Driving farther south along the coast, we came to La Roche-Bernard, a former trading post on a bluff overlooking the river Vilaine. We strolled through town, killing time before our lunch reservation chez Thorel, dropping in on the studio of a mosaicist and the gallery of an accomplished potter, both located in a complex of former granaries. The 17th-century Auberge Bretonne, an elegant half-timbered stone edifice in the center of town, boasts some of the most luxurious lodgings in Brittany. There's a suave richesse to the Thorel dining room: stone floors, warmly colored stucco walls, Villeroy & Boch table settings, Spiegelau stemware. We were seated next to the glassed-in orangerie, open to the sky, that contains the restaurant's kitchen garden, which brimmed with some of the darkest earth and healthiest plants we'd seen in years. Beans raced up their poles; tomatoes beamed.
There were two menus on offer: one, an homage to the fabled sweet winemaker Château d'Yquem, paired a half bottle of 1993 d'Yquem with classic French fare such as lobster cooked in Sauternes. The chef's tasting menu—strongly recommended by our waiter—would show Thorel's more contemporary compositions, or nouveautés. Feeling adventurous, we opted for the latter, and out came seven amuse-bouches, a collection of small shot glasses and tiny plates, each more confounding than the one before. There was a mousse-like mustard wrapped in a peanut-brittle "taco," and a beet jelly so overgelled that a spoon was of little use. The next course, "quelques légumes de notre jardin," consisted of seven more tastes we were thankful were small— the asparagus flan was covered in too-crunchy coffee nibs. And so it went, the novelties arriving at the table with great visual ceremony and underwhelming flavors. At a neighboring two-top, the stocky businessmen who'd ordered the menu of classiques, a gorgeous lobster en cocotte and a bottle of Château d'Yquem, leaned back with satisfaction. The past never looked so good—and the future looked expensive; our lunch for two (with wine) came to more than $500. We should have used Thorel's terrific book as our guide to his kitchen and stuck to the simple, the traditional. Brittany is no place for tacos.
It was time to get back to the basics. Next stop, the salt flats. By the time we reached Guérande, we were so transfixed by the marshy landscape that our lunch disappointment was a distant memory. On an impossibly intricate field, as far as the eye could see, were geometric enclosures of open water inscribed with mazelike channels, where the paludiers, or salt panners, evaporate the salty Atlantic into an even saltier conclusion. A few narrow roads traverse the green swaths of marsh that surround the pans, and we drove right through the middle of the field until we came across a panner selling bags of discounted fleur de sel, the finest grade of feather-light crystals. We bought as much as we could fit into the little Citroën.
We traveled on to Rennes, a busy university town with an old quarter of densely clustered half-timbered houses that seem to lean precariously against one another and to teeter over the narrow ruelles. Running along the lintels of the finer houses are delicately carved reliefs of warriors and saints—we thought we saw one figure carrying a salt pan. We were out crêperie-hopping, downing cider by the teacup, when we came across a short, sturdy guy in a chef's apron posting a new menu in the window of a whitewashed room with 10 tables. We took a closer look and read: I propose a menu that evolves over the months. With a menu this short, I can offer you the best of each ingredient.
The chef's tasting menu was $45. It seemed like a direct challenge to us, so we made a reservation for that night and pledged to stop eating crêpes.
Our dinner at La Table d'Eugénie was the most contemporary meal we experienced during the whole trip: pretty, full of intense, seasonal flavors, stylishly spiced (just enough to seem original), minimalist without being mannered. A dense, silky terrine of foie gras was shaped and toned by the sweet fire of five-spice powder down one side and a sprinkling of crackly fleur de sel. A single seared scallop on a pillow of pearl barley had creamy tomato gravy with a hint of fenugreek and a wisp of lemon zest. Pig's cheeks, cooked to melting tenderness in a rich Armagnac and pork broth for seven hours, were served in a cast-iron Staub pot with snappy summer peas, leeks, baby squash, new potatoes, and a tender carrot, a latter-day kig ha farz.
Toward the end of the night, the chef emerged, in a white T-shirt and sneakers, and passed from table to table to introduce himself. He was Erwann Hergué, a native of St.-Nazaire, near Guérande; he was new in town; his restaurant had been open only a few months.
And before that?we asked.
He'd been working at a place called Jean Georges, he said, in New York City—had we heard of it?
Rang a bell, we said.
Actually, he hadn't been a chef there, only a service captain, but he picked up a few tricks observing what went on in the kitchen before his work visa ran out. He had a hunch he'd return to Brittany someday, to open the place of his dreams—nothing complicated or expensive, just straightforward cooking, but fresh in its own way. We thanked him profusely for finishing our trip on that perfect note, and said we'd give his regards to Broadway.
Matt Lee and Ted Lee are contributing editors for Travel + Leisure.