During my trip to the Côte d’Azur with Matt and Adam, after the second or third day, we realized that we hadn’t eaten in any restaurants. With the fresh ingredients available, we were preparing our own meals (pretty well, I might add), and we didn’t feel the need to hand over the cooking duties to a third-party. It was a bit of heaven being in part of the country where garden-fresh vegetables are abundant, and we found ourselves gorging on local specialties that we made ourselves, like aïoli and socca, and not craving any meat or cheese.
But one restaurant did catch my eye, which many consider the best restaurant on the Côte d’Azur, and that’s Mirazur, located in Menton, a small town that meets the radiantly blue Mediterranean and is literally walking distance to Italy. When I wrote to Rosa Jackson, who teaches regional cooking classes in nearby Nice, about the restaurant, she wrote me right back; “… if you go, you should arrange in advance to visit their vegetable garden, it’s amazing!”
Since I love gardens, and seeing where food is grown, I contacted the restaurant to see if we could go through the gardens before lunch, and soon thereafter, got a response letting me know that we were welcome to take a walk through the potager, the French word for ‘vegetable garden’, before lunch. So we arrived a few hours before our reservation with sturdy shoes and jeans, with a change of clothing, so we could be respectable when we finally pulled up to our table in the casually chic dining room of Mirazur.
Walking up the steep hill where the gardens are stacked, I stopped for a moment to look behind me and my breath was taken a bit away by the expansive view of the Mediterranean we were facing. The deep-blue water was lulling away, a few small boats leisurely drifted by, and a lone swimmer courageously was working his or her way through the docile currents. Then halfway up the hill we met up with Magali, who helps run the organic garden for the restaurant.
For those who think organic is high-fallutin’ or for upscale folks, this multi-level garden was a tangle of weeds, dried up branches, and plenty of broken rocks and dirt. It’s not a garden to look at, but one that actually works. And every section features a different kind of fruit or vegetable bursting through the sandy soil.
Because it was early September, it was somewhat late for stone fruits and the famous Menton lemons (which merit their own annual parade) wouldn’t be ripe until at least January. But there were many colorful stalks of blettes, or Swiss chard, poking from the ground. Nearby were rows of peppers and when I asked what that lone bright red pepper was, she replied, “It’s a jalapeño!”
I’ve not seen a jalapeño pepper in France before, which is why I devote one-sixth of my refrigerator to a big jar of homemade pickled ones. Magali told us they grew them because the French don’t like heat, and jalapeños are relatively mild. Although she personally confessed, “Me? I love heat!”, perhaps because she is from Marseilles.
The most unusual thing we saw was Devil’s Claw, which she said was related to the fig plant, but also added that it was carnivorous. (So I stood back.) They don’t grow them to use in the restaurant, but perhaps they’re used to scare away the locals.
For example—Exhibit A:
There are over forty kinds of tomatoes grown in the garden, but her favorite was the Cœur de Bœ, which are also grown in greenhouses in France and Belgium, and she made a face (the same one I do) when she thinks of them, as they taste like nothing. A real Cœur de Bœ resembles its namesake ‘beef heart’, and has the wonderfully meaty, juicy, summery taste of a home-grown tomato.
There were a few oddities in the garden (and no, I’m not talking about me, or Matt, or Adam). The spiky little creatures she handed us were filled with square black seeds. But what shocked us more than those wacky semis were the cyclanthera, a pellet-like cucumber originating in Central and South America where Mauro Colagreco, the chef at the restaurant, is from.
When we popped the little green capsules into our mouths, we were each astonished by the explosion of cucumber flavor in that tiny pellet. She said, “Yes, they are amazing”, and told us of a cook in the restaurant that did les petits farcis, the stuffed vegetables that are a specialty of the region.
As I walked around the brush and tangle of plants, I had to watch where you were going so you didn’t step on any semis, or newly-seeded areas. But it was hard with such a spectacular view!
We finally wound our way back down the steep hill, toward the restaurant, stopping at a basil patch filled not just with colorful varieties of basil, but a whole range of flavors as well. Liquorice was the most surprising, but the cinnamon basil we all agreed was our hands-down favorite.
Other interesting herbs were tiny, clover-like sprigs of oiselle (sorrel), short leaves of cress that had a fiery bite, and wispy roquette that was chewy, deep-green, and had an aftertaste that knocked away any remaining flavor of the previous bite of peppery cress.
At the top of the hill, set against the background of the blue Mediterranean, was the colorful foliage of amaranth. She said that out of all the plants, she was relieved that amaranth was the only one that was resistant to genetic modification.
And although I was only familiar with using the pretty leaves in salads and Asian dishes, she plucked off a few of the sprigs, rubbed them briskly between her hands, which released a scattering of pin-prick sized black seeds.
I tasted a few, which were crunchy and a bit nutty, similar to poppy seeds, but with a slightly more elusive flavor. And she said that Mauro, the chef, likes to use them in dishes because he is interested in the “…element of surprise”, which she followed up by saying, “…because you never know what Mauro is going to make.”
Although we didn’t want to leave the lovely garden, with this spectacular view, we had a reservation for lunch and carefully navigated the crumbly concrete steps back to the car, where we made our quick change into presentable diners.
True to form, there isn’t a menu at Mirazur. At lunchtime, there’s three options: two of the menus are smaller, available during specific days of the week and cost €29-€33, and there are two more expansive menus, including the carte blanche for €110 which was ten different dishes. Since we hadn’t blown our dining-out budget, we decided on the splurge and after asking us if we had any allergies to anything, since the menu is indeed a ‘blank slate’, we sat back and let the server bring out plate of plate of dishes inspired by the potager we’d just descended from.
The apéritif maison was a flûte of Champagne ganished and infused with lemon verbena leaves with a cube of unrefined sugar sizzling in the bottom of each glass. I generally skip the apéro in upscale restaurants mostly because I prefer Champagne unadulterated (and because a round of them can increase the check substantially), and while this one was fine, I’ll stick to popping open a fresh bottle rather than the nearly €50 these three set us back.
The lovely little accompaniment that arrived a moment later was a glass of sea foam which had a tangy-creamy consistency and flavor, but the waiter assured us there was pas de crème in the little glass. What was even nicer was the vegetable tartare of finely diced carrots in a airy, brittle shell made of black rice flour which came out just afterward.
A fish course came next; very thinly sliced with a few arcs of white peaches. The fish was strong, fresh, and oily, similar to mackerel, and although if someone told me they were pairing fruit with fish, I might have scoff. But the contrast between the sweet and salty paid off.
A martini glass was partially filled with tomato jelly served up with tiny little leaves from the garden topped with a slick of saffron liquid, most likely from the Provençal saffron cultivated nearby, and various petals and miniature herb leaves.
A bean salad landed with squarish leaves of sorrel strewn about with a few chunks of fresh apricots tossed in. Since we all love beans, we were all very happy to be eating this dish. In fact, if they just brought me a big plate of this for lunch (although not for €110), I would’ve been happy.
I was in love with the look of the house-made bread, which I noticed behind the glass window behind the host’s desk, when we first stepped in to the restaurant, where you can see the kitchen at work. The petal-like breads were pull apart loaves with the soft consistency of stretchy, all-American biscuits, but infused with ginger and a soupçon of hardly perceptible garlic. A puddle of local olive oil was poured for dipping in a low dish alongside.
Being a few hundred meters from the Mediterranean, I liked how Chef Colagreco, naturally, used a lot of things from the sea (because I’ve been surprised before, like when people say they serve “local, seasonal food”…then they have blackberries on the dessert menu in New York, in December), such as the transluscent green sea lettuce in this cod ceviche, along with the finest little cubes of chile peppers I’d ever seen. Almost as small as the amaranth seeds, each one had four perfect ninety degree angles and I could imagine someone in the kitchen standing there for quite a while with a miniature protractor to get them all just right.
We enjoyed our meal, but some of the flavors weren’t as lively as I like. I think back to Alec Lobrano, a local food writer and friend who has lived in Paris for nearly twenty five years, and says that Americans are used to “fireworks” when we eat. And the longer I live in France, the more I agree: flavors here are not so all over the map—you don’t get highs and lows in each mouthful, and things like flaky salt, hot chiles, spices, fresh ginger, and untamed citrus are generally used with more restraint than I’m used to.
It’s not a complaint, but a cultural difference. So whenever I eat something, I often want it to “pop” in my mouth, and in my brain. And if it doesn’t, I don’t always feel satisfied. Part of it also comes from maybe working in professional kitchens for thirty five years and tasting a lot of food, hence the preference for dynamic dishes that make an impression. So I’m always looking for things with bold, big flavors.
But then I speared a roasted wild mushroom that was snug up against a mound of quinoa, and popped it in my mouth, and it was the most delicious mushroom I’ve ever tasted. So there.
Atop was a soft strip of lardo (cured pork fat) and two kinds of foam alongside. Foam has gotten a bad rap in the past few years, but I don’t eat in fancy restaurants enough to get sick of it, so I can’t comment. But like anything, even if it’s a cliché (like panna cotta, verrines, tiramisù, and crème brûlée), if done or used correctly, detractors can quit their bitching because that’s what it was intended for. And here the frothy sauces were light and airy, and didn’t detract from the earthy flavor of the mushrooms and seeds, like a reduction or heavier sauce would have.
After spending the week eating our way through Provence and across the Côte d’Azur, Adam mentioned that he was missing meat. I hadn’t really thought about it since the vegetables and local flavors are so satisfying (including the grande aioli we’d made the night before, with lots of fresh and parcooked vegetables). But it was true; I didn’t miss meat at all.
That is, until we finished off the plate of carrots, carrot puree, fennel, and swordfish, and they set down before us a neat rectangle of pork shoulder, with its skin all slick and crispy.
Surrounding the pork were dabs of a relatively tame garlic cream, slivered olives, and thin French-cut pieces of green onion. I remember explaining to Romain that in America, we call things cut on the bias “French cut” and he just looked at me like…well, let’s just say I get that look a lot. Any guesses out there on that one? (Or what it just an affectation by the frozen food industry to get us to eat their frozen green beans?)
After our empty pork plates were taken away, we began the dessert courses, staring with a thin cylinder of caramelized tuile batter filled with, yup…you guessed it, cilantro cream. Propping it up was a oval of creamy yogurt ice cream in a pool of quivery pear jelly and little bitty cubes of pears. (They probably gave the person who cubed the chiles earlier a break and let them work on something a little more manageable.) I loved the pear jelly and the tasty bits of pears tumbling over it, and surprisingly, the cilantro cream was a brilliant idea. It wasn’t savonneuse or too-savory, but instead was just leafy enough to give the cream a curiously herbal twist. I liked it.
Next up was another oval, a frosty quenelle of pink grapefruit sorbet with slivers and slices of peaches and nectarines strewn about. The sorbet was excellent, but stone fruit season was a few weeks behind us and the fruit was a bit to firm and no longer juicy, as stone fruits tends to be when the season is just about over. A few bites and it just make you realize that it’s time to say goodbye to them until next year and that it’s apples and pears you should be focusing on and using.
After coffee, they extended our four hour lunch for a few extra (long) minutes, and we were ready to go. But we’d seen the other, long-departed tables, enjoying their mignardises, and we wanted ours, too.
At long last, ours came out with bright lemon macarons, tender marshmallows, and gracefully curved tuiles, which were soft and flexible and didn’t snap to attention when you broke them. Which made me think they’d been taken out of their air-tight containers and plated up, but overlooked by the busy staff. In the humid air of the Côte d’Azur, you really need to pay extra attention to these details, and it was curious that this final one got overlooked.
Our day ended with a ride back through the winding hills toward Nice, once again making a few wrong turns along the way. It’s easy to see why Mirazur was recommended to me by various friends in the region. And although one remarked that the prices were getting up there, our meal with one bottle of a Corsican white wine (€65) and everything else, worked out to €150 per person (which includes tax and service).
For a lavish meal like this, enjoyed with an expansive view of the Mediterranean, we agreed it was a fine way to spend a sunny afternoon and eat Michelin-starred cuisine. For those not wanting a ten-course repast, shorter menus are available. Which I might try next time and would give us a while to relax on the beach. Or make up for the time getting lost, en route home.
30, avenue Aristide Briand
Tél: 04 92 41 86 86
There’s an international organization called Wwoof, which matches people who want to work on organic farms in France (and elsewhere) with folks from all over the world, who want to come and work on an organic farm. I’ve visited a few here in France and it looks like an interesting opportunity for those willing to trade a few hours of physical labor for the experience.
At the small farm that raises the produce for Mirazur, I met several of the young workers, or Wwoofers as they’re called, who seemed to be enjoying themselves, ripping up plants and seeding the ground for the next crop. Each farm is different, and there’s a list on their website to choose from, but anyone is welcome to participate in the program where meals and lodging are provided in exchange for work. You can find more information on their bilingual website: Wwoof France
Related Posts and Links
The Chef and His Secret Garden (Chez Pim)
Mirazur Restaurant (An American in London)
(Photo of me with my devil’s claws moustache by Matt Armendariz)