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Archive for May, 2007

Le Pre Catelan garden dining room

Le Pre Catelan, Paris

I know I’ve mentioned in several posts now that there are imminent updates galore, but I’d like to take a moment to excuse my spotty posting record by saying that in the past four weeks, Jon and I have travelled to the French Riviera, Paris, DC and Lisbon. I don’t expect a lot of sympathy, but all this travel has tired me out. It’s also meant that I haven’t written as regularly as I like to, so to catch up a bit – when I last wrote, it was about my memorable dinner at Mirazur.

Keisuke Matsushima (22, rue de France, Nice) and Le Pre Catelan (Bois de Boulogne, Paris) were no slouches, either, but our meal at the former, while delicious, lacked the ambition on display at Mirazur, and the pace at the latter left me feeling as if I’d just done a lot of hard work. At 140 euros a person for the Menu Printemps tasting menu at Le Pre Catelan, I expected a little more joy and leisure.

Keisuke Matushima is a small, sleek restaurant located on a busy pedestrian street in Nice, not far from the Place Massena. At night, the dark wood, minimalist décor feels glam. Even before we’d arrived at the restaurant, I was impressed by the service. I’d played phone tag a few times with the reservations desk, and I had my doubts about leaving voicemail, but the restaurant repeatedly followed up with me until we’d confirmed our 9 pm reservation on a Saturday.

We ordered the “regular” prix fixe menu (70 euros per person), rather than the chef’s tasting menu, because we’d already loaded up on socca earlier in the evening. Still, I figured the regular menu would mean just fewer courses than what was on the chef’s tasting menu.

I enjoyed my meal there. The service was attentive and friendly, and I liked that the servers spoke to me in French, mostly because I consider myself a decent French speaker. The restaurant has at most 20 tables, so it’s a cozy, buzzing place to have dinner. Jon and I were introduced to the joys of Ruinart champagne, and our food, while not super exciting, was beautifully prepared. Take, for example, our fish course: wild salmon filet, seared so that the center was still cool, served with mushrooms, mizuna and a mussel broth. Delicious, but not exactly “wow, how did they do that.” Same with a memorably good custard with strawberry coulis served for dessert.

We were a little overzealous on the wine, so our tab for two totalled 240 euros, but at 70 euros a person for the food, Keisuke Matsushima is definitely worth a visit while in Nice. For a similar price, though, I was wowed by Mirazur. Menton is kind of a schlepp, but I think it’s worth spending the 40 minutes to get there from Nice.

As for Le Pre Catelan, Jon and I had lunch there while in Paris for a weekend. For our fellow metro-lovers, I’ll point out that Place Dauphine is the closest metro stop, but that doesn’t mean the metro is anywhere close to the restaurant. Le Pre Catelan is located in the heart of the Bois de Boulogne, so it’s a 30-minute walk from the metro station to the restaurant. For about 6 euros, you can flag a taxi from the Place Dauphine to the restaurant, and after our huge lunch (there is no other kind at a 3-star, I suppose), we enjoyed the walk through the park back to the metro.

Frederic Anton is the chef at Le Pre Catelan. I didn’t choose the restaurant based on any knowledge of the chef, though. Rather, the restaurant was promoted this year from 2 to 3 Michelin stars, and I’m a sucker for a dining room on the rise. (I like strivers more than I like incumbents).

The dining room was only half full when we arrived at 1:30 for lunch. The main dining room is all high-ceilinged, belle époque sumptuousness: tall mirrors, carved friezes, and tasteful pale green color scheme. Elaborate without being garish and suffocating. We ended up in the terrace room (see photo at top of post) with a view of the garden, which was nice because the day was bright and sunny. Our table was close to the server station, which is an experience similar to sitting in front of the lifeguard chair when you’re at the beach – you feel a little too watched over.

In addition to the a la carte option, there were three prix fixe choices at Le Pre Catelan – a lunch menu for 70 euros, a Menu Printemps (“spring menu”) for 140 euros, and a super-star tasting menu for 190 euros. Being the middle-ground folks that we are, Jon and I chose the Menu Printemps, which turned out to be a crazy choice for lunch.

First, the portion sizes were big for a tasting menu, so believe it or not (and I think this is the first time in the history of dining that an American has complained that portion size at a French restaurant was too big), I thought the tasting menu was too much food.

And second, the pace of our meal was way too fast (e.g., three large courses and an amuse or two were served in less than an hour). I felt like a contestant in a food eating contest. When the cheese cart rolled out around the 1.5-hour mark, we had to ask the servers to give us a little more time to rest. As creative and well-prepared as the food was, our lunch started to feel like hard work (yes, this is probably where you tell me I have lost all contact with reality).

I think the restaurant was in a rush to get us, the last of lunch crowd, out of the restaurant, which I can sort of understand, but then don’t make these elaborate tasting menus available at lunch.

stuffed l’etrille crab, Le Pre Catelan

L'Etrille et le tourteau (crab) at Le Pre Catelan, Paris

So, on to the food: Amuse: Spring pea soup with a nutty, creamy foam. Ahh, of course. Peas and foam. The pretty pea green soup is poured onto your plate of foam at the table. It’s light and heavy at the same time.

Langoustine nems at Le Pre Catelan

langoustine trio at Le Pre Catelan, Paris

L’Etrille et le Tourteau: Pretty much three dishes in one. The L’Etrille (currycomb) crab meat is seasoned and then stuffed back into the shell, covered in a savoury gelee with salty, creamy Aquitaine caviar, and voila – a dish that feels like a summer picnic by the sea. The crab soup with a fennel foam was tasty and decadent because of the spoonful of cream and caviar I stirred in, but the roasted tourteau was not very good despite my best efforts to appreciate it. The tourteau was mixed with orange zest and wrapped in seawood so that it looked like maki before you slice it up into pieces. Despite dipping pieces of my roll into the accompanying orange sauce, it still tasted flavourless and a little dry. Still, two of three is pretty good.

sweetbreads at Le Pre Catelan

sweetbreads (ris de veau)

La Langoustine: This course was another three-fer. There was langoustine wrapped in a ravioli skin and served in a seafood broth foam. The langoustine was sweet and the foam was rich, which made for the ultimate won ton soup, I suppose. The nems de langoustine (i.e., langoustine spring rolls) were good, but I didn’t think it was especially creative as much as it was especially well-prepared. The langoustines made it luxurious, but at the end of the day, the nems were nems. The one part of the nem that I still can’t figure out is the romaine lettuce “jus” that accompanied the nems in an espresso cup. I tried using it as a dip, and then I tried sipping the romaine, neither of which resulted in much beyond a slight vegetal aroma.

Le Ris de Veau: Sweetbreads. Rich and creamy and served in yet another generous portion – two “disks” of sweet breads. One of the sweetbreads was covered in earthy, juicy morels, and the other one had been prepared with a soubise au parmesan (covered in a cheesy sauce, basically). This course defeated me. I couldn’t take another bite, and if you’ve ever seen me eat, you know I’m not easily overwhelmed by large servings of food.

Cheese cart at Le Pre Catelan

cheese cart at Le Pre Catelan

 

Les Fromages Fermiers: Farm cheese. The cheese cart was out of control. As I mentioned above, this is where we needed a break, so in response to our request, we got a 10-minute respite from the onslaught of food. Like a good endurance-sport athlete, I reached deep inside to make room for a few of the tempting goat cheeses – aged, fresh, ashed. And I also couldn’t resist the molten-looking Saint Marcellin cheese. They were all good, but the chevre deserves special mention for its refreshing citrus notes.

Le Cafe Expresso dessert and petits four, Le Pre Catelan

espresso dessert at Le Pre Catelan

Le Café “Expresso” dessert: This course was both pretty and delicious. Inside a sugar candy cylinder-shaped shell, there are layers of sabayon, chocolate ganache, ice crème, and crushed almonds. It’s the best coffee-and-chocolate-flavored sundae of your life in a neat tower.

I had no space for the coffee or petits fours that were offered. It was about 4 pm when we left, which means we’d somehow managed to eat a 4-hour meal in just under 2.5 hours there. I think we set a record for greatest number of calories consumed per hour.

At 340 euros for two, I was disappointed that I left lunch feeling rushed and uncomfortably stuffed. Perhaps we should have gone for dinner, but we’d made our reservations too last-minute for a Friday-night seating. In any case, I’d go back to L’Astrance before I’d return to Le Pre Catelan.

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Langoustines in dashi broth, Mirazur, Menton, French Riviera

langoustines in dashi broth at Mirazur restaurant, Menton, France

In the span of one week, Jon and I ate at Mirazur in Menton, Keisuke Matsushima in Nice (one Michelin star each) and Le Pre Catelan in Paris (three Michelin stars). It’s a rough life. That said, of the three meals, our favorite was (by far) dinner at Mirazur.

Le Mirazur exterior, Menton, French Riviera

Mirazur restaurant, Menton, France

The town of Menton is the farthest east you can go on the French Riviera before you hit Italy (Ventimiglia, to be exact). It’s a sleepy, but pretty harbor town. Not glitzy or chic, which is why it’s an unusual place to open a high-end restaurant. If you hop off the train at Menton-Garavan, it’s just a 10-minute walk from the train station to the Mirazur restaurant. Just follow the signs for customs (la douane), because the restaurant is located literally yards away from the Italian border checkpoint.

The building exterior is highly unattractive. Our hearts sank when we saw the restaurant’s concrete, Ft. Lauderdale-gone-bad facade, but lifted again when the maitre d’ came out to shake our hands and welcome us. From the moment we were so warmly greeted, dinner was fun, delicious and interesting.

Eggplant, tomato amuses at Mirazur, French Riviera

Deciding to splash out, we started with aperitifs of a crisp, Billecart-Salmon Brut rose champagne, which we happily sipped with four excellent amuses, the standouts of which were a colorful and intensely-flavored eggplant-and-creme and tomato-and-avocado pair. The chef-owner of Mirazur, Mauro Colagreco, worked with Alain Passard at l’Arpege (a pedigree that’s what got us interested in the restaurant), so wizardry with raw vegetables wasn’t a surprise. The simple and delicious amuses told us we were in for a treat.We ordered the tasting menu, which was an incredible value at 70 euros a person (in comparison, the 140-euro per person tasting menu at Le Pre Catelan didn’t hold a candle to our meal at Mirazur), ordered our wines, and off we went.

Every course was visually gorgeous and ranged from merely very tasty (the asparagus ice cream in a citrus and fennel veloute) to revelatory (the “spring garden,” the foie gras with citrus and beetroot confit, and the langoustines in dashi broth). The servers were professionally attentive, but also friendly, following our lead and mixing up French and English when describing the food or the fanatical way chef Colagreco guards the restaurant’s vegetable garden. Our fellow diners were almost all French-speaking, and the dining room was full, but not packed, on the Sunday night we were there. It was a good atmosphere, especially after sun set: the lights along Menton harbor twinkled, and the unappealing train tracks passing under the second-floor dining room disappeared.

asparagus ice cream in citrus fennel veloute, Mirazur, French Rivieralow temperature poached egg with blue cheese sauce, Mirazur, French Rivierafoie gras, citrus and beetroot confit, Mirazur, Menton, French Rivierapartridge with polenta, coffee sauce, Mirazur, Menton, French Rivieraspring vegetables, Mirazur, Menton, French Rivierawild fish with smoked sauce, Mirazur, Menton, French Rivieragreen pea sauce, ice cream, Mirazur, Menton, French Rivieraice cream, creme fraiche dessert, Mirazur, Menton, French Riviera

The photos above give you some sense of how painstakingly the food is presented at Mirazur, and without boring you with all the details, I’ll give a specific shout out to the langoustines in dashi broth (photo at the top of this post), the colors of which reminded me of the scallops dish at L’Astrance in Paris (home to another Alain Passard protege) but tasted fresh and vivid in a way only simple, well-sourced ingredients can.

Langoustines are ugly creatures, and when they’re translucently raw like they were at Mirazur, the chef did well to cover them in a gorgeous blanket of flowers and greens. The lukewarm dashi broth was salty and seafoody, and the langoustines were sweet and delicate. Every ingredient played a big role, and I loved how all these simple elements came together with every spoonful.

The foie gras (third photo down) was melt-in-your-mouth silken, like slinky tofu, but rich and meaty as only foie gras is. The dish was lightened and brightened by the strong flavors of the citrus confit and the vegetal beetroot confit.

Last but not least of my three favorite courses is the ‘Jardins du Printemps’ (fifth photo down), which at first appears to be a dull pile of salad greens, but actually turns out to be a carefully-constructed mix of raw and pureed vegetables. The raw greens are not only flavorful, but also add a variety of texture and crunch to spoonfuls of a green puree that’s hidden beneath the greens. The pine nuts do their sweet, nutty thing and as someone who is rarely impressed by vegetables, I was knocked over by the flavors in this course. The chef guards his garden for good reason, it seems.

Our tab for two came to almost 240 euros, and we thought it worth every cent. Make the trip to Mirazur in Menton and be sure to let me know what you think.

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Socca at Renee’s in Vieux Nice

socca in Old Nice

I usually dislike beach vacations because food tends to be mediocre and expensive in places where the main draw is sand and sea. So even though the Riviera is French (and I believe more French care about food than not), I had my worries about spending time, money and calories on the restaurants of the Cote d’Azur.

Well, as it turns out, I shouldn’t have worried so much (so true about most things in life, no?).Jon and I had some great meals and snacks during our long weekend.

Portion of Socca at Renee’s

portions of socca

First, there’s the Nicoise specialty, socca. Socca is a crispy-on-the-outside-moist-on-the-inside flatbread served in a wide-diameter pizza-pan-looking pan (see photo at top). The socca dough is comprised mostly of chickpea flour, water, and olive oil, and when the socca’s fresh out of the oven, crispy and hot, it’s the snack to beat. Served as haphazard shards scraped out lightning fast by servers, socca is cheap (going rate was 2.50 euros for une portion) and best wolfed down with an ice-cold beer or glass of summery Cotes de Provence rose.

On the rue Paroliere in Old Nice, we indulged in socca a few times at the very popular Renee Socca bar/cafe, and if you walk a little further down the road, you can also sample the slightly-more-olive-oil recipe used at the Garibaldi Café. The concierge at our hotel told us she prefers the Garibaldi version, but Place Garibaldi is currently under construction, which makes for a dusty and unattractive view when you’re eating your socca there.

In contrast, the Renee Socca joint had the advantage of a relaxed vibe at outdoor, communal tables, which translated into (I think) higher turnover, meaning more chances of a fresh-from-the-oven round of socca. Worth mentioning is that if you eat at Renee Socca, you line up at a corner window to buy your food, and then if you want to stick around and eat at one of the outdoor tables, you have to order drinks when you sit down.

At the mid-range of eating, we had 50-50 luck with recommendations we got from Mark Bittman’s 2006 article on the Riviera.We ate lunch one day at Le Calypso (04.93.01,96.73) in Villefranche-sur-mer, and the seafood was disappointing and pricey. The Nicoise salad was good enough (fresh, pretty greens, though a disappointingly skimpy three anchovies), and my main course, a much-touted special of the day, was awful. I’ve had plane food that was better quality. My main course consisted of (1) a ratatouille so mushy and oily that it was unclear what vegetables were used to make it, (2) an over-cooked and dry fish (St. Pierre) and then (3) some not-pillowy, creamy gnocchi that didn’t go with anything else on the plate. Below is a photo of my unremarkable dish – you see what I’m saying about the airplane food?

Le Calypso St. Pierre special, Villefranche-sur-Mer

mediocre food at Le Calypso

Jon’s seafood pasta was better than my food (i.e., it was chock full of fresh seafood), but the pasta was overcooked, and at 18 euros, it was an expensive dish.

Food aside, I enjoyed the sunny, outdoor seating, and I also loved my lemonade, which was served French style (i.e., fizzy and not too sweet). Total cost for lunch for two was 52 euros. Based on our one experience, I’d try other places in Villefranche before heading back to Le Calypso.Chez Palmyre exterior, Vieux Nice

Our good experience with a Mark Bittman rec was our quick lunch at Chez Palmyre on the Rue Droite in Old Nice. Sure, the place has several versions of the NYT article on display, and yeah, the décor consists mostly of a string of big-bulb, multi-colored Christmas lights hanging over the small bar (they go particularly well with the dingy lace curtains and cavern-like dining room), but the food and service are 100% home-made, unpretentious charm.

There seemed to be just two women working when we arrived for lunch – one cooking and serving, and the other just serving. For 13 euros, you get four courses (starters, a main, a side, and a cheese/dessert), and for each course, you choose from four options.The portion sizes were perfect (small), and most of what we ordered was satisfying. We shared our table with an older French couple, and we enjoyed comparing our orders with theirs.

Jon’s vegetable soup was a rich vegetable broth with some vegetable puree blended in. My “hard-boiled-egg-and-anchovy salad” included a generous helping of anchovies, and otherwise, it was indistinguishable from salad nicoise.

For a main plate and side plate, Jon’s daube was fork-tender, rich and flavourful. The braise of your dreams. My escalope milanaise was pounded thin, breaded, and freshly pan fried. With a squeeze of lemon, I was set to go. Creamy, hot polenta made an unbeatable complement to the daube, but the buttered courgettes, while tasty, didn’t really live up to the heart, strong flavours of the other dishes.

We closed our meal with a generous slice of ultra-creamy brie, and we left Chez Palmyre full (but not too full) and happy.

On the high-end of the Cote d’Azur dining scene, we had two very tasty, very good value experiences: a dinner at Kei Matsushima, and another dinner at Le Mirazur. And then, a few days later (i.e., just this past weekend), we were in Paris eating at the three-Michelin-starred Pre Catelan. Details to follow.

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Sunday bric-a-brac market in Villefranche-sur-Mer

The French Riviera has been a beach getaway since the late 1700s, which means a lot has already been written about the social goings-on along that famous azure-blue coast. So I’ll disclose up front that I haven’t got any fabulous stories about partying it up in St. Tropez with Roman Abramovich and his Russian oligarch posse (oligarchs are always Russian, aren’t they?), but I have notes about my trip to share just the same.

And if you’re craving more on the French Riviera, then I refer you to my favorite fictional scene set on the Cote d’Azur: in Book 2, Chapter 2 of the House of Mirth, our heroine, Lily Bart, is set up for a major social scandal by her adulterous hostess, Bertha Dorset. You know how villains in old movies always twirl their mustache? Well, I have a theory that villainesses in novels always come with an ugly name. Exhibit A: Bertha.

Back to the topic at hand – my trip – Jon and I were in the ‘hood for only three days, so we spent most of our time (going from West to East) at Cannes, Nice, Villefranche-sur-mer, Eze Village, Monaco and Menton. Although that sounds like a lot of ground to cover, it’s not. The towns of the French Riviera are small and close together, so you’re never more than a 10-minute-drive/bus ride/train ride away from the next little town.

Cannes

Cannes: In preparation for the Film Festival (which starts next week), workers are busy putting up hundreds of peaked white tents (see bottom left corner of the photo above). I can’t say for sure what Cannes is normally like without all the scaffolding and infrastructure going up right now, but my best guess is that it’s not the prettiest town on the Cote d’Azur by any stretch. First, the harbor is obscured by what appears to be a giant boat parking lot, and the old town is small and overrun by tourist shops and restos. Second, the “new” part of town (where you’ll find your Chanel, Gucci et al.) has a boxy 1960s beach construction look.

I’ll assume there’s much fun to be had in town when you’re connected, but for little ol’ unconnected moi, there are other Riviera towns I’d visit before I spend time in Cannes again.

Nice: It’s the biggest town on the Riviera, and as all the local reports on Sarkozy’s victory informed us, it’s the 5th largest city in France.

Walking back to our hotel on Monday evening after the election results, we passed a loud concert-celebration for Sarkozy supporters, which was entertaining.All of which is to say that if you’re looking for small-town charm, then fly into Nice and immediately travel on to neighboring towns (Villefranche, Eze and Menton come to mind), but Nice is convenient and big enough to have a little something for everyone. Gaudy neon-lit casinos? Check. Sunny but uncomfortable-looking pebble beaches? Miles of it. Expensive stores, cheap stores, good food, bad food. You saw my point about two sentences ago, I know.

Jon and I stayed near the Place Massena, which put us less than 5 minutes from the Promenade des Anglais (the “English boardwalk”) and the Old Town. Although there’s heavy-duty construction going on to spruce up the Place Massena (slated for completion in 2008), every morning, we quickly wound our way through cyclone fencing to reach the warm, blue waters of the Mediterranean for a run on the Promenade.

The Promenade isn’t the most charming walkway I’ve ever seen (that honor belongs to the San Sebastian boardwalk), but the Mediterranean is gorgeous, and the Promenade is wide and smooth for miles, which is convenient.

Once on the Promenade, I had one of my favorite old-new moments: you’re running along this conveniently (but not attractively) tarmac’d path along the turquoise, sparkling water, and you’re dodging the cyclists, bladers and other runners while considering the original purpose of the Promenade, which was to enable the upper-class, 18th century English vacationers to take the air. I like imagining Edwardian parasols and bustles to contrast with all the spandex and speedos going by today on the Promenade.

The shadowy, winding streets of the Vieux Nice (Old Nice) are par for the course if you need your Medieval town fix. The buildings are in faded oranges and pinks; there are unexpected bursts of light when you stumble upon hidden-away squares; and for the most part, the feeling is sleepy and laid-back. I’d imagine the Old Town gets unpleasantly crowded during the summer, but during our stay, walking along Rue Droite to find Mark Bittman’s restaurant recs or the Cours Saleya for open-air-market charm was lovely.

Villefranche-sur-Mer harbor

Villefranche-Sur-Mer: We spent only a few hours here on a Sunday afternoon, and while I wasn’t a big fan of the cruise ship crowds that invaded while we were there (what’s my beef with cruises, you ask? Well, large, organized groups of people are intrinsically loud and overwhelming, especially when in small, old coastal towns), I left with the impression that the town is warm, colorful and cheery. The Sunday bric-a-brac market (see photo at top of this post) was festive, the breeze coming off the turquoise bay was calming, and the restaurants and shops looked inviting despite our mediocre lunch in town.Walkway in Eze Village

Eze Village: There are two parts to Eze – Eze sur Mer (Eze on the Sea) and Eze Village. The latter is the picturesque part, perched high on top of a mountain that Nietzsche allegedly hiked. The Number 83 bus runs regularly between the Eze sur Mer train/bus stop and Eze Village, so we skipped the 1-hour Nietzsche hike up to town and took the bus.It’s all uphill when you reach the end of the road at Eze Village. The town is pedestrianized, which you can understand once you start wandering the narrow, cobblestoned, Medieval streets (don’t wear heels!).

I was last in Eze in 1999 and remembered it being super quaint, and it still is, but now it seems things have gone high-end. The alleys are still picture-perfect, but the discreet signage seemingly around every corner tells you this is Relais & Chateaux country.

We passed a few inviting outdoor cafes squeezed into wide turns of the Eze Village streets, but our focus in town was the Jardin Exotique, which is essentially a bunch of cool-looking cacti that have taken over the ruins of what used to be a castle that protected the town. It’s not big, but for 5 euros each, we enjoyed amazing views of the Cote d’Azur – specifically, of St. Jean Cap Ferrat, which is a bit of the Riviera accessible only by car, yacht or helipad. Seeing it from the Jardin Exotique is probably the closest I’m ever going to get to the Cap Ferrat, unless one of my dear friends and readers happens to be a Rothschild in disguise.

One last note on Eze: avoid the main Fragonard store in Eze like the plague. The place is a cruise-ship-processing factory, and despite two best efforts, we couldn’t convince anyone to help us. What really shocked me is how poorly the Fragonard store treats its lifeblood (i.e., those cruise ship groups). The bathrooms for the groups are out back, behind the fancy sales floor, and I’ve seen facilities at gas stations nicer than what the Fragonard store offered its customers. I think the cruise ship groups should stage a revolt – not only are they herded through an expensive sales process (e.g., 3 bottles of perfume for $200 packaged as a deal), but then they get thrown out back for a prison-block-like bathroom experience? The indignity!Monaco Casino

Monaco: Mark Bittman said it best when he called Monaco a seaside shopping mall (though to be fair, a high-end one) with a casino. We stopped by for less than an hour so Jon could experience walking into the casino and being asked for his passport before being allowed into the parts where people actually gamble. For those of you curious, Alain Ducasse’s 3-star Louis XV looked appropriately gilded and high-ceilinged.

Menton: The last of our stops on the Riviera, we traveled to Menton solely to eat at Le Mirazur (next and final post on food still to come). The east side of Menton also happens to be the western border of Italy, so you can actually walk across the French-Italian border once you’re in town.Menton, like all towns on the Riviera, has an old town, a new town, a casino, and a harbor. We didn’t see too much of Menton, but it looked quiet and walkable, though the harbor was, on the spectrum of sleepy to glam, on the sleepy side.

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Baie des Anges photo

Jon and I are back in London after a long weekend (the first of two May bank holidays) on the French Riviera. The weather was sunny, in the 70s and breezy. The water was, in fact, azure, and we ate at several excellent restaurants – the standouts being the two-Michelin-starred Keisuke Matsushima in Nice and Le Mirazur in Menton. Sometimes (i.e., when talking about French restaurants in France), the Guide Michelin gets things right, I guess.

To fund our eating adventures, we saved tons of money by staying in a cheap (80 euros a night) but clean hotel located in the pedestrian zone off the Place Massena in Nice. The rooms at the Hotel Regence were small, but very tidy and with spacious, modern bathrooms. It perfectly captured our priorities for a hotel – prime location, low price, good bathrooms.

We also were psyched that a TripAdvisor poster told us to ignore the taxis at the airport and instead travel to and from the Nice Cote d’Azur airport by hopping on the Number 98 bus, which costs 4 euros each way, takes only 20 minutes to reach the Old Town part of Nice, and runs along the sparkling-blue-turquoise waters of the Baie des Anges (see photo at top).

It was a rejuvenating three days, and while I wish we’d stayed longer to do a little shopping and soak in the atmosphere from a few more Riviera towns, I felt lucky to be able to hop over to the Riviera for a weekend.

Detailed posts to follow, bien sur.

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black truffle cheese amuse bouche at Zigante, Croatia

Considering how much I’ve read about Lidia Bastianich’s roots in Istria, I was sad that our experiences eating out and drinking in Istria were generally so-so. Our best food market experience was, in terms of consistent freshness and variety of produce, at the enormous Mercator hypermarket in Pula (think Wal-Mart size), and our best restaurant meal (La Puntulina in Rovinj) had charming décor but uneven food. The wines we tried (and we tried bottles from at least a dozen vineyards before I gave up) were very sour. Sour-tasting wine must be the local preference, because I find it hard to believe that all the winemakers in the area are making mistakes with their wines in the exact same way.

Below are my food and wine notes from our week:

Wild Asparagus:

We were in Istria during wild asparagus season. Being followers of all food trends, even ones heavily marketed by the local chamber of commerce, Jon and I were inspired by all the Croatians we saw collecting wild asparagus from woodsy roadside patches. The problem is that we weren’t exactly sure what wild asparagus looked like, so we ended up “harvesting” a lot of what turned out to be weeds. Eventually, we found wild asparagus at the Rovinj outdoor produce market for 25 Kuna ($5) a bunch, and it turns out wild asparagus looks like cultivated asparagus, except it’s extra long and thin. One night, we made a wild asparagus risotto, and I wasn’t a fan. The wild asparagus is very bitter, though I give it high texture points for delicacy and thinness.

Croatian Wines and Grappa:

Until we found Bacchus wine shop in Rovinj, we were buying 1L bottles (when it only comes in 1L bottles, watch out) from small supermarkets we came across in the hill towns. Bacchus is near Rovinj Harbor and sells a wide variety of Istrian wines, all at relatively high prices. For example, we restricted ourselves to the under-200 Kuna ($40) half of the store, and even then, buying five of the least expensive bottles cost $120. I wouldn’t complain so much about the price if the wines had been tasty, but they weren’t. The Istrian reds (mostly teran grapes) we tried were watery and sour, even those from locally-prominent vineyards like Arman or Kozlovic. The whites, mostly made from the malvaziya or chardonnay grape, were better than the reds, with an Ortonero Art malvaziya delivering the least watery of tastes. A dessert wine from Arman Winery was tasty enough that our travelling companions bought some to bring home to the US as gifts.

After a few days of trying significant numbers of Istrian wines, we resigned ourselves to making sangria from local reds, and we cheered when Mike showed up via the Paris duty-free with a few French wines in tow.

Despite the acres of grapevines in the region, I think Istria has a long way to go before it’s wine country. We were better off drinking the large, glass container of mistletoe grappa in the villa, and if you’re going to drink the wines, seriously consider the beauties of sangria.

Places to Eat (by town)

Rovinj:

Restaurant Graciano (Obala path boraca, 4) sits near the designated parking lot for visitors to Rovinj, which means it’s not the most idyllic setting in the world. That said, there’s a large roofdeck with a view of the scenic bits of Rovinj, and we greatly enjoyed lounging around there and watching the sun go down. The prosecco we ordered was tasty, and the pizza we shared (wolfed down) with our aperitif made for a relaxing pre-dinner hangout.

Giannino restaurant, Rovinj, Croatia

Giannino came highly recommended by both our Time Out and Rough Guide to Croatia, and while the seafood was good, the pastas were disappointing. Our table, oddly Chinese-restaurant round with lazy susan, was in a dank little corner of the otherwise warm, casual restaurant. In addition to seafood, we ordered three or four pastas, all of which were drowning in a gloppy cheese sauce (a recurring theme with Istrian pastas, we were to find out over time), which was too bad given our expectations that Rovinj would be the land of excellent pastas, a la Itay. As for the seafood at Giannino, the scampi gets special mention for being sweet and juicy, and the sea bass tasted particularly fresh. With two bottles of Croatian wine, our tab came to 155 Kuna ($30) each.

Osteria, Rovinj harbor, Croatia

Marina Gostionica Osteria is the least-touristy-looking of the many restaurants that line Rovinj harbour. We were drawn by the outdoor seating, and we figured as long as we stuck with pizzas, we would be fine. Too bad the waitress neglected to tell us straight up that none of the dozen or so pizzas listed on the menu were available that day, so we made a lot of last-minute choices, with mixed results.

I ordered a pasta frutti di mare, figuring seafood in Rovinj had been pretty strong, and I was hoping that it would be sans gloppy cheese sauce. It turned out my pasta was tasty despite the orange-colored seafoody bits, which appeared to be to seafood what hotdogs are to meat. Jon’s and Colleen’s “risottos” were just regular long-grain rice with some cheese thrown in for creaminess, so I was glad I’d steered clear of those. Food schadenfreude. Colleen did, however, order an attractive and delicious grilled calamari as a starter, so I guess balance in all things. Overall, a mixed quality of food, but nice location. Not sure I’d go back, though I remain convinced it’s the least of all evils if you want to eat harborside.

Puntulina restaurant exterior, Rovinj, CroatiaLa Puntulina (+385 52 813 186) is a pretty restaurant and bar. It’s perched on the sea near the St. Euphemia Cathedral. There’s a casual outdoor area by the sea connected to the bar, so we greatly enjoyed our cocktails one afternoon – bellinis with real peach nectar were tasty, though served in a water glass. Prices were 30-40 Kuna ($6-8) a drink, which was a bargain only if you live in the UK, I suppose. Despite a weird incident with the server (she brought Sarah a virgin pina colada instead of the cuba libre Sarah had ordered, and then she single-handedly replaced Jon’s order of a red with an order of white when it turned out the bar had run out of the red he’d ordered), we had a good time and went back the next night for dinner.

The restaurant has an outdoor dining terrace that almost juts over the sea below. The place settings are elegant, so we looked forward to a nice meal with a sunset view. Of the appetizers we ordered, only the grilled calamari with polenta cakes stood out as especially good. Otherwise, starters like the stuffed squid seemed a little limp or not particularly fresh.

I enjoyed the salt-baked branzino that Mike and I shared (the fish was enormous), but I think the price we paid mostly reflected the drama of seeing a giant fish covered in tons of salt and then served tableside. The salt kept the branzino moist, so it was steaming hot and fresh. Simple and good, but would I pay 350 Kuna ($70) for it again? Probably not.

Zminj:

Pizzeria Orhideja is where we ate lunch when we set out for Zminj in search of an “agricultural fair.” The pizza wasn’t memorable, but it was hot and fresh and cost only 42 Kuna ($8) per person, so no big complaints. Our disappointed feelings in Zminj probably stemmed more from the “agricultural fair” turning out to be a bust, rather than from anything wrong at the pizzeria.

Pula:

Scaletta restaurant exterior, Pula, Croatia

Scaletta (Flavijevska 26, +385 52 541 599) is the restaurant of a small hotel by the same name near the Pula Arena. Again, the food varied. Jon’s farfalle in quattro formaggio was the best of the bunch, which confirms the idea that simple is best. Otherwise, either the sauces on all our pastas were too thick or the braised seafood/meats weren’t braised long enough to get rid of their toughness.

The amuse bouche of anchovies on toast with olive oil and arugula was simple and delicious, and then the pasta I ordered was a disaster. Tons of gloppy cheese, some tiny shrimp, and that was it. There were only four ravioli, and a few shavings of white truffle, which is what I think drove the price of it up to 95 Kn ($19). I’d skip Scaletta when you’re in Pula, and instead, eat more of the 3-cm-diameter donuts that vendors sell on the street. With a little powdered sugar, they’re the ultimate dessert.

Livade:

Black truffle and potato soup at Zigante, Livade, Croatia

Zigante specializes in truffles – white and black. If you hear any restaurant mentioned in Croatia, chance are high it’s Zigante. I had my suspicions about the place when I read it was known for having had the world’s largest truffle (certified by the Guinness Book of World Records, they’ll have you know). The experience of eating lunch there was fine, but not “wow” level. First, we had to push pretty hard to get a table that wasn’t shrouded in darkness (i.e., to move to another empty dining room that had natural light). Second, the food ranged only from bad to pretty good. The cream of potato soup with truffles seemed more for show than for any aroma from the black truffles. Shaved truffles formed a pretty topping on the soup, but (maybe because they were a topping) there wasn’t much truffle flavour when the time came to stop looking at the soup and actually eat it.

My homemade tagliatelle with white truffles had a great aroma, but the pasta was past al dente and the slightly-cheesy sauce had filmed over, which signalled to me that it’d been sitting under a warming lamp. Not what I expected from an allegedly high-end experience.

The only genius moment came during the amuse-bouche, which was the black-truffle studded cheese (see photo at top of post), served with arugula and a wrinkly olive. The cheese was so aromatic and zingy that I thought we were in for a big treat of a meal. Alas, it was kind of downhill from the cheese, and it turns out Zigante has several retail stores (in Motovun and Groznjan, for example), so you can buy the cheese there and call it a day.

Lunch with a bottle of surprisingly good sparkling wine (Misal Persuric Brut) totalled $50 a person, so I can’t complain about the price. At current UK-dollar exchange rates, that’s what I’d pay for a night at the neighbourhood gastropub, but honestly, I’d take a pork belly at the Albion any day over the sloppy tagliatelle I had at Zigante.

16 May 2007 Update: Apparently, I would have had a better food experience if I’d traveled with Mark Bittman and Lidia Bastianich. Click here for the 16 May 07 NYT article about eating in Istria.

If you enjoyed reading this post, you might also enjoy reading my other two posts about Istra:

Seaside towns in Istria:  Rovinj and Pula (posted 24 April 2007)

Hill towns in Istria:  Mrgani, Motovun and Groznjan (posted 20 April 2007)

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