This is a version of an article also published by the Financial Times.
We had just been seated at a table right by the pool in Le Rest(O!, the restaurant of La Co(O)rniche in Arcachon (sic), Bordeaux’s Atlantic playground 30 km to the south west, in full view of the most wonderful, uninterrupted sunset over the ocean when two unexpected occurrences took place.
The first was the arrival of several brazen small birds that hopped on to our side plates in search of their dinner. The second was my wife [that’s me – JR] stretching her right arm across my left arm in what I initially interpreted as an affectionate gesture.
But there was method in this apparent manifestation of romance. By doing this, she also concealed most of the left hand page of the menu, the page that contains all the à la carte and the more expensive dishes that are so typical of restaurants by the sea. Here were listed the plateaux de fruits de mer; the oysters Bidart no 3, Parc de L’Impératrice and Gillardeau no 4 in various numerical combinations; whole crabs with mayonnaise; a rich langoustine bisque; as well as Perlita, the local caviar. ‘We’ve just paid 450 euros for the bedroom, don’t you think we ought to stick to the prix fixe menu?’ she whispered sagely in my ear.
She was, in this instance, absolutely right and on two different counts. The first was that this style of menu is not only widely available in and around Arcachon, with one particular local favourite being Le Comptoir du Port right by the town’s harbour, but also today in many other restaurants by the sea. The second is that such dishes are not really a test of the culinary skills of any kitchen, although the vast display of seafood that the chefs daily assemble here just outside the kitchen is a remarkable work of art.
This is part of the similar challenge that presumably confronted designer Philippe Starck who has been responsible for the transformation of what was a long-established, slightly staid, comfortable restaurant with rooms, into somewhere that is now rather more redolent of St-Tropez. For head chef Christophe Beaupuy it must be equally challenging to compete with the Nature that surrounds his restaurant.
The restaurant occupies the area right next to the sand, with pine trees in abundance. To the south is an uninterrupted view of the largest sand dune in Europe, the Dune du Pilat (very much bigger than it looks above), while to the west is the lagoon, protected by sand bars, that constitutes the safe fishing grounds for the numerous oyster boats that ply their trade there. Its overall impact of the views was such that they even overshadowed my dramatic memories of lunch at a corner table at the Post Ranch Inn at Big Sur overlooking the Pacific earlier this year.
Starck’s design response is witty in the very white bedrooms (the morning view from ours is shown above), with a calendar of tides, sunrises and sunsets pinned to the wall and numerous thoughtful knick-knacks, but its overall impact is let down by one major misjudgement. The hotel’s reception area now doubles as a shop, selling everything from clothes to drinks, and as a result is disconcertingly reminiscent of an airport terminal.
By contrast, the contents of Beaupuy’s prix fixe menu that comprises five first courses, six main and six desserts seems initially somewhat mundane, albeit for one very welcome surprise. It is extremely good value. The relatively modest (compared to the room rate) 58 euros for three courses includes this extraordinary view.
Although my attention was initially, and somewhat jealously, focused on the Italian couple at the next table combining the local ‘plateau royal’ (80 euros per person with half a lobster) with Campari and soda, I soon focused on what we could afford.
Our two first courses, a thick piece of tuna slow-cooked at a low temperature and a generous cylinder of paté de foie gras, were very good but each was distinguished by what accompanied them. The tartare of diced cucumber and shallots bound by crème fraiche had just the right tang to lift the tuna whereas the yuzu jelly and macaroon with the foie gras were respectively too acid and too sweet.
Our two fish main courses were extremely good however. A dim sum basket arrived containing a very fresh fillet of steamed cod with a satay sauce and crisp vegetables alongside a plate that held a fillet of John Dory, its skin appetisingly crisp from the grill, alongside a plethora of girolles, carrots, young turnips and artichokes. Desserts, including one variation on the now ubiquitous salted caramel, were of the same high quality.
The wines of Bordeaux do not obviously lend themselves to accompany such light food but we found one suitably versatile interloper in a 2011 Chevalier de Sterimberg white Hermitage from Jaboulet in the Rhône valley (70 euros) that had the appropriate richness, structure and finesse.
Breakfast the following morning only confirmed our two strongest memories from dinner the night before. The first is that this restaurant overlooks the most extraordinarily wonderful views I have ever been fortunate enough to enjoy.
And yet those who are responsible for looking after the customers here could do a lot better. The sense of welcome and of personalised hospitality on display from the predominantly young French staff could be considerably warmer, more friendly and more engaging. And it certainly should be at these prices.
Le Rest(O!, La Co(O)rniche, 46 avenue Louis Gaume, 33115 Pyla-sur-Mer, France +33 5 56 22 72 11, www.lacoorniche-pyla.com