Posts Tagged ‘French Riviera’

Nice Baie des anges

la Baie des Anges in Nice

This is the fourth and final post on our trip to Provence two weeks ago.

On our last trip to Nice in May 2007, we fell in love with socca, which is chickpea flour in its most evolved form (a crispy pancake), and we had a good dinner at the restaurant Keisuke Matsushima. So last weekend, when we found ourselves in Nice again, we decided that rather than try something new, we’d again seek out Chez Rene for socca, and then we’d drop by Restaurant Saison, the latest restaurant by Monsieur Matsushima.

Nice Renee Socca

Chez Rene Socca in Old Nice

For lunch, Jon and I wound our way through Old Nice, looking for familiar landmarks until we found Chez Rene Socca, which looks the same as it did two years ago. At Saturday lunchtime, there was a serious queue, but it moved forward quickly, so it wasn’t long before we pigged out on two crispy, hot portions of socca (2.50 euros a portion) and then a slice of sweet onion pissaladiere. We asked for our pissaladiere to be heated up, but (no surprise) the ten seconds in the oven didn’t do much to improve their cold, slightly-stale taste. It was like eating cold pan pizza: strangely addictive, but guilt inducing.

Nice Socca

une portion of socca at Chez Rene Socca

slices of pissaladiere from Chez Renee Socca

pissaladiere at Chez Rene Socca in Old Nice

For dinner, we tried out K. Matsushima’s latest venture, Restaurant Saison, which, unlike his eponymous Michelin-starred restaurant, serves Japanese classics – sushi, udon, tempura – with a “twist.” It was a good way to end our trip to France.

First, the service was excellent. The restaurant opened for dinner at 7 pm, and when we arrived, we asked the maitre d’ to get us in and out by 8 pm because we had a plane to catch. Smoothly and without making us feel rushed, they sped up our order and somehow our dinner felt evenly paced.

The highlight of our meal was the carpaccio de daurade royal, which was comprised of silky sea bream (the dorade), crunchy bits of garlic (happily devoid of bitterness), thinly-sliced and pickled onion dressed in sesame oil, and crunchy salad greens. It was a beautiful mix of textures and flavours.

Most of the menu items are priced at around 15 euros. To feel pleasantly full, we ordered four dishes. The restaurant decor is pretty low-key, so the prices seem a little incongruous to the surroundings, but on the basis of excellent service and fresh, good-quality sushi (or sushi-inspired dishes), Saison was worth the money.

Chez Rene Socca, 2 rue Miralhéti, 06000 Vieux Nice, France; +33 (0)4 93 92 05 73

Restaurant Saison, 17 rue Gubernatis, 06000 Nice, France; +33 (o)4 93 85 69 04; closed Sunday and Monday.

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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: 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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