My week on the Riviera was nearing its end, and I had made arrangements to return to Le Mirazur, a restaurant my family and I hugely enjoyed two years ago. Amongst the things that struck me back then was the fantastic bread, the very interesting cooking, great service and the stunning view over Menton and the sea. So, when I came back, I had some rather high expectations, which were further raised by Mauro Colagreco’s entrance into to 50 best list, and his nomination as chef of the year by the French Gault Millau guide.
The restaurant itself lies a few meters away from the Italian border and benefits of stunning views of the ocean. In addition to this, it does not only have huge windows that let you gaze at the sea, but those who don’t face the sea can still see it, thanks to some equally big mirrors. Crockery and glasses are rather simple, but the chairs have changed from simple beach restaurant-style chairs to something a little more elaborate. Despite a few more changes, the room will not figure among the most beautiful restaurant dining rooms I have seen so far. But, who cares really? We’re all here for the food, no?
La Salle II
Price-wise the menu is on the upper end of 1* restaurants (menus go from about 55 to 100 euro, with a lunch deal for 35 or so). To give you an idea: Tasting menus at a few 2* in Luxembourg and Belgium will not cost you more. But, let’s not complain about prices, in most cases they are a fairly accurate, and these places don’t make a lot of money. The wine list is not really that interesting, but will certainly grow over the years.
To accompany the obligatory glass of Champagne, one is offered a little selection of nibbles. From right to left, there was a cornet of carrots, celery and sesame, a tartelette mentonnaise (a Pissaladiere, with a little Parmesan basically), a spoonful of foie gras with lemon confit and a lemon cream. These were all very good and left me with a desire to find out more. The tarte had very well made pastry and was well seasoned, the foie of very good quality and the cream most interesting. The only rather dull and boring part was the cornet, which didn’t have an interest in the least. Very good.
The bread made its appearance, and I was eagerly awaiting the stunning almond and cinnamon bread and a very good fougasse, both of which I had still in my memory as being most amazing little creatures. However, the bread this time wasn’t quite as great as I had remembered: First of all, it was stone cold, the country style bread gave the impression to have been a little old and dull (no crust on this one), the fougasse tasted like some American style toast-bread drenched in olive oil and the almond/cinnamon roll was devoid of any buttery crispiness that I had so much anticipated. When I asked, if it was possible to have my bread warmed, I got no real answer and must thus say that this bread was a little disappointing.
Having seen a number of tables ordering a la carte, I had seen their amuse bouches, I knew what those would be and was rather surprised when they were sold to me as part of the menu carte blanche, the longest (and most expensive) tasting menu, the chef offered that night. I have no problem with paying for more dishes, but when one sells a good number of amuse bouches as regular dishes, I do not enjoy it at all. Anyways, restaurants, who cut short their pre-dinner greetings for tasting menu eaters should state that on the menu, it feels a little odd. In the end, three or four of the courses (out of eleven) would have come with the normal a la carte menu too…
The first course was a shot glass filled with green apple, celery, seaweed and a slightly acidic foam. This was an interesting combination that didn’t particularly impress, nor amaze. It was a palate cleanser and acceptable as such. Good.
Next up was a much more interesting combination. A parsnip veloute was served with pistachio oil, pistachios and a coffee flan. This was a most interesting combination, as the bitterness of the coffee complemented the natural sweetness of the parsnips and the richness of the pistachios. A little more of it would not have been pleasant though, as it was a rather singular taste mix. Good.
Colagreco prides himself with his own garden. In the menu, he explains the great amount of love his gardeners put in to it, in a very nice way (there is also an introduction, a preface of sorts, written by his sister). Like his mentor Alain Passard he employs someone who produces various types of vegetables. This can and often has some pretty positive effects on the product’s quality and the variety, but a rather negative effect on the restaurant’s pricing (after all, economies of scale aren’t really favourable in that context). The next course was based around heirloom beets and balsamic vinegar. Now, this is something one gets in many restaurants all over the world these days, and it seems a little overstretched by now. The beets were fine, but there wasn’t any particularly interesting seasoning, nor was there any other extraordinary feature in this collection of beautiful colours. The only sliver of raw beetroot was cut much too thickly, without seasoning and thus in stark contrast to the overcooked, slightly-mushy, under-seasoned other beets. This dish was beautiful, but didn’t quite deliver taste-wise.
Next up was a very good one, luckily. A simple combination of raw gamberoni di San Remo, finger lime and radishes proved to be most rewarding. The highly regarded gamberoni really are special in both taste and texture, and when presented in such a natural, untouched way, this quality is even more apparent. With the finger lime and slightly crunchy radish, the dish was not only very light, but also highly refreshing and summery. One could argue that it lacked punch, but then, the dish wasn’t going in that direction at all. It was one of the most simple dishes of the menu, and one of the best. Very good.
Following this came a dish that was more or less in the same idea as the beetroot one. A few pieces of (cooked) courgettes were served with murex snails and a broth made out of grilled vegetables. The idea sure is good, but when seasoning isn’t spot on, the dish loses all credibility and attraction. In this case, salt seemed to have been used with great restriction and thus made the whole combination a little bland. In terms of product quality there wasn’t anything to discuss, it was very good food, but the rather dull broth didn’t quite lift the dish to new heights. Furthermore, the murex snails aren’t something that particularly fascinates me: tough, chewy, nearly devoid of any significant taste, they don’t really add anything (positive) to the dish. Another rather mediocre dish.
After having been served frog’s legs beignets a couple of times now, Colagreco served me some poached in butter. Paired with a few different tomato and nettle preparations, this dish took the classic French frog’s leg out of its comfort zone. The legs were great, creamy, tasty and well cooked, as they should be. The accompanying tomato marmelade was fine too, but a few confit cherry tomatoes were a little too acidic and the nettle puree had a overly dominant power, unpleasant flavour, that did overwhelm the subtle frog’s legs. Apart from this (rather big problem), it was a good dish.
Next up was a piece of duck foie gras, pan-fried and served with duck/verbena consommé, figs and fresh almonds. This was great dish, with the exception of a under-seasoned broth. The flavours were there, but needed a little strength or kick to live things up. Subtle flavours might have been involved here, but there must at least be enough punch to make these noticeable. The foie was cooked very well, although it was a little « sweaty » (usually a sign for not the freshest or lower quality livers). In combination with the fig and the two almonds it was a most pleasing dish. Very good.
Usually, Colagreco serves his fish with a smoked emulsion and a few leaves. This time, I was served a piece of blue-fin tuna with an haricot coco foam. The fillet of tuna was cooked throughout (horribly overcooked), and thus a little tough and less tasty. It was cut from a rather sinewy part of the fillet, which was from ordinary quality. Drowned in a massive pool of very good bean emulsion, the proportions seemed to have gotten out of hand a little on this one. If one had imagined a very nice piece of tuna belly (which was the day’s special) or at least a less cooked fillet with about a third of the foam, it would have made for a very successful dish, but like this it just seemed a little odd. Mediocre. Again, one felt a little ripped-off here, after all tuna didn’t figure on the menu at all, so to send those who let the chef decide what they eat the nastiest piece there is, is a rather bizarre thing.
Luckily enough, the next dish nearly saved the evening. A piece of Sisteron lamb, with a nice crunchy fat crust came with Miso-glased aubergines and a date condiment. If one takes away the fact that Pascal Barbot’s Miso-glased aubergine is being copied pretty much all over the place, this was a wonderful dish. The rack of lamb still had the panoufle attached to it and was beautifully crispy on top, with a creamy fatty centre and most tender meat. This really was a fine piece of lamb. In combination with the dates or the black sesame oil, it was a most happy pairing. Conceptually, it was very similar to a dish I had eaten two years earlier and remembered from then. If only a few more of this night’s dishes could have been like this… Excellent.
After a quick chat to Colagreco (who is about to open a steak house in Beirut, and who was implicated in a beach restaurant this summer!?) I was served my first dessert. A tube of frozen almond mousse was served in a fennel soup with orange sorbet, The combination isn’t unusual in cooking, but it was certainly the first time I stumbled across it in a dessert. I certainly do hope it won’t happen that often anymore, as it was not much more than good (if one is generous). The individual parts (with exception of the great sorbet) were only very lightly sweetened and didn’t really have pleasing tastes. If eaten together, the story looked very different and it seemed much better indeed. Still, it is interesting for a one time experience, but not really something I would travel for again. Good.
The second dessert was another strange one. A few popcorn pieces were mixed with chocolate truffles, some “chocolate snow” and mate ice cream. I hate writing anything too negative, but this really seemed like someone had thrown all there was left over from the week in a bowl: A bit of popcorn, some truffles, a little ice cream,… The individual parts were good, but this wasn’t a particularly interesting dessert. The “snow” was miles away from what I was served elsewhere (during my Amador internship, they made a fantastic version of this), as it was melting when the plate hit my table and was no more than a rather liquid cream by the time I was ready to start it. The textural combinations were rather odd too, to cut a long story short: Mediocre.
The mignardises were all very good (only the tapioca in the glass a little less so), but nothing worth spending much time with.
Looking back, this meal felt a little weird. I had had very good memories and would have hoped to at least get what I had two years ago both in terms of product quality and cooking. Rather, I got a mix of good and pretty uninspiring dishes, that left me with a puzzled mind. The lamb dish surely was great, but apart from that there was hardly one dish, which was more than good. In a total of about 11, that is not the best of ratios. Some of them seemed bizarre, odd and the products’ quality was not what it could have been, considering the area, and acclaim of the restaurant. The tuna was very poor, the beautiful frog’s legs killed by those overpowering flavours and bizarre tomatoes, the bread was really bad, and various other dishes grossly under-seasoned. Now, that is a list of errors, that is too long for a restaurant, that clearly strives for more than the 1* it holds. The fact that service was rather hectic, overwhelmed and much less charming than last time didn’t help neither. I was also quite astonished at the fact, that they serve three or four courses (out of 11) of the big tasting menu as extras for people on the carte. This is not a way to run a serious restaurant, and I hope for Colagreco that he stops that right away, as one feels a little ripped-off afterwards. He might have more luck with his beach restaurant or the steak house in Beirut?