A week on the Riviera

Saturday, July 19th , 2008

 le-petit-nice 1024 view from our table-crop-v3.JPG
I spent this week in the Riviera, mainly around Monaco. There is a curious mix of fine and disappointing restaurants in this area, but the key is the quality of the produce. I went to the markets of Monte Carlo, Ventamiglia with Cannes early on two mornings, and encountered vegetables and seafood of such quality (see pictures for examples) that it is depressing to contemplate going back to Borough market. A John Dory landed minutes ago, its eyes fresh and still slightly inflated by the air in its stomach, was one example. Many fish at the Cannes market are still twitching as they are delivered to the stalls. The vegetables did not move of their own volition but were also stunning in appearance and taste.  These are the raw ingredients that offer the chance for local restaurants to produce great food, and too often they squander this opportunity.
A sad example of this was a meal at the one star but highly acclaimed Mirazur. The meal was an infuriating roller coaster, with lovely simple and high quality vegetable dishes followed by the worst of extreme modern shock value taste combinations: tuna brain with beetroot, anyone? This was a chef who has ventured too far out into the wilds and needs to return to the kind of food that he learnt under Alain Passard; people actually wanted to eat those dishes, which he was cooking just a year ago. The half empty dining room on our visit should be clue enough to him that chefs should cook for their customers, not for the approval of other chefs.
Le Petit Nice in Marseilles is a recently promoted three star establishment that managed to mess up several dishes. A lukewarm sea bass on a cold plate with herb dressing was drowned in a sea of olive oil. A beautiful piece of fine a local fish (dentex) had a surreal set of accompaniments that were best just pushed to one side so that the fish could be appreciated. There were some good elements here, principally at the dessert stage, but this was not somewhere I would return to, even with the stunning view (illustrated) of the Mediterranean from our window table. 
The place that gets it right is Louis XV, the 3 star flagship of Alain Ducasse. The lunch here, at EUR 130 including nibbles, three courses, plus cheese, water, coffee and wine, is perhaps the one great bargain of the 3 star Michelin firmament (my lunch this week here was less than half the price of that at Petit Nice the next day). I won’t repeat the review, but several elements of the meal were sublime. You can find flashier cooking than this, but the 25 chefs working in the kitchen here, serving perhaps 30 diners at lunch, understand that what they need to do is not distract from the perfect produce, and they don’t. I have been many times to Louis XV, and have had meal after magnificent meal here. At times it is close to perfection, as it was this week.
We also met some friends at a simple restaurant with a lot of history La Mere Germaine, another place with a lovely seaside setting, but in this case very ordinary food.