It's become a tradition that either during the first week of February or the last week of January, I meet up with old friends in the south of France.
Since the three of us enjoy good food and good wine, the focus of the trip is distinctly gastronomic, and this year it was more gastronomic than most.
As an Irish restaurant reviewer, getting to eat in great French restaurants is important for me, as these are the restaurants that set world standards.
It's a way for me to calibrate my palate, so that I have a touchstone for judging meals here. It's hugely expensive, but as an occasional exercise it can be excused.
It's in the Hotel de Paris, which is opposite Monte Carlo's famous casino. It's probably true to say that this little corner of Monaco is the most architecturally pleasing part of this tiny state.
Turn right after entering the ornate, Baroque lobby of the hotel and you find the entrance to Le Louis XV. It's a huge dining room, perhaps 30ft high, decorated with vast amounts of gilt.
Huge pilasters faced in banded agate and topped in Ionic capitols line the walls, Baccarat chandeliers and sconces light the room,
Arcadian murals delight the eye and a small army of waiters dance attendance.
The first thing you notice, other than the splendour of the room, is the immaculate tailoring of the waiters' suits, making your own look like a poor man's hand-me-down.
A vast epergne, perhaps three-metres high, dominates the middle of the room, serving as a centrepiece and a rallying point for the trolleys. There are a lot of trolleys, all built as though to last for centuries, made out of mahogany and brass.
The first one you meet is the bread trolley, which resembles a bakery shop on wheels. There are maybe 20 different breads to choose from in a bewildering variety of shapes and grains.
Not being the host, I got a guest menu -- that's one with no prices -- but I know that most dishes cost about €90.
With the menus came the champagne trolley, which offered a large choice of champagnes by the glass to start the meal. My two pals had a glass each, one of the Bollinger Grande Annee 2002, and one of the Taittinger rosé 2004.
From the menu we chose the Provençal starter plate, scallops, and truffle gnocchi for starters, and then my friends ordered the duck -- which is a dish for two -- while I ordered the Pyrenean lamb.
I won't describe the food in detail, but I will say that each dish was consummately well done.
They weren't mean with the truffles, either -- a waiter grated an entire black truffle on to my dish of gnocchi.
I liked the way the duck was served for the main course. It arrived in a covered marmite and it was deftly dismembered at the table by the waiter, who then served the breast and took away the legs, as they do in the Tour d'Argent, only to return with them a little while later de-boned and served in a small ramekin.
We didn't have a dessert, just a little cheese, which also came on a trolley. It wasn't the last trolley, either, as we also wanted one camomile and sage tea.
There's another trolley that looks like a shrubbery on wheels, where maybe 30 different herbs are stacked in pots. The tea is made at the table, snipping the relevant herbs into a teapot and then adding the boiling water.
The next day's outing was to an old favourite, Bistrot d'Antoine in Nice, close to the Palais de Justice. This is very different from Le Louis XV, being a small, crowded bistro in the narrow streets of Nice's old town.
What it has in common with Le Louis XV is very good food, but at a very different price point. Here starters are in the €7-€10 range, and main courses are mostly less than €20.
Armand and Sylvie, who run it, are welcoming hosts and, if you are anywhere near Nice, this is a place you should try to visit.
We spent rather more on wine than we did on the food, and got a bill for just under €200.
Our last day began without a plan, but as we drove towards Beaulieu, a plan formed. Its best-known restaurant is in a hotel called La Reserve de Beaulieu, which overlooks the sea.
This has two Michelin stars, so instead of passing it by, we turned into its driveway. It's one of those places with a long history of glamorous Hollywood residents, many of whom have their photographs on the walls.
It's hopelessly subjective, but we all felt that the food in La Reserve was just that little bit cleverer than at Le Louis XV, more of a showcase of the chef's art.
An example: our amuse bouche looked like a fried quail's egg. It turned out to have a white made from a bacon-flavoured mousse and yolk made from pumpkin puree. Apart from being delicious, it did what an amuse bouche rarely does -- it amused.
After that, it was paté de fois gras followed by veal sweetbreads all round.
Perhaps not adventurous choices, but incredibly tasty ones and certainly a meal to remember.
If dining in Michelin-starred restaurants appeals to you, there's a rough guide to cost. One star equals €100 a head, two stars is €200 a head, and, yes, you guessed right, three stars equals €300 a head.
On a budget
France is well provided with places to eat on a budget. Three courses for €25 is common enough, and sometimes you can find even cheaper deals. What makes Bistrot d’Antoine special is affordable prices coupled with excellent food.
On a blowout
It’s just as easy to find expensive places on the Cote d’Azur as it is to find budget meals. Two stars or more in the red guide is a pointer to high prices, although you can still spend big money without stars. A few years ago, I paid €45 for a burger in the Grand Hotel on Cap Ferrat.
Le Louis XV Hotel de Paris, Monte Carlo,
Monaco Tel: 00377 9806 3636
La Reserve de Beaulieu Beaulieu-sur-
Mer, Cote d’Azur Tel: 0033 493 010 001
Bistrot d’Antoine 27 Rue de la
Prefecture, Nice Tel: 0033 493 852 957