Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Chez Fonfon: Pour faire une bonne bouillabaisse...

...Il faut se lever tot le matin (in order to make a good bouillabaisse you have to wake up early). Here goes the song that Fernandel, a French actor and a native of Marseille like the famous fish dish, used to interpret in the 1950's. And we indeed woke up early, not to make a bouillabaisse but to drive from Valence, where my parents live, to Marseille. Once again, I had to honor a promise I made to my wife. I had told her the real bouillabaisse, served in Marseille and its surroundings, was playing in a totally different league than the tasteless dish she had ordered in a Parisian restaurant (which was not a good idea to start with and one I should have discouraged in the first place).

There was only one way to deliver on the high expectations I had triggered: having lunch at Chez Fonfon. Founded 55 years ago, this restaurant is located in one of the most beautiful settings I know of: Vallon des Auffes. It is a small creek under the Corniche Kennedy where lies a little fisherman's port and village. The owners, Alexandre and Peguy Pinna, are the third generation at the helm and haven't changed the formula that has made the success of Fonfon: good food, bouillabaisse in particular, and warm greeting.

As you can suspect, after having pleasant amuses, we ordered the Bouillabaisse du Pecheur (Fisherman's Bouillabaisse). Chez Fonfon's recipe consists of a bouillon (rockfish broth flavored and colored with tomatoes and saffron) and an assortment of 5 types of fish served separately: Saint Pierre (known as John Dory in English), congre (conger-eel), rascasse (scorpion fish), galinette (gurnard) and vive (weever). The result was beautiful and delicious. The bouillon was warm and rich and the addition of croutons topped with aioli (garlic mayonnaise) or rouille (saffron aioli) enhanced the whole thing. The fish, perfectly cooked by the bouillon, tasted so much better than that caught in the Atlantic Ocean. Difficult to believe that this now expansive and luxurious dish used to be the average fisherman's treat. However, at 46 EUR it remains a steal compared to many bad meals I had in other countries / cities for higher price tags.

The view on Vallon des Auffes is certainly a great asset for the restaurant but service is also very nice and efficient. Finally, I had the chance to taste Domaine Tempier's white wine for the first time. And it is to die for. It reminded me of everything I had read on Lulu Peyraud, her cuisine and the domaine itself as well as the guided tour of Marseille she gave Kermit Lynch and that he beautifully recounts in Adventures on the Wine Route.

Chez Fonfon is definitely a good reason to stop in Marseille. As are the sights of the Mediterranean and Frioul archipelago from the Corniche. But there are plenty of other excellent reasons to visit this cosmopolitan and exciting city that you will find out once you are there.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Markets: the soul of Provence

I have always been convinced that, in order to truly understand a foreign culture, you have to speak its language and appreciate its food. But tasting local specialties is certainly only a first step. Enjoying the sight of the best (almost) untouched regional ingredients is a must. And the place where you can fairly easily do that for a wide range of produce, meat, fish or cheese, depending on where your interest lies, is a street market.

In France, not unlike Italy or Spain among many other countries, markets have been at the heart of our culinary tradition for quite a long time (if such an expression can apply to at least 10 centuries). The reason may be that they offer a unique forum where the home-cook, the farmer, the professional chef and of course the produce all interact (a cultural thing all in all). Not so shocking in a country where food (and talking about it) is supposed to occupy so much room.

And unlike many other things French, our markets have been fairly resilient to the rise of the supermarket or globalization. The organic wave may even have strengthened them. I am almost sure they have also been a great source of inspiration for the creation of farmers' markets in places such as New York at Union Square or San Francisco at the Ferry Building. And I must say that I feel quite at home in both these places.

It is not to say that all French markets were made equal and offer the cream of the crop. However, those I visited (or revisited rather after so many years) in Nice, on the Cours Saleya, and Antibes presented wonderful seasonal and locally-grown fruits (amazing organic Menton lemons and sublime wild strawberries among other things) and vegetables (zucchini-flowers, tomatoes, ...) as well as fragrant herbs and appetizing preserved regional products (honey, nicoise and picholine olives, ...). And I could obviously not resist to show them on that blog. The only thing I regret is not being able to convey the smells, sounds and atmosphere typical of Provencal markets. To get a taste of that, you will have to pay them a visit.

PS: I'm obviously not the first blogger to post pictures of Mediterranean markets. I wish mine could be as gorgeous as those taken by Pim in Ventimiglia and San Remo that you can catch a glimpse of here and here.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Street / finger food in Nice: no excuse to be a picky eater

There are some parts of the world, Africa and Asia among them, where it would be almost criminal not to taste fragrant and flavorful street food. However, I can (or at least I can try to)understand that some people worry about the sanitary consequences of such acts. I remember a trip to Morocco where I spent most of my time between my bed and the bathroom. But I also keep a vivid memory of the fantastic meal that caused this small (in retrospect...) inconvenience : unforgettable ground beef skewers with a tomato salad. In short, I think that nothing should ever prevent us from being adventurous eaters (and I can hear Tony Bourdain concurring loudly in the background!).

No such concerns though in Nice where you can indulge on local street food as safely as possible. And this culinary journey should start at Rene Socca. You will have to wait in line before the outdoor counter, sometimes for long minutes, to be served your choice of socca (typical Nicois dish that is essentially a thin chickpea flour pancake), pissaladiere (onion tart with anchovies and olives), petits farcis (stuffed vegetables) or pizza. But your patience will be rewarded as the socca, that is taken out directly from the oven and cut from large oval baking sheets, is out of this world and the pissaladiere no less delicious. Avoid the farcis though (bland and reheated in a microwave oven). And don't pay attention to the uncaring service either (waiters were playing street soccer that day while serving us).

Then tour the beautiful winding streets of Vieux Nice and, once you think you have walked enough to deserve a sweet treat, make a stop at Fenocchio where you are sure to find some of the best ice-creams and sorbets in the world. Feel free to try the most extravagant flavors such as swiss chard pie, chewing gum or Mascarpone. I'm personally fonder of their more classic creations like pear, passion fruit or lemon. In any event, only few things can rival the pleasure of eating an ice-cream with the ones you love at an outdoor table on Place Rossetti.

If your stomach can still accommodate more food, I recommend that you buy a bag of local biscuits (navettes, mantecaos, mendiants, ...) in a good bakery or at Lou Canice, a provencal specialty food store located not far from Fenocchio. I'm sure you will enjoy as much as I do the wide variety of textures (from tough-to-bite to crumbling-in-your mouth) and flavors (lavender, anise, orange flower, chocolate, ...) they offer. And after that, I dare you to tell me that Nice is not one of the most wonderful cities in the world.

Chez Rene Socca
1 rue Pairoliere
06300 Nice

2 place Rossetti
06300 Nice

Lou Canice
7 bis rue Mascoinat
06300 Nice

Thursday, October 11, 2007

La Merenda: Nicoise food at its best

A lot has been said or written about La Merenda. That it has no telephone. That it does accept neither reservations (or at least no more than 15 minutes before the beginning of the service), nor checks or credit cards. That the place is so small and cramped that you have to sit on very uncomfortable stools almost on your neighbour's lap. That the chef owner, Dominique Le Stanc, trained under Chapel, Haeberlin and Senderens, left behind him the Michelin stars of the Chantecler at Hotel Negresco to buy this 20-seat restaurant to the Giusti family and cook nicoise specialties on its own in a tiny open kitchen. And, above all, that the food remains the same (i.e. great) some 30+ years (11 under Le Stanc) after the place first opened. And you know what? Everything is true. And Dominique Le Stanc does not seem ready to change this winning formula for all the gold in the world.

When I came in 15 minutes before noon last Tuesday, Le Stanc and his team of 3 were having their staff meal. I asked him if we could get a table for 12.30 and he answered me that the first service was at 12.15 sharp (implying, politely though, that I had to take it or leave it). And of course, I took it and left my name. I had not traveled that far and dreamed about this lunch for so long to ruin it at the restaurant's door.

And once inside, everything was exactly as I had expected. First, Mme Le Stanc is doing a wonderful job at the front of the house as does the other waiter by the way. For instance, when I ordered the stockfish, she really started worrying (as the smell and taste of this dish are, let's say, unique) and brought me some sample just to make sure I would like it (and I did). That's what I call caring for customers.

And obviously the food is magnificent like the sardines stuffed with bread crumbs, emmental and swiss chard leaves. Or the incredibly tasty stockfish (a nicoise specialty of sun dried cod in ragout). Or the crispy and wide open seasonal fried zucchini blossoms. Poor arrongant me who thought I prepared the best ratatouille in the world...I was so wrong. Even my mother, who can be hard to impress at times as far as culinary matters, could not stop talking about the rucola-ricotta salad with figs and balsamic vinaigrette. I should also mention a perfectly aged Banon that was the ideal conclusion to a wonderful lunch.

Le Stanc just demonstrates that the simplest regional dishes, such as an incredible tarte a la tomate, can become masterpieces when they are executed with passion, technique and using the best local ingredients. Unforgettable, reasonably priced and not to be missed when you are in the area.

La Merenda
Open Mon-Fri for lunch and dinner
4 rue Raoul Bosio (street parallel to the Cours Saleya)
06000 Nice

Saturday, October 6, 2007

Mirazur in Menton: the latest culinary jewel of the French Riviera

This question has been lingering in my mind since we came back from France: where to start my account of all the delicacies we gorged on? Should I follow some kind of chronological order or adopt a different approach? But, after all, the answer is simple: I should tell you first about the most revelatory food moment of this trip. Before dealing with anything else, I should talk about our lunch at Mirazur.

But first, a few words about the chef and the place. After honing his skills with Bernard Loiseau at La Cote d'Or, Alain Ducasse at Plaza Athenee, Alain Passard at L'Arpege and Guy Martin at Grand Vefour, Argentinean-born chef Mauro Colagreco was initially looking for a restaurant in Spain. He stumbled, by chance (for him...and us), upon Mirazur, a 1950's yet very modern building that was previously home of a "tabac" and later a bistrot operated by Jacques Chibois. We struggled a little bit at first to find the place since, for whatever reason, I had come to imagine it was located close to the beach while it is in fact perched on a hill. But thanks to Guillaume Mantis' clear directions on the phone, we finally found the place fairly quickly.

We were greeted by Daniela Colagreco, Mauro's charming wife, who shook our hands, which is unfortunately highly unusual in restaurants but makes a big difference as it tells the customers: "we are happy to have you with us.". We were then led to the first floor where we had lunch on the terrace. Dominating the bay of Menton, it offers stunning views of the Mediterranean. In my opinion, only Le Relais de la Chevre d'Or in Eze rivals Mirazur as far as this is concerned. Although it was a rainy day, the skies cleared once we were seated and we were lucky enough to have some sun during our meal and enjoy the sight of the deep blue sea.

And then a real show started. A show because Guillaume Mantis' performance as head of front of the house is outstanding. Professional, energetic, enthusiastic, sharp in its understanding and description of Mauro Colagreco's dishes, he also knows how to make you feel comfortable using the appropriate touch of humor when he has to. Once you know that the guy worked for Gordon Ramsay and Marco Pierre White in London as well as for the Raffles group in Asia and Beverly Hills, no need to look for further explanations to his talent and skills. Last time I was that impressed by service was at Guy Savoy almost three years ago.

And obviously, in addition to the attentive service, there's the food. The real star of the show. After a flight of simple yet fresh and delicious amuses, we went for a la carte as I definitely wanted to have a taste of the Langoustine in Dashi Broth further to reading so much about it. And I must say we (as my mum made the same choice) were not disappointed. This dish was beautiful with its pristine broth and colorful flowers on top of a translucent langoustine. But, above all, it tasted great and the contrast of textures and flavors between the sweet raw langoustine and the salty hot broth was amazing. The peppery, sweet and sour notes of the 5 varieties of seasonal and local flowers (among them bourrache and pimprenelle) also added a surprising and welcome vegetal touch. This dish says a lot about Mauro Colagreco's pure, almost zen-like, cuisine that manages to capture the truth of each ingredient.

The next dish, "Wild Fish" (that day it was Galinette) served with an emulsion of cockles, a zucchini ragout, bok choy leaf and cauliflower mousseline was equally impressive. The fish was perfectly cooked and seasoned while all the elements went together extremely well. Again, the combination between the sea and the land, the Asian and Mediterranean influences worked wonders. This dish, and everything we tasted, showed a genuine respect for the fabulous ingredients that are sourced locally (which is an understatement as many of the herbs are grown in the restaurant's garden).

My wife and I then shared a lemon chibouste (how can't you eat lemon in Menton, right?) that was a treasure of lightness. Once again, the dish struck a perfect balance between sweetness (of the caramelized crust and lemon mousse), bitterness (of the lemon marmelade) and freshness (brought by the verbena sorbet).

I was also quite impressed by the quality of the mignardises (in particular the Ananas-Malibu "espuma"), the bread as well as a rich and satisfying hot porcini mushroom veloute with a cold foie-gras ice-cream amuse that could have a place of its own on the menu. My father and my wife were also delighted by their perdreau and pholiote dishes, respectively. In addition, at approximately 80 EUR per person (including a delicious Le Difese, Sassicaia's third wine) for a la carte lunch, the price was also a steal.

Last but not least, further to my father engaging her in an after-lunch conversation, Daniela Colagreco insisted on presenting us Mauro who took the time to come out of his kitchen to talk to us. We talked quickly about his trajectory, the first Michelin star, Pim's article in the NY Times and the one in Restaurant Magazine as well as an upcoming trip to the US in April. What a pleasure it was to meet such a dedicated, talented, yet nice and almost shy, individual who also had the guts to take on a huge financial and culinary gamble with Mirazur.

In a nutshell, I can only recommend that you visit Mirazur NOW to enjoy a phenomenal cuisine and great service in a unique setting. In any event, do it before Mauro Colagreco gets three Michelin stars, which will happen sooner than later and cause reservations to become hard to get and prices to skyrocket. If you dine there, you will also understand why Mauro Colagreco was awarded the "revelation of the year" prize by Gault & Millau and acclaimed as "one of the most beautiful surprises of the year 2006" by Omnivore's Carnet de Route.

Frontiere du Pont Saint-Louis
30, avenue Aristide Briand
06500 Menton
Tel: (33) 4 92 41 86 86
Fax: (33) 4 92 41 86 87

Friday, October 5, 2007

Relax, take it easy...

As Paris is hit by a severe case of Rugby World Cup's fever and rides happily the Velib's craze on a Mika's soundtrack, the city has never exuded so much serenity and self-confidence. But some things don't change. Like the sheer delight, especially for a French guy exiled in New York like me, to sip an espresso at the terrace of a cafe between two bites of pate sandwich. Isn't that what life should be all about?

In any event, this trip to France was unforgettable (on many levels) and relaxing (so much that I'm experiencing the worst difficulties to adjust back to my work environment). In particular, it was full of great culinary surprises both in Paris and Nice that I will share with you in the coming days / weeks. So hang on.