Despite the lockdowns that closed all of the country’s restaurants — the last one ran from October 2020 to May 2021 — the dining scene in the south of France is thriving once again. What’s most noticeable about the menus of the best new tables is that many chefs are cooking simpler dishes to showcase the natural flavors and textures of the produce they work with. “The pandemic has created a strong preference for light, healthy, seasonal cooking that is not too complicated,” star chef Hélène Darroze has said.
In a nod to his Argentine roots, chef Mauro Colagreco of the Michelin three-star restaurant Mirazur has opened a relaxed parrilla (grill) and pasta restaurant across the street from his gastronomic establishment in Menton. The Argentines are famously carnivorous, and this restaurant serves the cuts of meat they like, along with their favorite garnishes, notably chimichurri, a spicy hot sauce of parsley, oregano, garlic, pepper, red wine vinegar and olive oil. The homemade pastas change daily, as does much of the menu. Stopping by for an early dinner, we loved the beautiful views of the Mediterranean from the dining room and enjoyed a delicious and uncomplicated meal of wood-fire-grilled octopus, sea bream carpaccio, steak and a superbly flavorful rotisserie-roasted Bresse chicken stuffed with mandarin oranges and walnuts.
80 Bis Boulevard de Garavan, Menton. Tel. (33) 4-93-17-13-15
When chef Mauro Colagreco met the Irish financier, hotelier and art collector Paddy McKillen at a fundraiser for the restoration of architect Eileen Gray’s modernist villa in Roquebrune-Cap-Martin, they immediately hit it off. So Colagreco was receptive when McKillen approached him about becoming the marquee chef for his new Maybourne Riviera hotel. Ceto, which is named for an ancient Greek sea goddess, occupies a striking, almost-all-white space, with picture window walls and an open kitchen designed by Argentine interior architect Marcelo Joulia, on the top floor of the hotel. The view of the Mediterranean is stunning. Colagreco settled on a menu that showcases the finest Mediterranean fish and shellfish and evolves according to the catch of the day. When we came for lunch, our meal began with a palette-pummeling salad of briny and bitter seaweed, which was followed by a gentle autumnal salad of finely sliced porcini mushrooms with roasted hazelnuts, olive oil and baby greens. Next came a slice of aged tuna belly — Ceto has a custom-built salt-lined cellar for aging fish — with housemade XO sauce (an umami-rich condiment from Hong Kong). The tuna was meltingly tender, like some sort of marine foie gras. This was followed by scallop carpaccio with artichokes and langoustine tartare topped with caviar. We shared an impeccably grilled red snapper with green tomatoes and wild spinach sprouts as a main course and concluded this spectacular meal with a vanilla mille-feuille made with nori seaweed in a toffee sauce.
The Maybourne Riviera, 1551 Route de la Turbie, Roquebrune-Cap-Martin. Tel. (33) 4-93-37-22-44
Recognized for the excellence of her cooking at three-star Hélène Darroze at The Connaught hotel in London and two-star Marsan par Hélène Darroze in Paris, Darroze has taken over the restaurant at Villa La Coste, a 28-room hotel located on a wine estate and art park in the countryside north of Aix-en-Provence. She ran a very successful pop-up restaurant at the property in 2019, and subsequently agreed to take over from Gérald Passedat, the previous chef. Although she’s a native of southwestern France, Darroze began her career working in the kitchens of Alain Ducasse’s Le Louis XV restaurant at the Hôtel de Paris in Monaco, so she has a deep knowledge of the local produce that stars on her menu. Provençal vegetables, grains and pulses are the dominant ingredients in every dish, with fish or meat playing supporting roles. During a recent dinner, we enjoyed a highly original carpaccio of radishes with fresh walnut cream, finely grated fresh horseradish and shallot vinaigrette, a dish that offered up an intriguing spectrum of tastes and textures. Next came cep mushrooms with tuna tartare and toasted buckwheat grains. For our last course, we relished borlotti beans in an aromatic bouillon with garnishes of monkfish and guanciale. Service was precise and amiable, and the sommelier proposed some brilliant by-the-glass pairings.
Hélène Darroze à Villa La Coste
Villa La Coste, 2750 Route de la Cride, Le Puy-Sainte-Réparade. Tel. (33) 4-42-28-35-59
After their initial venture in Rome, Italians Marco Mattana and Alessandra Viscardi launched a second restaurant near the old port in Nice in 2019. On a warm night, sitting outside at one of the sidewalk tables turned out to be the perfect place for a relaxed, reasonably priced and truly excellent meal. We ate a superb fritto misto, which included tender tubes of batter-dipped squid and fresh baby artichokes and then tucked into linguine with mussels, followed by fusilli alla ’nduja, pasta topped by the soft red-pepper spiked sausage from Calabria. A bottle of white Pecorino from Abruzzo teamed perfectly. We concluded with homemade ricotta ice cream with lemon rind and pistachios.
53 Boulevard Stalingrad, Nice. Tel. (33) 4-83-39-51-89
Marseille now rivals Paris as the capital of French gastronomy, and it is restaurants like the Mbenda brothers’ stylish establishment that explains the city’s ever-growing allure for food lovers. Located a short walk from the Vieux Port, its dining room, with high ceilings and contemporary furniture, provides a delightful setting for a meal, but weather permitting, the courtyard garden behind the restaurant is deservedly even more popular with local politicians and lawyers from the nearby courthouse. A different prix fixe menu is served daily by chef Hugues Mbenda. On the summer day when we came for lunch, we began with a salad of millet bulgur with pomegranate seeds and feta cheese, followed by grilled lamb belly with smashed smoked potatoes and an intriguing sauce of curried hazelnuts and, for dessert, coconut-and-tapioca beignets with lemon cream. The experience was made even more agreeable by friendly young servers and excellent local wines by the glass.
Le Jardin de L’Orphéon - Maison Montgrand
35 Rue Montgrand, Marseille. Tel. (33) 4-91-00-35-21
This simply decorated bistro with bare-wood tables in the heart of Aix-en-Provence is the hottest restaurant in town right now. Young chef Loïc Pétri, who previously worked for Jean-François Piège and Joël Robuchon in Paris, draws up a daily five-course menu. On a warm August night, we began with oysters grilled over sticks of dried fennel with tapioca and tomato water and continued with bonito sashimi with white peaches and baby zucchini, langoustines and veal sweetbreads with black garlic, beef with eggplant and shiso and, finally, apricots with pistachios and almonds. Each dish was an inventive and delicious mixture of superb seasonal ingredients. The wine list has been compiled by local wine merchant Aurélia Gauthier. During your stay, stop by her shop Mademoiselle Wine (14 Rue des Marseillais) to shop for rare local bottles.
24 Rue Aumône Vieille, Aix-en-Provence. Tel. (33) 4-42-91-37-56