A Food Lover’s Guide to the Côte d’Azur

Courtesy of Hotel Negresco

Running from Menton to St.-Tropez, wedged between the Alps and the blue Mediterranean, and taking in the tiny principality of Monaco, France’s Côte d’Azur is a paradise for the rich and famous—and for less fortunate mortals, too. I fell in love with this magical kingdom more than 30 years ago and continue to return frequently, enjoying my research there as the culinary editor for New York magazine. The exciting restaurants, the bounteous markets overflowing with fresh local produce, the medieval hilltop villages and the fragrant fields of lavender and groves of gnarled olive trees below them: All present a gastronome’s delight.

The wonderful thing about this part of the world is that, in the main, things don’t change that much. I find myself revisiting old favorites, some of which have been around for generations, but each year I discover special new places to explore as well. Here, my picks of the region’s best.

Rooms (And meals) With a Fabulous View

Chateau de la ChEvre d’Or, Eze

Dramatically perched on top of the cliffs, this hotel (the name of which translates as the Castle of the Golden Goat) offers spectacular panoramas of the Mediterranean. It opened as a restaurant in 1953 and has grown into a hotel that now occupies 60 percent of the medieval village of Eze. Its 33 suites and rooms are luxuriously decorated, each in a unique style, but it’s the view from the superb restaurant and its terrace that truly dazzles. It is almost matched by the expertise of the talented Michelin two-star chef Philippe Labbé, whose menu capitalizes on local produce and includes an amazing foie gras mille-feuille layered with smoked anchovies and a timbale of spaghetti stuffed with spinach and langoustines and finished with a white-truffle foam. If you can’t stay at the hotel, lunch on the terrace is a must. At Rue du Barri; 33-4/92-10-66-66; chevredor.com.

Authentic NiCoise

La Merenda, Nice

This tiny bistro in the old town is on a nondescript street near the Cours Saleya market. There, Dominique Le Stanc, the talented former head chef of the Hôtel Negresco’s Le Chantecler (see next page), prepares his specialties: authentic stockfish made from dried cod, slow-cooked daube of beef, and a creamy lip-puckering tarte au citron. Diners perch on backbreaking stools set around 12 tightly packed tables. Cash only, no reservations, no telephone. Just good food, cheap (but worth drinking) Côte de Provence wine, and a great atmosphere. Get there early and don’t go with more than four people. If there are no tables available, request one for later in the evening. At 4 Rue Raoul Bosio.

Great Bistro with a Bad Rap

La Petite Maison, Nice

The first time we came here we thought it a fluke. Such perfection and nobody we know seems to have heard of the place? The second, third, and fourth times around there was no doubt. This is a seriously good bistro: the scrambled eggs with truffles, chicken stuffed with foie gras, zucchini blossom fritters, the artichoke salad and fresh prawns, and homemade ice creams with pine nuts and candied orange peel. The restaurant itself is comfortable, genteel, and well-worn, with floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking an extraordinarily ordinary Old Town street scene. The very imperious grand matron and owner certainly has her detractors—as does her black-clad staff—but both have always been wonderful to us, and they have no idea who we are. Still, for the sake of full disclosure, we must reveal that there are those who would rather have Madame Defarge stick a knitting needle in their eye than deal with such grand hauteur. At 11 Rue St.-François-de-Paule; 33-4/93-92-59-59.

Magic Market

Cours Saleya, Nice

Just behind the promenade des Anglais, in the Old Town, is Nice’s famous open-air market, with its colorful flowers and fresh produce. Amid the lively bars, cafés, and restaurants, locals shop for braids of plump garlic; bright yellow zucchini blossoms; red, yellow, and orange tomatoes; perfumed basil; shiny peppers; and a vast selection of olives and exotic spices. At Place Gautier, adjoining the main market, there’s just-picked produce. Arrive by 9 a.m., before the crowds and while the chefs are still there. Later join the queue at Chez Theresa’s for her Niçoise street food—hot socca, a deep-yellow chickpea-flour pancake; or pissaladière, a local pizza topped with caramelized onions, anchovies, and olives. Monday’s market is devoted to antiques and bric-a-brac.

Top Local Vineyard

Chateau de Bellet, Nice

there is nothing quite like basking under the Mediterranean sun while sipping a vin rosé, most likely a Côte de Provence from the Var region. But the Riviera has its very own—albeit minuscule—AOC: Bellet. It sits in the hills behind Nice, and one of the best of its 13 vineyards is Château de Bellet, which is perched on a hilltop with great views and has been in the Baron de Bellet’s family for 400 years. The baron’s grandson currently oversees the small property and uses 100 percent Braquet, a grape variety unique to the region, for his rosé. It creates a delicious, crisp salmon-pink wine that is available at most of the top restaurants in the region. At 440 Chemin de Saquier; 33-4/93-37-81-57.

Truffles to Chopper in For

Chez Bruno, Lorgues

An hour’s drive from nice or just a few minutes by helicopter—there is, believe it or not, a landing pad—Chez Bruno is the ultimate truffle experience. Clément Bruno opened his restaurant 25 years ago near Lorgues (not strictly on the Côte d’Azur) and 17 years ago created his signature dish: pommes de terre aux truffes, a baked potato surrounded by a rich velvety truffle sauce and topped with a mountain of the shaved delicacies. Bruno is known as the truffle king, claiming to serve about 10,000 pounds of them a year, and after my six-course extravaganza, I quite believe him. At 2350 Rt. des Arcs; 33-4/94-85-93-93.

In-the-know Inn

Hotel de La Ponche, St.-Tropez

Originally a small fishermen’s bar, this spot overlooking La Ponche beach opened as a boutique hotel in the fifties and is still the best-kept secret in town. Picasso and the St.-Germain-des-Prés set really put it on the map; Françoise Sagan and Brigitte Bardot became regulars. Today Simone Duckstein, the daughter of the founders and keeper of the secrets of Tropezien celebrities, runs things, and the hotel’s grown to absorb four adjoining 18th-century cottages, with 18 individually decorated suites and rooms. I’ve enjoyed many a fine meal here, looking over the Bay of St.-Tropez from the restaurant’s terrace. At 3 Rue des Remparts; 33-4/94-97-02-53; laponche.com.

Glaces et Sorbets

Glacier Fenocchio, Nice

Long lines be damned! the ice cream at this family-run spot in the Old Town’s Place Rossetti is well worth the wait. At last count 90 flavors were available, obscurities like chewing gum, tomato and basil, and, my favorite, lavender, among them. At 2 Pl. Rossetti; 33-4/93-80-72-52; fenocchio.fr.

The Legendary One

Hotel Negresco, Nice

Dominating the Promenade des Anglais is the Hôtel Negresco, its pink dome allegedly designed with Marie-Antoinette’s breasts in mind. A symbol of the splendor of the Belle Epoque since Henri Negresco built it in 1912, the hotel has been the domain of its octogenarian chatelaine, Madame Augier, for some 50 years, and she’s created a magnificent showcase here for her eclectic collection of art and antiques, ranging from Napoléon III objets to a grotesque rotating Niki de Saint Phalle sculpture.

Chef Jean-Denis Rieubland recently took over the hotel’s highly acclaimed Le Chantecler restaurant, and early notices on his contemporary Provençal–inspired cuisine are positive. For a simpler dining experience try La Rotonde, with its merry-go-round of carved horses, and do remember to have a predinner glass of Champagne at the splendid walnut-lined bar, where one can experience the glamour of this landmark’s illustrious forebears. At 37 Promenade des Anglais; 33-4/93-16-64-00; hotel-negresco-nice.com.

All about Olives

Alziari, Nice

Stocking every imaginable type of Provençal olive product—Niçoise olives, tapenades, soaps, wood boards—this spectacular shop seems to have changed little since its 1936 founding. The Alziari family still presses the olives using the only working 19th-century mill in town, and three huge in-store vats contain the light and fruity extra-virgin olive oil that foodies crave. At 14 Rue St.-François-de-Paule; 33-4/93-85-76-92; alziari.com.fr.

Newest Two-Star Restaurant

Joel Robuchon Monte-Carlo, Monaco

In 2005 Robuchon opened in the hotel Métropole, across the road from his great rival, Alain Ducasse at the Hôtel de Paris. The elegant room, with its sea-view terrace, has the chef’s state-of-the-art open kitchen at one end, allowing diners to watch the maestro himself (on occasion, as we witnessed) and his executive chef, Christophe Cussac, prepare seasonal menus as well as his signature L’Atelier small dishes. At 4 Av. de la Madone; 37-7/93-15-15-15; metropole.com.

Jet Set a-go-go

The Bar at the Hotel Sube, St.-Tropez

The small second-floor balcony of the Hôtel Sube, directly above the Café de Paris, gives a bird’s-eye view of the milling crowds and the megayachts with their famous guests. (Fact: The new-generation megayachts are too big for the harbor of St.-Tropez.) This is the real St.-Trop insiders’ hangout, unlike the packed but stylish Café Sénéquier on the port. Get there before the crowds return from the beach—say, by about 5 p.m.—if you want a seat on the balcony. At 15 Quai Suffren; 33-4/94-97-30-04.

Restaurant Row

Rue St.-Antoine, Cannes

Behind the Marche Forville, leading up from the old port in Canne’s Le Suquet neighborhood, this narrow cobbled street is scattered with the outdoor tables of 25 colorful and diverse little restaurants. Two favorites: Mantel (22 Rue St.-Antoine; 33-4/93-39-13-10)—from Ducasse-trained chef-owner Noël Mantel—serves market-driven French-Italian dishes; the simpler Le Maschou (15 Rue St.-Antoine; 33-4/93-39-62-21) has had the same prix-fixe for 45 years: crudités followed by côte de boeuf, rack of lamb, or baby chicken.

Three-stars Only

Le Louis XV, Monaco

To my mind this gem at the Hotel de Paris is the jewel in the Alain Ducasse empire, a domain which now includes 20-plus restaurants and 14 Michelin stars. The traveling chef manages to find time to inspire and taste the fresh, seasonal Mediterranean menus here, and he’s trained the head chef, Franck Cerutti, to his very high culinary standards. The gilded and swagged dining room has a spaciously arranged 20 tables, while the terrace overlooking the square offers a less formal setting for lunch. The service is immaculate. Nothing can be faulted—even the trolleys for Champagne, bread, and cheese are amazing. At Pl. du Casino; 37-7/98-06-88-64; hoteldeparismontecarlo.com.

Sweet shop Extraordinaire

Patisserie cottard, Antibes

tucked away in the old town of antibes is one of the youngest master pastry chefs (maîtres pâtissiers) in France. Cottard grew up, figuratively speaking, with sugar in his veins, working in his parents’ pâtisserie in Menton. Later he honed his skills with Ducasse before opening this charming pâtisserie, his own vision of massed tempting delights. He creates 60 different ones each day—the most popular being his light and crisp mille-feuille and his baba au rhum. The acclaimed little tarte au citron, topped with a circle of Italian meringue, is made with Menton lemons, which have a fruitier and less acidic flavor than the ordinary variety and are in season from December to May. At 49 Rue de la République; 33-4/93-34-09-92.

Chef to Watch

Keisuke Matsushima, Nice

This fiercely ambitious star surprised the culinary world when at 25 he became the youngest and only the second Japanese chef in France to be awarded a Michelin star. After attending cooking school back in Tokyo, Matsushima set off at the age of 20 to work in the top kitchens of the south of France (a natural fit for someone who’d grown up in a farming family). There, he became captivated by the products of the region, and five years later he opened the minuscule restaurant Kei’s Passion, winning critical acclaim for his Mediterranean cuisine and his Japanese flair for layering textures. Eager for further recognition, he expanded, changing the restaurant’s name to Keisuke Matsushima and creating a tranquil beige-and-black minimalist decor that complements his culinary simplicity and creative presentation. We could easily see another star in his future. At 22 Ter Rue de France; 33-4/93-82-26-06.

Choice Chocolatier

L’Atelier Jean-Luc Pele, Cannes

A new addition to the Rue Meynadier is Jean-Luc Pelé’s arresting boutique, which offers 30 types of intensely flavored cocoa confections that are made fresh daily with Valrhona chocolate. (Pelé uses no preservatives and gives away anything that stays in the shop for more than five days—not that anything does.) There is also an irresistible selection of colorful macaroons; my favorite flavor is the caramel with salt, but new ones are added all the time. A window at the rear of the store gives an insider’s view of the delicate process of hand-dipping chocolates. At Créateur de Goût; 36 Rue Meynadier; 33-4/93-38-06-10.

Cheese, Please

La Ferme Savoyarde, Cannes

The expert affineurs who run the cote d’Azur’s most famous cheese shop—known to most people as Fromagerie Ceneri—attribute their success to the shop’s six aging caves, where some 320 cheeses are each brought to individual perfection. In spring and summer around a hundred types of chèvre can be found here, as well as the famous (and much copied) Brie with black truffles, which the fromagerie claims to have originated. At 22 Rue Meynadier; 33-4/93-39-63-68.

Best Soupe de Poisson

La Mere Germaine, Villefranche-sur-Mer

This seafood restaurant on the fishing port here has used the same soupe de poisson recipe since 1938. Originally developed by “Mère” Germaine and made daily from the local catch, the soup requires great gastronomic ritual. First, croutons are rubbed with raw garlic, spread with rouille (a zesty garlic–and–red pepper sauce) and placed in a soup plate. Next, they’re sprinkled with grated cheese. Only then is the soup reverently ladled on top. Tip: Avoid the restaurant when a cruise ship is anchored in the bay. At Quai Courbet; 33-4/93-01-71-39; lameregermaine.com.

La Merenda’s Daube de Boeuf à la Provençale

Serves: 6

  • 1 oz dried cepes or porcini mushrooms
  • 1 1/2 cups warm water
  • 1/4 cup olive oil
  • 2 1/2 lbs boneless beef shank, cut into large cuts, 1/2 pound bones reserved
  • 1 large onion, diced
  • 6 large garlic cloves, minced
  • 1 bouquet garni (bay leaf, celery leaves, parsley, thyme—tied in cheesecloth)
  • 1 to 2 dried chiles
  • 1/2 tsp oregano
  • 1 1/3 cup tomato paste
  • 2 1/2 cups red wine
  • 3 medium peeled carrots cut into 1-inch lengths on the bias salt and freshly ground black pepper
  1. In a bowl, cover the cèpes with the water, soak until soft, about 20 minutes.
  2. Meanwhile, in a large, heavy saucepan, heat three tablespoons of the olive oil. Add the beef in batches and cook in a single layer over moderately high heat until browned all over; remove and set aside.
  3. Heat the remaining tablespoon of oil in the pan, add the onion and garlic, and cook until the onion is translucent.
  4. Return the beef to the pan and add the reserved bones, bouquet garni, dried chiles, and oregano. Add the tomato paste and cook, stirring, for one minute.
  5. Drain the cèpes and reserve the liquid. Add the wine to the saucepan, along with one cup of the liquid, and season with salt and pepper. Cover the saucepan and cook over moderately low heat for one hour.
  6. Skim the fat from the surface of the daube. Add the carrots to the saucepan, cover, and continue cooking for one more hour. Skim any remaining fat off the surface of the daube, season with salt and pepper, and serve.

Q&A with Christian Sinicropi

Chef at the Michelin two-star Palme d’Or at the Hotel Martinez, Cannes

Q: Christian Willer was founder and chef here for 22 years. How do you feel about replacing a culinary legend?

A: Christian passed the torch to me over the course of seven years and, really, the only difference between this year and the last is that he’s no longer here; I’ve been in charge for the last two years. He felt that I had the talent to be in the forefront of a new generation of gastronomy.

Q: And you have introduced a new presentation style?

A: The first sense you have of a dish is its look. The eyes prepare everything for the taste. So I present my gastronomic creations in a new, fun way, on sculpted ceramic dishes I have designed myself and had specially made.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for your 2007 book, Small Delights, Great Movies (Ramsay)?

A: I was born here in Cannes and so, in 2007, to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the film festival, I selected 60 movies going back to my childhood and then designed ceramic plates and culinary delights that represented each one. The resulting book is a collection of recipes that tell the story of the films. Chef, artist, poet, and philosopher: I am all of these. At 73 La Croisette; 33-4/92-98-73-00; hotel-martinez.com.

Maison de l’Olive’s Black Olive Tapenade

Tapenade, spread on a thinly sliced baguette, is a popular hors d’oeuvre in the south of France, and the local markets in Nice, Cannes, St.-Tropez, and Antibes are the ideal places to buy it. Jarred, it’s easy to carry home and has a long shelf life, but it doesn’t have quite the same flavor as the freshly made kind. Recipes vary, but the basic version is made from capers, olive oil, and puréed or finely chopped oil-cured black or green olives. It can also include anchovies, herbes de Provence, mustard, and garlic. (I prefer the piquancy of the black-olive tapenade; the green can be a little salty.) This recipe comes from Laurent Sabin at Maison de l’Olive in Cannes’s Marché Forville.

2 salt-packed anchovy fillets
5 oz pitted black mediterranean olives, such as the nicoise variety
1 tsp fine capers
2 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
1 tsp fresh lemon juice
pinch of herbes de provence and thyme

1. Cover the anchovies with cold water and let soak for 20 minutes; remove any visible bones and coarsely chop.

2. In a food processor add the olives and pulse until finely chopped. Transfer a third of the olives to a bowl and reserve. Add the capers, anchovies, and herbes de Provence to the food processor and pulse briefly.

3. Scrape the tapenade into the bowl with the reserve chopped olives. Stir in the olive oil and add the lemon juice to taste.

Note: If you wish to keep the tapenade, transfer it to a clean jar, cover lightly with olive oil, and refrigerate for up to three months.