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Trip Report: Cote d’Azur, Provence, and Languedoc-Rousillon

JohnTalbotWannabe | Apr 1, 201602:26 PM

In the fall of 2015, we spent part of our honeymoon in certain parts of the Cote d’Azur, Provence, and Languedoc-Rousillon. Thank you to the many of you on here who provided invaluable assistance in planning our trip. Below is a summary of some food-related highlights of our trip.

Nice (and Mirazur in Menton):

Flaveur: Our first night in Nice we dined at Flaveur. We had the exploration menu (115 euro). Even though we cannot recall any of the specific items we consumed, the food was all hits and no misses. The only real criticism was the pacing. It was, at times, glacial, perhaps having half an hour between courses. When we were deciding whether to order the tasting menu and expressing concern about the duration of our dinner, the waiter responded that the chef would not send out anything until it was "perfect." This approach may have contributed to the pacing. I guess that was a testament to the execution of the dishes, but ideally the chef would not need quite so many re-dos.

Our server (who originally hailed from New York) was fantastic, particularly compared to the sommelier, who seemed to have a particularly sour and dour disposition. I dare say he seemed to almost ooze contempt for our pathetic knowledge of wines, and he was particularly unhelpful in helping us select wines. We also felt palpable discomfort when asking him some elementary questions. Our only conclusion is that he would have been at home instead working at Chantecler (see below).

The interior of Flaveur had an interesting, modern decor. But perhaps it is not great for a romantic dinner, as it was rather brightly lit. Additionally, the chairs were not particularly comfortable, which posed more of a problem because the pacing of items was so unfortunately slow or delayed.

The following day, we had lunch at Cafe Turin. The oysters were nothing to write home (or here) about. They were well hydrated with oyster liquor (i.e., had sufficient sea water), but they may have been slightly already past their prime in freshness, as a few of them did have a very slight fishy smell, rather than more of a sweet sea smell. That said, we went here for the experience of eating these outside in Place Garibaldi, which we did and enjoyed. But if/when we return to Nice, we have no burning desire to eat here again.

In contrast, we have a burning desire consume socca upon our return. Although we enjoyed the socca at Rene Socca, our favorite socca was from Chez Pipo. The latter wonderfully combined a crispy exterior with a soft interior and the socca's thickness was perfect throughout. The former, in contrast, was unevenly made - too chunky in some parts, and too thin in others. The socca's seasoning was also better at Chez Pipo, although that may have been because we asked them to handle all the pepper application, which we did not do at Rene Socca. Perhaps Chez Pipo's socca was better also because they seem to have less of a tourist line up, so they do not require as much mass production. But that is mere speculation. Additionally, we only had one at each establishment, so it may have been an oddity of those particular batches. Nonetheless, we enjoyed both establishments and the staff at both were incredibly friendly.

Separately, we had some fantastic sausages from a purveyor in Cours Saleya, whose name we forgot, but was located about half way into the market, with his stall facing north (so you would be facing south when purchasing).

We also had various sweets and ice creams, including some enjoyable baba au rhum from Patisserie Lac and the chocolates and candied fruits at La Maison Auer. The latter perfectly hit our sweet tooth, notwithstanding what appears to be inflationary pricing due to all the tourists visiting the shop, such as us. But one stop stood out and would call for our return: as well noted on these boards, the gelato at Fennochio was fantastic. It was generally much better than what we had at other shops in Nice. My wife actually had a few mediocre flavors, particularly some that were less classic and perhaps gimmicky (e.g., Bounty). But I only had spectacular flavors, including pistachio (regardless of whether they allegedly use almond flavoring) and, per David Lebovitz's views/suggestions, anything with caramel, such as confiture de lait, which was spirit-lifting.

We also had the best baguettes of our trip from boulangeries here, both of which were recommended by a local. Unfortunately we did not write down the names, but we *believe* the first was Aux Delices de la Buffa (on Rue de la Buffe). Then, when Buffa was closed on Monday, the second was Boulangerie Patisserie chez Maitre Pierre (next to the Hotel Felix on Rue Massena). It helped immensely that we bought the baguettes early in the morning (before 8:00 a.m. I believe) and asked the employees in each establishment which option was their favorite.

During our second night we ate at Chantecler, which we reviewed here:
http://www.chowhound.com/post/le-chan...

Mirazur: As part of our travel to Eze and Monaco, we included a stop in Menton and lunch at Mirazur. The views, as others have said, are spectacular, as we sat next to an open window with a gentle breeze. That said, the food was very good but not as spectacular as the view and atmosphere. We ordered the "voyage de sens." Our experience included quite a few misses and nothing that really blew off our socks. The amuse-bouches were the best part of the meal, including a beetroot jelly with goat cheese as well as a macaroon black pudding with granny smith. The desserts, however, which included a "quince texture" and "naranjo en flor," were rather underwhelming. Again, nothing here was terrible, and perhaps our expectations did not sufficiently comprehend that it would be such light fare that emphasized incredibly subtle flavors from the garden, but the food left very little of a mark. (Perhaps the competition with the view is just too much.)

As an aside, we also thought the restaurant was a bit tricky to locate (i.e., we kept accidentally leaving France and entering Italy), with parking being scarce and tight, although this may have been because we were too busy enjoying the views of the Mediterranean.

That same night, we had dinner at L'Ane Rouge (in Nice), where we pre-ordered the bourride. A special thank you must go out to Chef June for recommending ordering the bourride here, some years ago on these boards. Based on a rather lackluster amuse-bouche as well as our observations of the meals that other diners were eating off the menu, we could see how most items here that one would traditionally order are not very captivating. But the off-the-menu bourride, from what little we know about bourride, was very well executed by the staff and kitchen. The broth had a nice thickness, the aioli had just enough garlic touch, and most of the fish was up to snuff. One un-ideal part was the service of entire crabs, leaving us to handle cleaning them out on our own. We found that a touch odd given that our server had cleaned the fish for us, but not that vexing. Generally, the service was welcoming and attentive. Our server gladly engaged in the dog and pony show of showing us the entire over-sized platter of pre-cleaned fish, for our approval. Throughout our meal, he periodically offered refills of broth, even when it seemed we could barely entertain any more consumption. Perhaps most pleasant of all, he sensed that bourride was a novelty for us (our stupid questions and dumbfounded faces probably made that evident). But he happily and warmly explained his recommended way of consuming the dish, which included a pre-fish course of covering small pieces of toasted bread with aioli and cheese, and then submerging that in the broth for 30-60 seconds. At the end of our meal he mentioned that it has become less and less frequent for diners to order the bourride here, thereby perhaps explaining his glee. The bourride left us similarly filled with glee.

Cassis, Aix-en Provence, St-Remy:

We dined at Chez Gilbert, where we pre-ordered and enjoyed a well-made bouillabaisse. Their desserts, however, were straightforward and uninteresting, one tasting mainly like a melted strawberry popsicle. The service was generally warm and funny, even if the offers of refills on broth were a bit less forthcoming than those at L'Ane Rouge.

We had fantastic crepes at two establishments in Aix-en-Provence. As for sweet crepes, we particularly enjoyed Crepes a GoGo, which is located in pedestrian passageway underneath the road. In contrast, for savory crepes, we strongly preferred Crepes, Cidre & Compagnie, likely because they suggested and expertly made the savory crepes with buckwheat, unlike Crepes a GoGo.

That brings us to the most personally shameful part of our trip. We read about Tarte Tropezienne when researching for the trip and assumed we had missed our opportunity because by this point we were outside of the Riviera. To our great luck (but not our figures' luck), we encountered an outpost of La Tarte Tropezienne in Aix-en-Provence. Although we had just consumed some mediocre cookies and meringues, we opted to try our luck with the "original" tarte tropezienne, which was a nice delight. We followed with a few other varieties of the tarte, including a rather straight-forward but perfectly sweet napoleon or Mille-feuille themed version of the tarte.

Dinner was in St. Remy at Restaurant L'Aile ou la Cuisse. (La Maison Jaune was closed during our stay, unfortunately.) The ambiance at Cuisse was welcoming and cozy, and the service was nice. But the food was not memorable as the entrees (in the American sense of the word) appeared to straddle some uncomfortable line between hearty dining and more refined cooking, without quite delivering either. In contrast, we enjoyed some nice appetizers, including a seared salmon, even if tasted much less French and much more of Asian flavors (soy, ginger, etc.). Our dessert course was fun mainly because we were able to select good (albeit not great) desserts from a nice version of a cafeteria-style display case.

Dinner the following night at Le bistro Decouverte was much more enjoyable than L'Aile ou la Cuisse. This was exactly the hearty meal for which we had been hankering. I enjoyed a wonderfully-large and fresh steak tartare. Our entrees were fish and lamb, which were cooked to perfection and accompanied with satisfying, relatively thick sauces. The only down note were the desserts, including an unremarkable creme brulee and baba au rhum. The service was incredibly friendly and welcoming, even though (or perhaps because) we were about the only diners there.

Two non-restaurant food stops in St. Remy deserve mention. First, we enjoyed some fantastically-fresh and satisfying cheese and jam at la Cave aux Fromages. Second, we also had the best chocolates of our entire trip at Joel Durand. The twists on flavors were interesting and subtle (e.g., lavender), often pairing quite well with the expertly made chocolate, but not so experimental as to overwhelm one with surprise (e.g., some adventurous flavorings at Cacao Sampaka in Barcelona). The staff was very warm and welcoming, even when one of our trips was right before closing.

Luberon & Cotes du Rhone:

We then based ourselves in Crillon-le-Brave for a few nights as we explored the Luberon and Cotes du Rhone.

We dined twice at Crillon-le-Brave. Generally, the atmosphere feels strongly as if EuroDisney or a Mexican all-inclusive resort tried to mimic a Michelin-starred restaurant, largely because the clientele that happened to be dining with us at the same time consisted of many English-speaking tourists and families. This is not a knock on the property or staff, which we found professional and helpful. We would just note that the experience, including the restaurant, struck us as very, very geared toward tourists (which we admittedly are). The cheese service was, even to our inexperienced background, disappointing. The servers could not suggest substitutes when a certain cheese was not offered, used the same one knife to cut all cheeses, and even had trouble identifying some of the cheeses. That said, we were mainly eating here to avoid having a long drive after dinner.

La Bartavelle (Goult)
The room is comfortable, well lit, and relatively charming. The operation was run professionally and warmly. We were surrounded by English-speaking tables, although that might be expected as this restaurant is no big secret. The food was delicious at the price. My foie gras was executed well and my wife enjoyed her fish.

But perhaps our afternoon snack in Goult was even more enjoyable. We shared a pizza from Pizzeria Du Cote de chez moi, located opposite the Cafe de la Poste in the center of town. It is a small operation making fresh pizzas in a wood-fired oven. There is no seating, but you can take the pizza away with you. We were pleasantly surprised to have a pizza that reminded us of a slightly smaller version of what we enjoy in New York, insofar as the dough had the ideal combination of crunch and slight crisp on the outside with a chewiness on the inside. The sauce and cheese were nothing shameful either (although consuming a pizza in the middle of all of these other meals could be characterized as shameful)!

Two stops in the Chotes-du-Rhone are worth noting. First, we bought some enjoyable wine from Vineria in Châteauneuf-du-Pape. The service was very helpful and accommodating despite our relative ignorance with wine. Second, on our way from Gigondas, we did an impromptu stop at a boulanger that we noticed in Aubignan on the Avenue Frederic Mistral. We believe it was called Chez Arielle. As we asked for a recommendation, the nice older shop purveyor pointed us to a modestly-sized cake, which we thoroughly enjoyed and appeared to be her delightful take on an ice-cream cake: a crispy cookie-type base, with a cold, not too soft, yet rich chocolate mousse-like middle, surrounded in a luxurious ganache.

Chateau Caze (Gorges du tarn)

Setting aside our feelings about the sleeping amenities (we are not huge fans of the purported "charm" here), the dinner was perhaps the worst food we had on our trip. We enjoyed our dinner only because we found the food so comically terrible. We started with a "tuna tartare" that tasted (literally, not figuratively) like plain cat food. (It is best not to ask how I know the taste of cat food, but university tomfoolery is to blame.) I experienced a slab of perhaps the least appetizing cold, slightly off, foie gras, while my wife spooned a tasteless liquid referred to as a soup of some sort. The entrees were certainly edible (unlike the tartare), but that is about the best we can say about them. The dessert was forgettable. The bread and wine was the best aspect of the meal (which is faint praise). The decor or atmosphere are referred to as "charming" by others, although that largely depends on whether you find a small, cold stone room in a castle with unattractive (if not ghastly) ceiling paintings "charming." Let me be clear that the staff was incredibly nice and friendly and appears to try their best. But perhaps they are working with very limited resources. (We would not have been surprised if the main tools were a can opener and microwave.) That said, there were two other couples in the room, one of which was nearly licking their plates clean, so perhaps we were being overly picky.

Carcassone:

We had lunch at La St. Jean. My wife had a hearty and warming cassoulet, which had generous servings and well-made relevant ingredients (a rarity in the States, in our experience). My steak tartare was a bit more surprising: it was a plate of raw meat, with a large delivery of the potential accouterments (e.g., shallots, capers, mustard, etc.) on the side, for me to decide how to mix them in. The meat was fresh enough and I did not mind this set up, given that I have made steak tartare at home so had a sense of what I wanted. But some others may find this off putting, instead understandably expecting or preferring that the kitchen actually bring a prepared dish.

We had dinner at La Marquiere. The room and setting are inviting and cozy. We enjoyed the starter of butternut soup and carpaccio, but the highlight was the cassoulet, which was smaller, but richer and even more flavorful than the one we had for lunch at La St. Jean.

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