Before we left for this yearís Riviera trip we had checked the Michelin Red Guide for restaurants of note near where we would be staying – Nice for five days, then Cannes for four days. In previous years we had begun in Cannes; in spite of its aura of wealth, itís a town of human scale and is comfortable to walk around. We found out when checking for reservations this year that most hotels were booked from the 3rd to the 8th. Not for the film festival – thatís in May – but its modern counterpart, a TV festival.
The Cannes hotels where we stayed the previous two years were no longer accepting the (half-off) Entertainment Card but an Internet site had an amazing bargain. A room at the Martinez, one of three hotels in Cannes informally categorized as "palaces," was available for 700 francs (about $115) per day. Some friends had been there last year, in February, when the Web site price was 870 francs, and they pronounced it luxurious. In fact, we were familiar with the Martinez, having eaten lunch at their two-star Palme díOr restaurant two years before (they have a specially-priced lunch) and last year, when we ate in the kitchen – the subject of another note. (And the room was elegant, with 14í ceilings, art deco furniture, and a huge marble bathroom – with phone.)
After our arrival in Cannes on Thursday we checked our restaurant list and found that the two-star "Bastide de Saint-Antoine" in nearby Grasse (center of the perfume industry) had a very attractive lunch menu. It was getting close to Easter, but that was not yet a problem – when I inquired in French if I could make a reservation for lunch the next day they replied "Of course, monsieur." [Perhaps I havenít mentioned that my high school French teacher was from Alabama and had never been out of the U.S. – my accent could be better. If only the two years of Berlitz German had been FrenchÖ] They asked for my phone number and I started looking for it, in the meantime mentioning that we were at the Martinez. "Oh, the Martinez, of course." No need for the number.
The next day, Friday, was the beginning of the Easter holiday and just to get out of Cannes took longer than we expected for the entire trip to Grasse, some ten miles to the north. They say that during the high season, the summer, Riviera traffic comes to a standstill – itís hard to imagine how you could drive anyplace then. So we arrived about twenty minutes late, to overhear an American couple, who had evidently expected to be able to just drop in for lunch, imperiously announce that, after all, they were "members of the James Beard Society of New York!" When told that lunch was fully booked, they announced they would wait to be seated. When told that the chef would leave the kitchen at two o'clock, they determined they would make reservations for the next day. When they learned that the restaurant was fully booked through Monday, they left in a huff.
We were escorted through a long room where tables of four were seated along the outside wall and tables of two along the inside wall. The seating of the twos was pleasant enough, at round tables large enough that they could both face the outside, but only a few small narrow windows revealed the olive grove in which this country house was situated. We passed through an archway into the next room and were seated directly in front of a large glass-paned door framing a vista over rolling hills to the distant horizon. As the lunch progressed, rain clouds alternately hid and revealed trees and villages. Towards the end of our lunch, one of the hostesses escorted an elderly gentleman out to his car, holding a generous umbrella over his head. Both were trailed by his wife, who was protected only by a plastic rain hat.
It didnít take us long to realize that we had the best table in any of the rooms we had seen and that we were probably there because of the Martinez name. Obviously we were people of taste, who not only stayed at one of the palaces of Cannes, but who also thought enough of this restaurant to pass up the equally renowned Palme díOr.
And it did turn out to be the best meal we had, if only because of the large number of choices available on the special menu for appetizer, main course, cheeses, and dessert. Jacques Chibois, who had been named 1997 Riviera Chef of the Year, later toured the room and we told him how impressed we were his creations, particularly since we had been to some of the best restaurants in the region. Unlike some other chefs we have met, he was not fluent in English (or at least did not admit to it), so the southern accent didnít seem to concern him too much. In fact, he later sent us one of his huge menus (it barely fit in the suitcase without bending) with an effusive personalized message.
We had realized that reservations at the best restaurants would be increasingly difficult to arrange as Easter approached, so we were prepared to fall back on an enjoyable local Italian restaurant we found during our first trip, when we stayed, literally, on the other side of the tracks. (Although those tracks are, in civilized European fashion, hidden underneath the Boulevard díAlsace.) We had been distressed when we had dropped by to see if they would be open on Easter to find a decal in their window declaring that Frommerís 1998 edition had discovered them – they really arenít big enough to cater to crowds. But first we decided to give a try at a Cannes restaurant that had previously been a Michelin favorite but had lately fallen on hard times – in fact, it was not even listed in the latest guide! (Interestingly, the chef at the Bastide Saint-Antoine had been in its kitchen during its glory days.) However, it is known that Michelin has its quirks, and another guide, Gault-Millault, still thought it was impressive, although not at the very top level.
So on Saturday afternoon, we dropped by the Gray díAlbion and asked if we could make a reservation for that evening. The Maitre dí checked his reservation list and determined that, yes, we could be seated "upstairs." I asked to see where that was. The room turned out to be just a few steps up, and adjacent to the main dining room, but, as the ceiling was at the same level as the main dining room, it did seem to be a little cramped. Also, it was quite dark, but he pointed out that was because it was not being used during lunch so the curtain between the two rooms had been closed. During dinner it would be opened, and it looked to provide a kind of balcony view. So we said okay, it looked all right.
After entering our names in the register, he asked if we were guests of the hotel, and we said no, we were staying at the Martinez. By now you may see it coming – as we were leaving he said, "Perhaps a better table will become available." And sure enough, when we arrived at 7:30, we were escorted to a corner banquette, which seemed to us to be the best two in the place – of course in the main dining room. He asked if it was to our satisfaction and we admitted that it was superb. But it was a good thing we arrived early; for although the food was delicious, there wasnít enough staff to cope with the full house. I know Michelin would downgrade a restaurant for this, although we had felt rushed during last yearís lunch at the famous three-star restaurant in Paris, Alain Ducasse. (We had the feeling that, our having arrived later than some others, they were trying to get our courses synchronized with others.) Which brings us to Ö
Alain Ducasse is a phenomenon on the French restaurant scene. In 1987 he promised the elegant Hotel de Paris in Monte Carlo that he would earn their flagship restaurant, Louis XV, three star recognition within five years. Such hubris! But he did, in three years, with innovative preparations of Provencal food that included produce from local farmers grown exclusively to his specifications.
To maintain a three-star restaurant in France can take a heavy toll on the few chefs of that caliber. In spite of the high prices such restaurants can command, the equally high costs of the elegant facilities, top quality raw ingredients, and extensive staffing require some form of subsidy, if not by a hotel, then by the chefís outside activities, for example, by TV cooking shows or personal appearances. Some have gone bankrupt in the process, others have just burned out. In 1996 Joel Robuchon offered his three-star restaurant in Paris for sale – no one was interested; except, finally Ducasse. And in his first year, Michelin did agree that three stars were still deserved; however, they reduced Louis XV to two! Tsk, tsk. But all was forgiven this year when they reinstated the third star; for the first chef ever to achieve such a rating at two restaurants at the same time.
Over the years, we have concluded that the best price/benefit ratio (i.e., in the upper ranges of cuisine – the correct bistros are by far the best values but weíve been to enough mediocre ones to know that even in France not every restaurant is excellent) are the two-star restaurants; e.g., the Bastide St. Antoine. However, we canít resist the opportunity to try another of Franceís finest restaurants, although at a measured pace. The price does have something to do with it, but so does the extravagantly rich food. Weíre still only halfway there (this year there are 20 throughout France, and although the rate of change is slow, one where we had eaten was demoted this year and a new one added, so we may never enjoy them all).
This year we decided that the 480-franc lunch (about $80), half the dinnertime price, was the opportunity to give Ducasse another chance, in his native region. We faxed for a reservation for us and two friends, remarking that we had celebrated our anniversary lunch at his namesake restaurant in Paris the preceding summer, but not mentioning our misgivings about the service. As we had done for our reservation request last summer, we used the American Wine Society letterhead that we constructed before contacting the Austria Wine Marketing Service before our trip to Austria two years ago. It noted that Betty Lou was president of our local chapter and I was newsletter editor, as indeed I still am. (It certainly had a positive effect then; we were invited to visit eight winemakers, one each in the morning and afternoon for four days – beginning on a Sunday morning at 10 am!)
The response took a couple of days, but our reservation was accepted. Monday was a beautiful day, probably the nicest of our trip, and we enjoyed the views from the Middle Corniche between Nice and Monaco. Precipitous drops to the azure Mediterranean (in French, the Riviera is the Côte díAzur) abound, from which hill towns cling. Youíve probably seen some of the scenery in various movies; there is also, unfortunately, the switchback where Princess Grace plunged to her death.
We entered the elegant dining room. It looked like something from Versailles – in its prime. The ceiling was thirty feet high, the surfaces that werenít covered with mirrors, tapestries, or ornate carvings were gilded. When we were seated, they brought little stools with needle-pointed cushions to place our bags on – nothing so crude as having to actually put them on the, carpeted, floor! We ordered a glass of a modest Alain Ducasse Champagne for an aperitif and they presented us with a small lunch menu. It didnít look very impressive – a choice of three appetizers, three main courses, and a selection of cheeses. But of course all of our selections were delicious, and this time the service was impeccable.
We asked for the wine carte, and the sommelier appeared, showing Betty Lou an equally small menu. I never did see it, so I canít say what the choices were, but they discussed the qualities of the various wines, finally determining that a certain white and a certain red would meet our tastes as well as complement our dishes. When we asked how much it would cost, we were told it came with the lunch. Hmm – the Michelin is very good about listing such things as when the wine is included ("bc" for boisson comprise), and it definitely was not mentioned for Louis XV.
We were then presented with another small menu listing a dozen desserts and were requested to make our choice, since some of them required extensive preparation. Hmm – that wasnít mentioned in the Michelin either. Of course, before the appetizer, we were served some pre-appetizers (variously called "amuse-gueuls" or "amuse-bouches," depending on whether they are intended to amuse the tongue or the mouth). However, we then received another surprise, a fresh pea soup ladled over sprigs of tiny asparagus, topped with a dollop of sour cream. The white wine went well with this and our appetizers, and the red equally well with our main courses. As our dessert approached, the sommelier noticed that our glasses were low, and opened another bottle. When our bill arrived, it was as advertised: 480 francs per person, plus another 100 (!) for the aperitif.
When we later discussed our outstanding meal, we at first thought the extras may have been due to the reference to our previous dinner in Paris. However, when we reviewed the unusual circumstance of a French (in general, very male chauvinistic) sommelier discussing the wine choices with Betty Lou, we realized that it had to be a result of our impressive letterhead!
Maybe this is what itís like to be rich and/or famous!