Paolo Tullio: Ports of Call
For the past few years, myself and three old friends from my time at Trinity College have gone to the French Riviera for a few days at the end of January.
The weather tends to be pleasant, the oranges on the trees in the garden are ripe and we spend our time looking for good places to eat. That, and drinking very fine wines. It's what you call 'no hardship'.
This year we were restrained. Although you can find terrific Michelin-starred restaurants within easy distance of Nice, we ate in no stars, just very good bistros. If stars are your thing, Monaco has the three-star Louis XV, La Turbie the excellent two-star Hostellerie Jérome, and Beaulieu has the two-star La Reserve.
I've reviewed all of these in the past and, should you be interested, you can find the reviews online.
Although the three-star Louis XV is impressive, I've tended to prefer the Hostellerie Jérome in La Turbie. So when we heard that the Hostellerie was now operating a bistro called Café de la Fontaine, we knew we had to visit it.
La Turbie is a small town in the mountains above Monaco and it's famous for Le Trophée des Alpes, a large monument built by the Roman Emperor Augustus to commemorate his victory over the Ligurian tribes. It served for many years as a boundary marker between Italy and Gaul. Perhaps a third of it remains; the rest has been used as a source of cut stone for the buildings of La Turbie.
The town is on the Grande Corniche, the road between Nice and Menton that was the old Roman road, the Via Aurelia. We drove up from Monaco, on a road that is twisting and steep, and we kept in mind that this was the road on which Princess Grace lost her life.
We counted more than half-a-dozen restaurants that were open for lunch, but only one was packed -- Le Café de la Fontaine. In fact, we got the last table, squeezed into a corner. There were only two of us on this outing, just Paul and me, which was as well because if we'd all been there we'd have had a long wait for a table.
Like most bistros in France the prices are very reasonable: starters are all €6 and main courses are all less than €20. There's a short wine list, and we found a wine that was new to us, a red Beaumes de Venise -- a classic southern mix of Syrah, Grenache and Mourvèdre. It was listed at €22 and went down very well.
We started with the homemade ravioli with broccoli and the salad of mozzarella and tomato, both very well done. Our main courses were the classic entrecôte steak with Béarnaise sauce for Paul and the veal liver for me.
Okay, neither of these dishes represents a big test for the chef, but they were nicely presented and cooked perfectly. When you think about it, isn't that exactly what you want from a bistro? The bill here came to €87.60, including service and a cheese plate to finish.
Another night the four of us went to Le Bistrot du Port, on the side of Nice's old port. This is where you see the luxury yachts at anchor and you get to see how the super-rich live. The bistro we were in doesn't appear to cater for them, it's rather more down to earth. The prices were somewhat higher than they were in La Turbie: starters at around €6-€10 and main courses running up to €30.
We'd arranged to meet our Poet Laureate John Montague and his wife Elizabeth there. They spend their winters in Nice these days, and this bistro is one they like.
I enjoyed the food on offer in Le Bistrot du Port -- it's simple, well cooked and unpretentious. The star dish of the night was a large line-caught sea bass, which was cooked in a salt case and was easily enough to feed the two people who'd ordered it.
A couple of bottles of Gevrey-Chambertin and Puligny-Montrachet brought the bill for the six of us to €408.35, of which €136 was the wine.
But for me, no trip to the Riviera is complete without a visit to Le Bistrot d'Antoine, just off the Place de la Préfecture in the old town of Nice. We went there for lunch on our last day and had a table upstairs.
I've been there a few times now, but it was on this visit that I learned that Le Bistrot d'Antoine has been there since 1904, which gives it quite a history. The current incumbents are a young couple called Armand and Sylvie, who have run it since I've been eating there.
Probably the finest accolade for any restaurant is when it draws its customers from off-duty chefs, which is what happens here. I find that completely understandable, as the food is always excellent and always interesting.
When you're in Nice in January there are foods that you really have to try. January is still truffle season and the Lubéron and its black truffles aren't far away, so truffles with eggs -- brouillade -- or truffles with potato are a must.
Obviously you need to try a salad Niçoise, but there's a dish you may not have heard of -- poutine. This is not the North American dish of chips, cheese and gravy, but one particular to the French south-east coast. It's fillets of sardines served like sashimi and presented in a tian with crispy bread and a fried egg. It was one of the daily specials, so I had it as a starter. I know this much: if I see it on a menu again, I'll order it.
Other excellent dishes were Peter's brandade -- a mix of mashed potato and the air-dried cod fillets known as baccalà -- Paul's perfectly enormous entrecôte steak and my ox tongue served in a marmite in small slices with potatoes and root vegetables.
We managed to spend almost as much on wine as we did on food. The bill for the four of us came to €203.40, of which €90 was wine. So in fact the food cost less than €30 each, which considering its quality is remarkable value.
After these few days, all I can say is roll on next January.
Budget meals in Nice and its surroundings are simple to find. Keep to bistros and you can get great deals. In Eze Bord de Mer, you can find Momo’s opposite the train station, where a decent main course at lunch is €9. That’s not so uncommon; the French have been doing set-price meals for years. Look for the prix fixe menus.
Big spenders will love Monaco’s Louis XV, where you can spend €500 a head. La Reserve in Beaulieu will save you a bit, but money still goes. A few years ago, I had a great meal in the Palme d’Or in Cannes. As a rough guide, expect to pay €100-€200 a head in a one-star, €200-€300 in two stars and €300 to bankruptcy in three stars.
Three of the best:
Le Café de la Fontaine 4Avenue du Général de Gaulle, La Turbie.Tel: 0033 493 285 279
Le Bistrot du Port 28 Quai de Lunel, Nice.Tel: 0033 493 552 170
Le Bistrot d’Antoine 27 rue de la Préfecture, Nice.Tel: 0033 493 852 957