flowers. Like the lamb raised on the salt meadows near Mont-St.-Michel, the vegetables here also seem to arrive at Roellinger's kitchen door fragrant with the salt of the sea. Even his baking reflects the ocean, with algae bread next to slices of rye and sourdough—each still better with fresh-churned local butter.

Jane and Olivier appreciate the total impact of each dish, and they've raided coast and attic to create striking presentations. A heated slab of slate becomes a platter for an amuse-bouche of curried mussels and diminutive buckwheat crêpes enfolding cod. Tartare de Saint-Pierre comes in tiny clamshells, and guests pluck spice-dusted chocolates and dime-size cinnamon-orange-scented cookies called malouines from the compartments of antique boxes that originally stored spices.

Mostly French faces circle Le Relais Gourmand's tables—business-people sealing a deal and scoring gastronomic points with one another ("The flat oysters are meatier than the creuses and native to the bay"), two Parisian couples enjoying R&R Breton-style ("Oh, there are no calories in oysters"), as well as a proud papa initiating a skeptical eight-year-old into gastronomic arcana ("Yes, eat the whole bouquet rose, shell and all"), along with more and more Italians, a sprinkling of Japanese, and knowing Americans.

Master of sauces, Roellinger works alongside his 14-strong brigade. Although he's no grandstander, at the end of the service he's delighted to chat with those guests who ask for him. Conversation often takes a literary turn, with the chef as likely to quote Chateaubriand as Brillat-Savarin. Not surprising, perhaps, for a man who resolutely takes two days off each week to devote to family, sailing, and reading, and who in winter closes the restaurant altogether.

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