Sunday, April 23, 2006

Choice Tables

Ok, it'll be 2 years in October since we last went to Europe. It's time to start contacting the rest of our Bohemian Jet Set buddies and talk about heading back to Nice.

Here's a cool little primer of Riviera Restaurants for Us Regular Folk

IT'S hard not to think of the Côte d'Azur as synonymous with wealth and glamour. All you need to do is mention Monaco or St.-Jean-Cap-Ferrat and most of us feel out of our league.

It's no surprise, then, that along the Riviera, starred and pricey Michelin restaurants are all over the place. They're also predictable: the ones that get the most attention are those that adhere to national standards, even if among their features are price gouging and ill-tempered service.

Often lost in the shuffle are the local mom-and-pop joints where the food is indigenous, far cheaper, and frequently more intriguing. For less than the cost of parking at some places on Cap Ferrat, you can eat an unforgettable lunch or dinner at a place that reminds you that you're in coastal Provence and not closeted away in some temple of gastronomy.

From Villefranche-sur-Mer to Menton on the Italian border, much of the cuisine has remained unchanged for centuries. It's based on olive oil, lemons, vegetables(especially artichokes, zucchini, eggplant and tomatoes), beans, local fish and inexpensive meats. If you see thick steaks, dairy or fancy desserts (Menton's magnificent tarte au citron is the exception), you're not eating local.

For a good sampler of budget Mediterranean, start in Villefranche-sur-Mer, just east of Nice. The ancient port whose wharves are dotted with restaurants, is especially pleasant on those days when the cruise ships are not in, and makes for a wonderful stop on a driving tour.

My favorite spot there is Calypso, which features rustic seafood dishes, a rooftop bar (open summer evenings only; it's way too hot up there on sunny days, and too cool — by local standards — at other times), and a great waterside location, next to a chapel decorated by Jean Cocteau.

The food, which ranges from pizza to things more interesting, is nicely done: the seafood salad and the pasta with seafood both star octopus, a locally revered fish. Mediterranean prawns with garlic and parsley, or the risotto with prawns, couldn't be more straightforward, but have a clean, fresh flavor. The swordfish with green sauce is worth trying and the loup de mer (which translates as wolf fish but is in fact a kind of sea bass) is perfectly grilled.

It's impossible to drive the Riviera without at least a peek up into the hills, and once you're up there, it's almost certain you'll stop at Eze, the walled village perched above the sea. The terrace at Nid d'Aigle (The Eagle's Nest) is a good option, especially if you're interested in eating honest food in the heart of the old town, just below the lovely exotic garden, in the shade of a hundreds-year-old mulberry tree. Doesn't sound too bad, does it?

Food-wise and cost-wise, however, the better choice is the Bistrot Loumiri, right at the entrance to town. There's a pleasant enough interior and a small terrace (viewless, it should be noted, but if you're going to walk through town anyway, that doesn't matter so much), and the inexpensive and very good prix fixe menus are attractive. Start with petits farcis (stuffed vegetables) or roast peppers or the octopus salad and continue with any of the appealing second courses: grilled lamb, tagliatelle daube (a rich meat sauce), osso bucco, squid in its ink, or sardines escabeche.

I try to skip Monaco — to most visitors a seaside shopping mall with a casino — but the sliver of French coast on the other side is a magnificent stretch. Menton is among the most beautiful towns on the coast: sunny and lemon-filled, with striking views of sea and mountains. If the food on the Riviera in general is Italian in feel, in Menton it is even more so (you can walk to Italy from the east side of town).

At the moorings on the Quai Gordon Bennett is Restaurant au Pistou, and it's a good place, equivalent to Calypso in Villefranche. Just a couple of blocks away, though, is the slightly anomalous Carnival, where you can sit in the attractive interior or on the tidy enclosed patio. This is a notch more expensive than most of the other places mentioned here (someone has to pay for the waiter's tux!), but on two separate visits, the food was not only competent but intriguing (and I should note that there is a daily menu for 16 euros). For example, artichoke ravioli with squid were delicious, as was a simply grilled loup de mer with fennel — a classic combination, as fennel grows wild in the area — and local red shrimp with small vegetables.

Once in Menton, it would be a shame not to pay a visit to the pastry shop La Cigale (back in the town center, near the casino) for a slice of tarte au citron (2.80 euros), a local specialty that is best when made with local lemons, as this version is. The pâte de citron, made using fruit from the owner's garden, is also just about incomparable.

Roquebrune, which is just down the road to the west, is not quite as impressive as Menton, but it does have a quiet stretch of beach and some lovely walking routes, especially on the little peninsula called Roquebrune Cap-Martin. There, just off the beach where the land begins to jut out, you'll find the oddly named Piccadilly, a quirky place that would appear to be designed for visiting Britons (the menu design is based on the London tube map) but caters almost exclusively to locals.

The daily prix fixe menu is bistrolike: The mussels are super, cooked with onions and herbs and served with credible frites, and the daily meat dishes seem equally so; on my last visit I was served slices of roast veal, with potatoes campagne (which just means cooked in a pan) and delicious zucchini with Parmesan. The service is also shockingly friendly, another reminder you're not in a one-star Michelin.


To call these restaurants from America, dial 33-4 first; in France, dial 04. Unless specified, prices are for three courses, with tax and tip, but not wine.

Calypso, 2 Quai Amiral Courbet, Villefranche-sur-Mer; 93-01-96-73 ; 40 euros.

Bistrot Loumiri, Avenue du Jardin Exotique, Eze; 93-41-16-42; the prix fixe menus are 16 and 24 euros.

Carnival, 29, quai de Monléon, Menton; 93-35-99-95; 25 euros.

Le Picadilly, 16, avenue François de Monléon, Roquebrune; 93-35-87-16; the daily prix fixe menu is 18.50 euros, with a quarter-liter of wine.

Thanks to Mark Bittman at The New York Times Company

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