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French feasts in heavenly places

Mont St Michel in north-western France, famous for an abbey that sits atop it, is filled with daytrippers by day and transforms into a fairyland of lights by night (above).
Mont St Michel in north-western France, famous for an abbey that sits atop it, is filled with daytrippers by day and transforms into a fairyland of lights by night (above).PHOTO: CHANG SWEE SIONG
Mont St Michel in north-western France, famous for an abbey that sits atop it, is filled with daytrippers by day (above) and transforms into a fairyland of lights by night.
Mont St Michel in north-western France, famous for an abbey that sits atop it, is filled with daytrippers by day (above) and transforms into a fairyland of lights by night.PHOTO: CHANG SWEE SIONG
Mont St Michel in north-western France, famous for an abbey that sits atop it, is filled with daytrippers by day (above) and transforms into a fairyland of lights by night.
Mont St Michel in north-western France, famous for an abbey that sits atop it, is filled with daytrippers by day (above) and transforms into a fairyland of lights by night.PHOTO: CHANG SWEE SIONG
The Michelin-starred Le Galopin restaurant in Rennes serves fresh oysters from a village near the walled city of St Malo along the coast.
The Michelin-starred Le Galopin restaurant in Rennes serves fresh oysters from a village near the walled city of St Malo along the coast.PHOTO: CHANG SWEE SIONG
In the ancient walled city of St Malo, visitors can walk along the castle ramparts (above), visit the old town and have a French hamburger at Le Bistro de Jean restaurant.
In the ancient walled city of St Malo, visitors can walk along the castle ramparts (above), visit the old town and have a French hamburger at Le Bistro de Jean restaurant.PHOTO: CHANG SWEE SIONG
The beautifully plated cod fillet laced with raspberry vinegar at Michelin-starred restaurant Le Relais du Roy (above) is part of a satisfying three-course meal.
The beautifully plated cod fillet laced with raspberry vinegar at Michelin-starred restaurant Le Relais du Roy (above) is part of a satisfying three-course meal.PHOTO: CHANG SWEE SIONG
The beautifully plated cod fillet laced with raspberry vinegar (above) at Michelin-starred restaurant Le Relais du Roy is part of a satisfying three-course meal
The beautifully plated cod fillet laced with raspberry vinegar (above) at Michelin-starred restaurant Le Relais du Roy is part of a satisfying three-course mealPHOTO: CHANG SWEE SIONG
In the ancient walled city of St Malo, visitors can walk along the castle ramparts, visit the old town and have a French hamburger (above) at Le Bistro de Jean restaurant.
In the ancient walled city of St Malo, visitors can walk along the castle ramparts, visit the old town and have a French hamburger (above) at Le Bistro de Jean restaurant.PHOTO: CHANG SWEE SIONG

A side trip to see Mont St Michel abbey in France results in some delightful dining encounters in Michelin-starred restaurants

A young French woman offers a platter of fresh vegetables to a weary Indian family who turn up in her village in the opening scenes of arthouse movie The Hundred Foot Journey (2014), shown here last year. Mostly tomatoes, the vegetables looked so delicious that I yearned to visit France.

Other scenes display the best of French cuisine in the movie starring Helen Mirren, who is the young woman's boss and owner of a Michelin-starred restaurant who is battling a rival Indian eatery across the street to capture the hearts of diners.

I put the movie out of my mind until recently, when friends asked me to join them on a trip to France.

Besides Paris, they had planned a side trip to Mont St Michel, the magnificent abbey perched on top of a small island in north-western France.

  • GETTING THERE

  • Paris is well connected by international carriers such as Singapore Airlines.

    To get to Mont St Michel, the best option is to take the two-hour TGV train ride from the Gare Montparnasse Station in Paris to Rennes (www.tourisme-rennes.com/en/home.aspx).

    Tickets cost between €60 and €90 (S$91 and S$137), depending on the time you travel. From Rennes, a bus provides a 90-minute transfer to the island. Tickets are priced at €15 apiece.

    There are four bus departures daily from Rennes and most departures are timed to match the arrival of the TGV to Rennes. The bus terminal is located beside the train station.

    The bus stops at a mainland shuttle station opposite Mont St Michel island. From there, you can take the free shuttle to the island, which is linked to the mainland via a causeway.

    From Rennes, there are frequent local train connections to St Malo (www.st-malo.info).

    The journey takes about an hour. St Malo is also connected to Paris by TGV.

    FOOD AND ACCOMMODATION

    There are clean, no-frills hotels in Rennes such as Ibis Styles for the budget-conscious. Room rates start from €100.

    Staying in Mont St Michel is costlier, with rates starting from €200.

    The old town at the base of Mont St Michel has a wide selection of restaurants and cafes. However, restaurants on the mainland offer much lower prices and offer some delightful culinary surprises.

What began as a pure sightseeing trip turned out to be a delightful gastronomic adventure as we dined at Michelin-starred restaurants in and around Mont St Michel, with delicious and beautifully plated food reminding me of the film.

To get to Mont St Michel, one has to take a two-hour ride on the TGV train from Paris to Rennes and from there, catch a one-hour bus trip to the shuttle station facing the island. A free shuttle then conveys visitors via the causeway from the mainland to the Mont St Michel abbey.

Most people try to squeeze in a visit to Mont St Michel as a day trip and return to Paris at night. But we decided to spend one night in Rennes before heading to Mont St Michel the next day.

Although Rennes (www.tourisme-rennes.com) is not on the usual tourist's radar, it has a quiet charm, with an old town square filled with timber-framed mediaeval houses, an alluring experience after the crush at the Eiffel Tower and Versailles Palace.

Our highlight in Rennes was the discovery of a Michelin-starred restaurant - Le Galopin (www.legalo pin.fr) - just a 10-minute walk from the train station.

When I glanced at the menu displayed outside the restaurant, the maths of the meal did not work out quite right to me. For €25 (S$38), we would get a sumptuous three-course dinner. But if we were to sample each dish on its own, it would cost us about €20 each.

When we walked in, the captain did not seem to mind that we were in scruffy T-shirts and jeans, sitting among her smartly dressed diners, who appeared to be regular patrons.

While she did not have the frosty look of Mirren's character, who regarded an overcooked asparagus as a personal affront, our captain was just as proud to show us the finer points of French cuisine.

For starters, there were fresh succulent oysters from a village near the walled city of St Malo along the coast, an hour's drive from Rennes.

The main course was a dish of medallion-shaped duck fillets with no strong gamey taste. Dessert was an apple tart that tasted out of this world.

The next morning, we headed to Mont St Michel. Perched on a granite outcrop and rising ethereally to the sky, Mont St Michel (www.ot-montsaintmichel.com) seemed to float above the vast sandbanks surrounding it, dominating the entire landscape physically and spiritually.

Once, it was surrounded completely by water at high tide but, in recent years, it has become attached to the mainland as the area around the island silted up.

With a clear blue sky overhead and tourists cramming the tiny village's cobbled streets, Mont St Michel reminded me of the walled city of Dubrovnik in Croatia.

In the late afternoon, when the day-trippers had departed and the high-walled abbey fell silent, a visitor could sense the awe that overwhelmed mediaeval pilgrims might have felt as the fading light spread over the mud flats and the sea.

But the best time to view Mont St Michel in all its magnificence was at night, when the abbey was lit up and looked like a fairyland from afar.

Eating at Mont St Michel itself was quite expensive, so we took the shuttle back to the mainland for dinner.

We spied a restaurant with a nondescript shopfront - Le Relais du Roy (www.le-relais-du-roy.com) - which displayed a blackboard advertising a three-course dinner for €14. The three-course set meal would cost much less than ordering a la carte from the menu.

For starters, we had a seafood plate filled with fresh oysters, escargots, lobster and crab - a feast fit for a king.

The main course was modestly described as a cod fillet laced with raspberry vinegar, but it was beautifully plated and other diners glanced admiringly at it. Dessert was a rich creamy sundae.

The biggest surprise was the modest size of the bill, which worked out to €30 for each of us. A Paris three-course dinner would set us back by €40 a head and not taste as wonderful.

It was only after paying up that we realised we had dined in a Michelin-starred restaurant.

The next day, before returning to Paris, we completed our trip to the region by going to St Malo, an ancient walled city where visitors can spend hours walking along the castle ramparts and admire the old town a stone's throw away.

St Malo (www.st-malo.info) also has a formidable offshore fortress which becomes accessible on foot at low tide. Ripping across the sand to see it made up for the disappointment of seeing Mont St Michel all silted up and not surrounded by the sea anymore.

By now, we had become used to the gastronomic delights that came our way and we settled down in a cosy establishment, Le Bistro de Jean (www.linternaute.com), where we enjoyed a sumptuous lunch of mussel soup and French hamburger.

For me, it was most pleasurable to know that excellent French food does not exist only in the fantasy realm of movies, but is also within reach at affordable prices in real life.

To savour good food was "very Heaven", to use the words of the English poet William Wordsworth.

engyeow@sph.com.sg

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on June 21, 2015, with the headline 'French feasts in heavenly places'. Print Edition | Subscribe