Walking through Nantes’s Talensac market, I get a sense of the freshness of local produce as vivid colours and aromas break through the early Atlantic sea air pervading the city’s spacious streets. There are langoustines, Breton blue lobsters, oysters, fish, strawberries, the lush local Mâchelettuce and Gateau Nantais,a rum-filled cake made without butter, originally as a means to preserve it on long sea journeys. Top chefs including Dominic Quirke, Christophe François and Jean-François Pantaléon have moved to Nantes from Paris – just two hours away by train – attracted by the artistic transformation of the city and the ability to source vegetables, meat and fish from the surrounding Pays Nantais, one of France’s leading areas of organic production.
Home of the beurre blancsauce that accompanies fish dishes, Nantes isn’t known for a particular signature dish. Instead, chefs are creating their own individual styles of cuisine, while eateries that once turned their backs on the local Muscadet wines have now fully embraced them; many display the ‘I love Muscadet’ sticker on their doors, meaning that they list at least five Muscadet wines. New wave Muscadet wines include biodynamic, natural and organic, high-end terroir-driven wines which show ageing potential.
Forget the staid, oddly decorated restaurants found elsewhere in France: Nantes’s new eateries reflect the dynamism of a city transformed by contemporary art and installations. On my walk, I spot the 40ft mechanical elephant, the wacky toboggan slide on the outside walls of the Dukes of Brittany’s castle, the crescent-shaped football pitch by the Mirroir d’Eau, and the giant animals and flowerpot playground of the spectacular Jardin des Plantes found next to the city’s refurbished Arts Museum. If artistic endeavours created by the Voyage à Nantes arts programme have made the former capital of Brittany one of Europe’s most hip and popular destinations, its new eateries have firmly put the city on the culinary world map.
Top eateries in Nantes
At Michelin-starred L’Atlantide, located next to the Jules Verne Museum and overlooking the Loire, I savour a glass of the outstanding Justice,a biodynamic Chardonnay fermented in amphorae by local vintner Jérôme Bretaudeau. The white flowers and minerality of this harmonious and atypical wine perfectly match my deconstructed crunchy galette, which surrounds deliciously fresh local sardines – just one of my ten taster dishes. Chef Jean-Yves Guého, who once cooked in Hong Kong, now likes to keep things extravagantly simple: there are no spices or juggling of multiple flavours. Guého is characteristically Breton: low-key and hospitable, making it hard to leave L’Atlantide.
Pickles, one of Nantes’s most popular restaurants, is run by self-taught outsider, British chef Dominic Quirke, whose talent lies in his ability to mix the flavours of French, British and Asian cuisine without overpowering dishes. ‘Bistronomy’ dishes are delicate in texture, bursting with delicious flavours; the nutty sweet potato puree accompanying the smoked, confit pig tantalisingly evolves in the mouth. This unpretentious but salubrious place has a buoyant yet calm energy – watch out for his forthcoming New York-inspired venture in Nantes.
Roza, a very chic establishment, has vertical lighting on open-brick walls. Chef Jean-François Pantaléon, who returned to Nantes 18 months ago from Paris to open Roza, describes his efforts as “French cuisine, revisited”. Pantaléon works with sous-chefs to generate ideas, the best of which are found à la carte and include fermented vegetables such as cucumber kimchi served with grilled octopus and Argentine chimichurri sauce. Particularly delicious on the menu du jour is the pistachio choux pastry, filled with raspberries and pistachio ice cream.
LuLuRouget is the latest Nantes restaurant to be awarded a Michelin star. A glass wine cellar takes centre stage, and diners are offered the ‘open eyes’ set menu for a three-course lunch, or the ‘closed eyes’ mystery menu of up to six courses at night and Saturday lunch times. The modern French cuisine of Nantais chef Ludovic Pouzelgues is all about precision, cooking dishes such as oysters with rhubarb and petit pois. Pouzelgues, who learnt techniques under Jean-Yves Guého of the L’Atlantide, uses local market ingredients, some of which are organic – though “not all organic ingredients are good ingredients,” he tells me.
L’Aménité, Nantes’s newest acclaimed eatery, where contemporary modern cuisine meets traditional French dishes, is decorated inMajorelle blue. 95% of ingredients are organic; all wines are biodynamic, organic or natural, and feature adventurous local Muscadet producers like Jo Landron. Nantais chef Richard Cornet, a former trader in London, learnt cuisine under Dominic Quirke at Pickles before blazing his own trail here in October 2018.
Enjoying an aperitif at the top of the city’s emblematic skyscraper Tour de Bretagne is the best way to view Nantes by night. For an alternative view of the Loire, I take a short Navibus taxi boat to Trentemoult, a colourful former fishing village and home to the lively La Civelle, a restaurant of modern cuisine with an extensive wine list.
Les Chants d’Avril serves mystery dishes and wines, where self-taught sommelier Veronique François’s wines match the inventive modern French cuisine of her husband Christophe, who decides each morning what to cook. Of three glasses of wine, only one is obviously a Muscadet. Biodynamic Mephisto wine from Domaine de l’Ecu is one of the adventurous new wave wines blowing away dated views of Muscadet as neutral, thin and too acidic, while the superb salinity of the dry Bon Plans 2014 shows how the neglected Gros Plant appellation of the Pays Nantais can be a perfect match for oysters.
La Comédie des Vinsis a favourite haunt of local vintners and wine lovers, serving charcuterie and cheese platters to accompany a varied list of styles. Efforts from local vintners have been lifted by the promising Muscadet 2018 vintage, which has been heralded by many as one of the region’s best ever vintages in terms of quality and quantity. New 2018 releases including Jo Landron’s Amphiboliteand Jérôme Bretaudeau’s Gabbrohave a lively attack and persistency with bright acidity and minerality, despite greater fruit-rich concentration.
Barnaby Eales travelled with Brittany Ferries.