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.
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?
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.
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.