The staff are snooty and the decor borders on tacky, but Andre’s serves up sensational seafood
Our annual summer destination is La Rochelle, a charming, beautiful and ancient Atlantic seaport dripping in history. Tired of being beseiged by Cardinal Richelieu, the city's 17th century Protestants left to become fur trappers in North America and ended up creating Quebec, Acadia, Louisiana and so began a trans-Atlantic trade that would make La Rochelle very wealthy.
It is the sailing capital of France, its marinas packed with hundreds of ocean-going race yachts, gin palaces, Boston Whalers and high-powered speed boats. Nicknamed Petit Paris by the French because of its elegance, La Rochelle is a chi-chi city, sexy as Bardot and seductive as Deneuve.
Earlier this summer Eva Longoria stopped by to spend time on nearby Ile de Re where Johnny Depp, Gerard Depardieu and a growing posse of celebrity refugees from St Trop have swapped the crowded ports and beaches of the Cote d’Azur for the island’s chic sanctuary and its reassuringly low chav count.
Ile de Re and La Rochelle now feature heavily in the top-people’s list of travel destinations in publications including the Sunday Times, New York Times, Le Figaro and so on.
But more than anything, the area is a big hit with Belfast, Dublin and London foodies because of two attractive features. One is the city’s well-served little airport and the other is its extraordinary stable of restaurants.
There’s everything here from take-away baguettes stuffed with andouillettes (sausage made from sheep’s intestines) at street-corner bakeries to starched Michelin-starred formality at Richard Coutanceau’s eponymous beach-front restaurant.
It’s the in-between restaurants that take your breath away. Chatelaillon-Plage, the classy, belle-epoque beach resort four miles south of La Rochelle, is home to the best seaside bistros in the country. King among these is the widely respected Les Flots.
Les Flots is so good, it attracts people from La Rochelle — and that’s saying something because your average Rochelais thinks his town is perfect in every way so why would he possibly leave to eat out of town?
The restaurant’s self-confidence is resented by some locals and visitors alike for its shoulder-shrugging attitude and the maitre d’s ability to forget a reservation based on the fact he doesn’t like the look of you even though you booked weeks ago.
I have a secret weapon, however. The adviser. The maitre d’ is putty in her hands. “J’adore votre femme,” he announces each time we go in, elbowing me out of the way to kiss her hand.
This devotion is partially based on her previous form. One January weekend some years back, she and a friend went to Les Flots, ate and drank the bit out and finally ordered cognac to help brace themselves for the icy walk home. To his horror, he discovered he was all out of cognac. The adviser was gracious and while he had expected a table-thumping tantrum, which is how any self-respecting French diner would have behaved, she did not make a scene (and had a couple of Drambuies instead).
But the most famous address in the region is La Rochelle’s Restaurant Andre on the city’s harbour front. In the hands of the Andre family’s fourth generation, this huge, bustling circus of a brasserie is a higgledy piggledy series of eight or nine dining rooms.
It is not the best seafood restaurant in town (that would be A Cote de Chez Fred) and its decor borders on the tacky, yet its collection of ship brasses, naval prints, nets, barrels, faux capstans and the like create the perfect storm of France-sur-mer.
There’s everything here from humble mussels in a delicate curry sauce, known as mouclade, the local speciality that can be traced back to the earliest days of the spice trade, to the simplest of sardine filets on thick slices of toasted sour-dough bread (only €7.20) to Dover sole, spider crabs and lobster (up to €80 per kilo).
It’s all good, there are no surprises and you will find plenty on the menu including a top-class children’s menu (€7.90) that will convert any fish-hating child to the delights of the sea.
The soupe de poissons is a meal in itself, served in a large tureen and accompanied by little plates of mustardy roux, grated gruyere and croutons for you to add. The mouclade in Andre is perfect, a fusion of light creamy curry sauce with the small buttery and savoury local rope mussels.
Swordfish steak in a butter and tarragon jus with chips was a solid bistro offering and among the cheapest of the day’s specials. At the dear end of the blackboard was a three-storey cold platter of what seemed to be the entire contents of the city aquarium piled high on ice and seaweed.
This €44 monster included fine plate oysters from Ile de Re, spider crab and lobster, langoustines, clams, crab and assorted cockles and other shell fish. The mayonnaise Andre serves with its cold platters is the only accompaniment necessary and it is richly decadent. This is food as show business, but with real substance, made with the freshest fish.
Andre’s only downside is the waiters. Get a good one and you’ll not notice him. But get the other kind and you’d better be prepared. They can be as snatty as a tomcat at the vet’s.
The thing with waiters here is that they are professionals. Trained in advanced insolence, whatever the opposite of anger management is and unarmed combat, they are supremely confident. In short, they are better than you.
It’s the reverse of the relationship we have with Belfast servers. It’s no use trying the ‘now look here’ or ‘don’t you know who’s paying the bill?’ malarkey here. As far as they are concerned, you’re lucky to be allowed in.
I argued with one cheeky waiter in Andre because he had been dismissive and high handed. On this occasion I got an apology but only because by then the adviser had locked her hypnotic, withering stare on him and refused to release him from it.
But do go to Andre nevertheless, practice that stare and those charms and you’ll have a great night. You mightn’t be allowed back if you give them any lip but you’ll have something to talk about on the flight home.
Half bottle Muscadet: €12
Sparkling water: €4.60
Children’s menu x 2: €15.80
Sardine filets on toast: €7.20
Chips x 2: €5.80
Assorted desserts: €7
Chocolate fondant: €7.50
Total: €113.80 (£89 on July 14)