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.