Normandy & D-Day, Pt. 2 – Bayeux & La Rapiere

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Happy to leave the modern bustle of Caen, we drove to the quaint town of Bayeux. Seven miles southwest of the French Coast abutting the English Channel, this town, virtually untouched during WWII, was the first in France to be liberated in the Battle of Normandy. Its history dates back to 1 BC (BSE? BSCE? What is it called now?) including occupation by the Druids, the Normans, and even a stint as a key coastal defense in the Roman Empire. It is also home to the famous Bayuex “tapestry”, which is not actually a tapestry since it’s not woven, but rather a 70 meter long embroidered cloth made in the 1070s and illustrates the events leading up to the Norman conquest of England. While we did not go to see the tapestry, I think plenty of other visitors did given the crowded parking lot of the Tapisserie de Bayuex.

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Rising up from the center of this small hamlet is an unexpectedly stunning  cathedral – the Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Bayeux, a Norman-Romanesque cathedral built on the site of Roman sanctuaries and consecrated in 1077. While considerably smaller than Notre Dame in Paris, it is  somewhat even more breathtaking given its countryside location.

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The town of Bayeux is utterly charming, with little winding streets…

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…and an old mill with a water wheel…

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…and an incredible little restaurant called La Rapière, where we had our best “French” meal of the trip. (Technically they are specialties of the Normandy region, but it’s still France.) This tiny, elegant spot with only 35 seats, is located in a beautiful old stone mansion from the 1400s tucked in a narrow street.

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The name, La Rapiere, is the French word for “rapier”, which is a type of sword. I haven’t figured out if there is a significance to them choosing it as the restaurant’s name.

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Like many of the businesses in Bayeux, they had a lovely peace mural painted on the window to honor the 70th anniversary of D-Day.

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We were fortunate to have gotten a relatively last-minute reservation, but, as a result, we had to settle for the earlier of the two seatings – 7pm instead of 9pm. It stayed light much later in Paris and Bayeux than in Boston, so it was very much still daylight outside when we arrived, and only just starting to get dusky when we left, making it feel a bit too early for dinner.

We were greeted by a friendly French girl named Typhanie, which I thought perhaps was an alternative spelling of my name, but she explained that it was pronounced Ti-fan. (Perhaps this is why my small French vocabulary is not always understood. I think my pronunciation is sometimes very wrong.)

She seated us in the red-carpeted upper dining room that had stone walls lit with torch-style electric lamps, low wood-beamed ceilings, and a fireplace. The tables were covered with white tablecloths and formally set.

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While we perused the 3 prix fixe menu options, we ordered the signature house drink, also a local specialty, called La Rapiere. A regional play on the Kir Royale, it features champagne mixed with local calvados and a orange liqueur. Calvados is an apple brandy, so I was worried that the drink would be too sweet, but it also had a tart note that balanced it quite well.

 

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To accompany our drinks, we were served a plate of canapés – a sort of riff on those delicious little cheesy puffed gougères often served with drinks. There was a rather elegant “pig in a blanket”, a square of croque monsieur, and a wheat bread that tasted like olive oil and rosemary.

As we ate these tasty bites, we perused the 3-option prix fixe menu, shocked at how reasonable the prices were. The first option started at €29 which was cheaper than many lunches we’d had in Paris. The options on the €40 menu appealed to us more, but even that seemed like quite a bargain.

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After placing our order, we were served a tiny bowl of lobster bisque as an amuse-bouche. Unlike the cream-laden American lobster bisques so proliferate in Boston, this seemingly cream-less broth was the complex essence of lobster. I could have eaten an entire bowl of it.

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For my first course, I had my one and only serving of foie gras  during the trip – Foie gras de Canard  du Sud Ouest au Pommeau, pain aux Raisins et aux Noix du Périgord maison. The accompanying fig and balsamic compote and freshly grated pepper provided a tart contrast robust enough to balance the rich, creamy liver. The housemade raisin nut bread   – freshly toasted, nutty, wheaty, and studded with just the right amount of plump, sweet raisins – was the perfect vehicle for it. The only drawback was that the portion was just too large. I’ve seen this in other fine restaurants in France, and while the French may be able to put away that much liver, I simply could not. The owner, who had come to clear our plates, actually asked me if it was ok. This was a French first – I don’t think I’ve ever had a French server enquire if I liked my food. I assured her I did.

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D. had the truffle risotto with shrimp for his appetizer. I have to confess that I was skeptical of combining truffles (rich, heavy) and shrimp (light and fresh). But, oh, did it work! 3 peppery grilled shrimp were served atop a bed of creamy, truffled risotto and garnished with pickled onion slices. D. rarely orders risotto when we are out because he says that no restaurant’s can compare with mine because they are usually too dry. I never use cream in mine, but rather coax the starch out of the rice in order to create that texture without the aid of dairy (though I do add cheese). This one did depend a bit on added cream, but the risotto itself had also been cooked properly.

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As a palate cleanser, we were served a small scoop of pear sorbet topped with the local calvados, which tasted so perfectly pear-ish, it was as though it were a frozen scoop of the fruit’s flesh. The warm apple brandy contrasted nicely with the cold sorbet.

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For our main, we both had the braised veal with morels and a mushroom-shallot sauce Filet de Veau braisé (Viande            d’Origine Française) aux Morilles et  à l’échalote confite. I don’t usually order veal in the US, partially because of the ethical considerations,  but also because it’s just not good. However, the veal that I have had in Europe is incredible, and according to the menu, this was a locally produced meat, and thus likely not factory farmed. It tasted like the most tender of steaks, with the earthy morels and bright shallot mushroom sauce enhancing the umami of it. Buttery whipped potatoes were piped alongside with a colorful array of steamed vegetables topping it.

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The cheese course was served next with the server offering a sizable board of local, regional, and European cheeses – maybe 10 in total. Unfortunately, it was busy, and I forgot to ask her to write the names of them out for me. I had a buttery triple creme brie-style cheese and a piquant, salty tomme from the Normandie region which I loved. (Sure I can’t get them here, though since they were raw milk and aged less than 60 days.)

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D. went broader, selecting two hard cheeses from elsewhere in Europe, and I don’t have their names either.

 

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I’m not sure anything could top the veal,but then the server sat this dramatically plated Tarte au Citron meringuée in front of me.

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A disc of buttery cookie crust was topped with the the tartest piping of lemon mousse and capped with minuature meringues and white chocolate discs and…lemon pop rocks… which I didn’t notice until I took my first bite and was utterly surprised by the childhood flashback of the poppy tingly feeling of these candies exploding on my tongue. It was truly a sensory expression of the tartness of the lemon mousse. Truly the best dessert I had in France…

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…until I tried D’s. He had a the vanilla cheesecake topped with caramel apples and salted butter toffee ice cream (Cheesecake, mousseline de Pommes  au caramel, glace Caramel au  beurre  salé de  la  Ferme  La Haizerie canapes) Our server recommended it highly, and I would have also gotten it, but I was afraid it would be too heavy after such a big meal. Quite to the contrary, the cheesecake was light and airy, only slightly thicker than a mousse, with a slight tang from what tasted like a goat cheese mixed in. And the salty caramel sustained that balance.

If you find yourself in Bayeux, or have an excuse to go there, I highly recommend the town, and I especially recommend eating at La Rapière.

La Rapière
53 Rue Saint-Jean, 14400
Bayeux, France
+33 2 31 21 05 45

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