Food | The Gannet

Hi-lo on the riviera

Two chefs are livening up Côte d’Azur dining by exploiting Provençal flavours to the full.

March 21 2012
Bill Knott

For all its conspicuous wealth, the French Riviera is not always the easiest place to find something good to eat, although I dimly recall a long, lazy lunch in a small restaurant off La Croisette in Cannes: whisky prawns flambés, cooked by a former saucier for Paul Bocuse with a suspiciously herbal roll-up glued to his lip as he ignited the crustaceans.

More typically, lunch on the Côte d’Azur consists of pizza, tomato salad and a bottle of rosé, picked at listlessly by rake-thin women in outsized sunglasses whose husbands are still trying to find somewhere to double-park the Lamborghini.

A recent trip, however, reassured me that the wealth of the Provençal larder occasionally reaches the coast. I ate superbly at two very different restaurants – one in Menton, one in Nice – but both run by chefs who earnt their spurs in some of France’s finest kitchens.

Mauro Colagreco, the young Argentinian chef/patron of Le Mirazur, a handsome modern restaurant overlooking the marina in Menton, trained with Bernard Loiseau, Alain Passard and Guy Martin: he has a Michelin star already and his dazzlingly inventive, playful food deserves a second.

His menu encompasses much that is local – the 40 varieties of tomato grown in his Passard-inspired terraced gardens, for example – but he knows that the best lobster comes from Brittany, while his oysters come from the famous Gillardeau beds in the Charente-Maritime. The lobster is served with tender little red beans and a delicate camomile broth; oysters form part of an inscrutably white starter, wrapped in wafers of pear, the plate dabbed with shallot cream.

Other splendid dishes include a witty variant of a Vietnamese spring roll, intensely perfumed with citrus and sprigs of mint and basil, and a perfect egg yolk sitting in a nest of sliced chestnuts, perked up with cauliflower foam and smoked eel – a sort of fishy bacon and eggs. In the rather staid world of Côte d’Azur fine dining, Colagreco is a hugely exciting talent.

Should Colagreco ever tire of Mirazur, he might follow the example of Dominique Le Stanc, former chef of Le Chantecler, in Nice’s grand Hotel Negresco. A dozen or so years ago, Le Stanc bought himself a bistro called La Merenda and still cooks there every day, occasionally nipping to the market on his bike.

His menu is a roll call of Provençal classics – tarte de Menton (pissaladière without the anchovies), pâtes au pistou, sardines farcies, daube de boeuf, tripes à la niçoise – all executed faultlessly. Seating is on cramped stools, reservations are not taken (there is no telephone: turn up 15 minutes before service) and you must pay in cash; as a true flavour of Provence, though, it is worth every cent. Le Mirazur or La Merenda? Haute cuisine or bistro cooking? Chacun à son ragoût, I suppose. But you should try both.

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