La Merenda has been known in Nice for a long time. Before Dominique Le Stanc took over with his wife, another couple served the classics of the cuisine nissarde in this little gem, tucked away in the vieux Nice. The setting is of the most basic. There are no real chairs, no telephone, and credit cards aren’t accepted neither. For those interested in going, you have to actually go there in the morning or a few days earlier to book (as there is not telephone, they take bookings only in person). One doesn’t bother with big wine lists neither here: You can choose between a white or red vin de pays (25euro per bottle) or a Bellet (45euro), which is the only vineyard in France, that is situated in a city. What matters here is the food, and the ambience. And those two points are quite peculiar here.
First of all, Le Stanc used to run the city’s most highly regarded restaurant, that of the Hotel Negresco. There, he received 2*, but decided to abandon the brigades of the palaces to take over this place. Here, he cooks alone, has a plongeur, and his wife (who is a Husserl, the family that runs Le Cerf in Marlenheim) does the service with a young man who helps out. Simple, effective and most profitable as a business model. Tables are turned once during the evening, and in some cases there are even three seatings, depending on the speed of the diners.
But, let’s turn to the food. We started with the obligatory Beignets de fleurs de courgettes. Lightly battered, deep-fried zucchini flowers come without any garnish, nor seasoning. The waiter supplies some fleur de sel and pepper, with which you are advised to season them at your convenience. Not a bad system and definitely not a bad dish. These beignets are among the best I have had. As good as those at the Louis XV, and better than at some less glorious places. They are delightfully crisp, light, tasty and fresh. Le Stanq takes a little ride around the Cours Saleya market every day with his bike to buy his products, whose freshness does transpire in the finished dishes. Outstanding.
Next up, was a classic, daube de boeuf a la nicoise. A beef stew/ragout, which is normally prepared with orange zest and/or olives came without all of these, and was thus a simple ragout, simmered with carrots and red wine. The only accompanying goodies were some panisses, chickpea fritters that come from the region too. The panisses were great, not quite as perfect as those from the Louis XV, but were very good. The daube itself was less impressive. The problem was a very thin sauce, and some rather dry meat. Now, when I braise meat, it is usually very moist, or juicy, but this was oddly dry at some parts. The sauce could have been reduced for a little while longer, as it was more like a broth than a hearty jus. Taste-wise, the dish was fine, but not remarkable. This was good, but it felt a little disappointing. It seems that Le Stanc took a few shortcuts (not reducing the sauce enough, not monitoring the meat’s cooking and final dryness,…). Good.
Dessert was another simple affair. A tarte aux blettes is another classic here, and rightfully so. This typically nicois dessert is made out of swiss chard, pine nuts, raisins, parmesan, sugar, eggs and is then enclosed in some pastry. On the plate it is very good, if unusual, but I greatly enjoy it, whenever I do have a chance to try it. This version was good, but not exceptional, as the dough wasn’t as beautifully crunchy as it could have been.
Overall, this meal was pretty good, considering the whole thing cost about 30euro (excluding drinks). The products were not bad, the skill was apparent, but the problem were the details. When I last came here, the food was much better, there were no such shortcomings. To see this is a little frustrating, as one has a great chef here, who does what he enjoys, in a most cosy environment. What was interesting too was the way the business was set up. A dish like the beignets costs him around 1,5euro and doesn’t demand any work. He sells it for 11 and thus makes a handsome profit on that, as he does with the others too. Now, not that I object, but if people complain about prices, they should rather look at simpler restaurants, and not pick on the top restaurants, who have huge costs (products, labour, crockery, china,…). This is definitely a nice place to go for a rather simple meal, if one is in the area. Perfect for dinner after a meal at the Louis XV…coming up next week.