Thursday, July 25, 2019

Cannes the food

The Cote d’Azur part of Provence has its distinct cuisine. Several dishes that originate there are as the saying goes “world renowned”. The famous fish soup Bouillabaisse, the delicious Salad Niçoise, the vegetarian Ratatouille, Tapenade -the Olive pate and Aioli to name just a few. Tomato, Olive, Olive Oil garlic Aubergines are some of the vegetables that thrive here. Fish is a big part of the meal. In other words, this is certainly not a culinary wasteland.

Two street foods that are very popular are the Pan Bagnat and Socca. The Pan Bagnat is simply a Salad Niçoise on a sandwich. A crusty burger bun shaped bread is hollowed out slightly, bathed in olive oil and filled with lettuce, tomato, tinned tuna, onion, hard cooked egg slices and anchovy. Typically, these are weighed down and kept cool for a few hours before being eaten. This is a substantial lunch for one, very substantial.

Socca is frankly quite daft. It is simply a ‘chilla’ made with ‘Chole’ flour, water and some olive oil. This is cooked on a tava in a wood fired oven. It actually is a chilla. Served with a grind or two of black pepper. A very good chilla, but still a chilla. How much can you elevate a chilla? We shared one in the Forville Market.

Top: The Socca being baked in the oven and the finished product 

The previous evening we had dined at the superb Palme D’Or which has two stars in Michelin. Dinner was to be humbler after last night’s blow out.

The French Riviera has many fine restaurants. Problem is that Cannes does not. Cannes is on the coast surrounded, just a few kilometres away by hills. In the towns in the hills, Valbonne, Mougins and Châteauneuf, to name just 3. These towns have superb restaurants often with stars in Michelin. There is a lot of choice within a 20-minute drive. We don’t drive, so our dining choices are dictated by walking distance or at best taxi. Anyway, after some snooping, we zeroed in on Aux Bon Enfants a charming Bistro started in 1935 in the heart of old Cannes town. Right in the Altstadt as the Germans would say.

We had reserved a table for 7.30 pm but observing from the previous night that people ate late, we delayed our table to 8 pm. We sat in the square and had a beer and cold Rose before dinner. How utterly civilised.

Aux Bon Enfants was a typical Bistro, Blackboards with handwritten menus with le formule [the fixed price menu] and le plat de jour [the daily special] adorning the walls. A bottle of wine was ordered which came in a rather charming Ice bucket. The food was good, of course, not of the gourmet standard of the previous night. Just decent well cooked standard French Bistro fare.

Top: A classic. Bone Marrow with Toast Parsley & Salt

Top: Heritage Tomato Salad with Pesto and Burata

Top: Veal chop with Mustard

Top: Rabbit Stew with Olives  & Lemon. Really really tasty 

Top: A plate of mixed vegetables - Aubergine, Pommes Dauphinoise 

Top: Lemon Tart

The dessert was a knockout. Unfortunately, not photographed well. Lemon Tart, which the waitress proudly told us was la Maison, made at home. The pastry was short and crisp and the Lemon Curd tangy. Well done.

I am sure there are several Bistros equally good in Cannes. You can safely eat here. No complaints at all.

Monday, July 22, 2019

Restaurant Palme D'Or - Cannes **

We were in Cannes for just two nights. One night was to be dinner at Palme D’Or which has two stars in Michelin. The chef in charge of Palme d’Or is the very charming Christian Sinicropi who hails from Cannes. His trade mark is a Pista Green Chef’s Jacket that he wears. We had made the reservation well in advance, especially having seen the restaurant and Chef being featured in an episode of a Netflix show whose name escapes me. Palme D’or is located in the Martinez Hotel, so we thought that the rich and famous would have made dinner plans too.

Our table was for 8 pm. For once we had no commute to reach the restaurant, no timing the walk with HRH the Queen of Kutch wearing high heeled shoes. No taxi to hail and traffic to negotiate. Just a simple ride down the elevator. In these circumstances what better to do that visit the bar downstairs. Which is exactly what we did.

Gins were a speciality of the bar. How delightful. A large collection was on display with a selection of tonics. A Japanese Gin called Roku to start with, then a French Citadelle. Just right after a hot day. The bar is located on the street level overlooking the Croisette. Very pleasant. Friendly bartenders speaking in passable English. Then it was getting to be dinner time. So off we went.

Restaurant Palme D’Or is on the first floor of the Hotel. A large restaurant, without air conditioning with a large frontage. The front overlooked the Croisette, naturally, and since you were a level up, you had a very good view of the beach and the Mediterranean Sea. Tables were large and well-spaced. Our table was right at the at the front overlooking the Croisette and beach. Very exciting. We were seated and enchanted by the view. Being summer, it was still very bright. As the evening progressed it became twilight.

Top: The obligatory purse holder. This one is particularly crafty. Build into the chair itself and not a separate stool.

To get us settled in Champagne was ordered. Cold, refreshing and celebratory. The usual questions were asked, are you allergic to anything? Is this a special occasion? And menus handed out. Handed out is wrong, they were placed on the table. The menu was a 6-sided square, like a dice, there were also two additional pull-outs. The 6 sides of the dice signify the 6 movements. The 6 movements or themes were (i) vegetable (ii) Prawns, Langoustines i.e. Crustacea (iii) Lamb (iv) Beef (v) Oyster (vi) South, my roots i.e. food from the Riviera. The 6 movements are nothing but 6 principal ingredients cooked in 3 ways. The first is a to create a plate of textures, the second is to cook the ingredient in a modern interpretation and the last is to cook the product, un adorned, simply, typically. The two additional menus were an A La Carte, and a Tasting.

I ordered the A La Carte which had 3 courses, obviously, and HRH the Queen of Kutch ordered one of the Movements – South My Roots. I am not going to describe the food. The photos and their description tell it all. The food without exception was top notch. Everything accurately cooked with enormous skill and technique. What was supposed to be hot was hot.

The Canapes were really quite something. We both felt that the liquified Olive with chilli was genius. Also good was Barbajuan a speciality from next-door neighbour Monaco, which is a fritter made with Chard and Ricotta.

Top: the Canapes. On the extreme left are the Barbajuan. Next on the toast is the superlative liquified Chili Olive. 

Top: An amuse bouche

A bread basket was offered with some fabulous bread. Then a trolley was brought with freshly made Focaccia. A portion was then sliced off and local olive oil poured on top. If that was not enough, a toast rack was brought with translucent, gossamer thin Cumin, Caraway and Sesame Tuilles. This was a tour de force of technique. This was a Roomali Roti on steroids, a Papad elevated in the extreme.

Top: The Olive oil to go with the Focaccia 

Top two: The superb bread from the bread basket. A work of art

Top: Gossamer thin, translucent Tuilles

Chef Sinicropi is a qualified Ceramicist as is his wife. Together they design a lot of the crockery used in the restaurant. Some of the plating, as a consequence of using this custom made crockery is eye-catching.

When we entered the restaurant had probably just 3 tables occupied. As the evening progressed it filled up but never got full. People seem to eat later in Cannes than London. Despite the 2 Stars in Michelin, and the superlative restaurant [both food and location] it is obvious that they cannot seem to turn tables. This seems sad as at some point the economics would break down. If this restaurant was in London, I am certain they would have turned tables 3 times during the day.

Top: From the South, My Roots: Movement 1 - Fish Eggs Minosa. Caviar, Hens Eggs, Salmon Roe and several other components

Top: From the South, My Roots: Movement 2. Baby Squid with Tomato

Top: From the South, My Roots: Movement 3 - Mediterranean Red Tuna

Top: From the South, My Roots: Movement 4 - Sardines, stuffed with Squid Ink and other 'pigments" 

Top two. From the A La Carte. First Course. White Asparagus tainted with Beetroot to make it purple, Green Asparagus and a Wasabi Marshmellow. Beautiful to look at, fabulous to eat

Top three. From the A La Carte. Second Course. Wild Turbot with Seasonal Vegetables and Mushrooms to accompany.

HRH the Queen had no space for a dessert. I had the Cheese from the Cheese Board and it was in top condition. No photographs unfortunately.

Everyone is happy

The service was good, wine topping up [we had a bottle of Sancerre] efficient. Food was delivered at the right pace. It was a very nice evening, one that we will remember. The food was good with an unbeatable location and ambience. At end the evening we met Chef Sinicroppi who was a nice guy and was genuinely pleased that we enjoyed his food. Of course, he did not believe we were from India. It is sad that I have to write this line. It reeks of arrogance for which I apologise. The point is that if someone tells you that you they cannot believe you are from India, there is a problem somewhere in the mental picture foreigners have of us Indians. I believe I am not the cause of that picture. Think about that.

Should you visit Cannes and eat at Palme D’Or. Without any hesitation, yes, yes yes.

Monday, July 15, 2019

The Cote d'Azur - Cannes

The Cote d’Azur or the Coast of Azure is the French Riviera. This area is on the Southwest coast of France along the Mediterranean Sea stretching from Toulon in the West up to Italy. The French Riviera becomes the Italian Riviera and continues down the West Coast of Italy with Genoa being the centre. The Italian Riviera from the West of Genoa is known as the Coast of the Setting Sun and the area to the East of Genoa is known as the Coast of the Rising Sun. This is a particularly beautiful part of the World. The deep blue Mediterranean Sea and its mild water temperatures, the warm climate with mild winters, the beautiful sunlight helped make this area very popular with British Royalty, the rich, the famous, the intellectuals and of course European Aristocracy.

Queen Victoria was a frequent visitor. The author Robert Louis Stevenson lived here as the climate was good for his health, Winston Churchill, Somerset Maugham, F Scott Fitzgerald and the dancer Isadora Duncan all spent time here. The excellent light brought the painters Picasso, Matisse and Renoir here.

I am sure you have heard of the towns that dot the Riviera – Saint Tropez, Nice, Cannes, Antibes, Cap Ferrat and the most famous of them, the one that takes the biscuit, Monaco. Sorry I could not resist that.

You must also have heard of the geographical and historical region, Provence. Cote d’Azur is in Provence. Provence not only includes the coast but extends inland. In the early 1990’s Peter Mayle wrote a bestselling book A Year In Provence about his life in this area. In those days, circa 1990 we actually bought books from shops, or had lending libraries where we were members and borrowed books. This book and a couple of the books he wrote in continuation served up an irresistible, magical, romantic picture of Provence. I recall reading about him cycling and stopping to drink Pernod, how the drink turned the water used to dilute it white. The young impressionable me was captivated by this. Much later, when we went to Greece almost 12 years later I saw Ouzo turn white when diluted, as does Raki in Turkey. I now know why this happens, anise compounds are soluble in alcohol and not water. Hence when you add water or ice, the compounds become solids making the water opaque. Much alcohol has flowed thru my system over the last 30 years. Today I am wiser and far more cynical.

Anyway, the point I am making is that Cote d’Azur and Provence are extremely beautiful.

In May this year we had made our first visit to Valbonne, an inland town some 12 kms away from Cannes. Our host had taken us to Cannes where we spent a morning on the beach. We were captivated. So, we decided that we would revisit and stay in Cannes. What an absolutely brilliant decision.

To get to Cannes you can fly to Nice which is the airport serving the Cote d’Azur. Nice to Cannes is some 30 kms and takes about 45 minutes at most Just by the way, Emirates, in actual fact the national carrier for India flies a A 380 every day from Dubai to Nice. Cannes is a small town. The nerve centre of Cannes is the Promenade de la Croisette or Boulevard de la Croisette. This is a 2 km stretch of road along the coast. To paint a picture for you. Imagine the stretch of Marine Drive at Chowpatty in Mumbai. The sea would be the crystal-clear Azure Mediterranean, instead of the Arabian Sea, then the beach, and, instead of Cream Centre and the Mahindra SUV showroom you have exclusive boutiques – Hublot, Versace, Ferragamo et al, and instead of the buildings you have fabulous hotels. That is Cannes. Not unlike our Chowpatty! Only better, stupendously better.

The Croisette and its Hotels - the Martinez, J W Marriott and the Intercontinental Carlton – are what give Cannes its ability to host the most glamourous events. The Cannes Film Festival, the Cannes Lions Festival for the Advertising and Creative industry, Yacht shows, Luxury Property shows and so on are all held here. The Croisette is glamour central. Beautiful people, very rich people, stars, many rich Arabs [better looking and better dressed that those in London], expensive cars are all here.

We were staying at the Martinez which is a Hyatt property. This hotel has just reopened after a massive renovation, and the place is simply top class. Art Deco is the look both externally as well as the rooms. White and blue are the predominant colours lending to a clean, airy cool look.

Before you get lathered up about Arabs [and I use that term loosely, much like Madrasi or North Indian] you must understand that parts of North Africa and the Middle East were French territories. Lebanon being a case in point. The Arabic/North African food has permeated France with Couscous and the lamb sausage Merguez being good examples. You also have several Lebanese restaurants in Cannes, all large and upmarket.

At the end of the Croisette you have the old Port - now a Marina, and the old town behind that. This area is a warren of small streets, many pedestrianised, with charming shops, bars, restaurants, and, of course, a central covered market.

Cannes itself is quite pretty. Palm Trees, bright colourful majestic Bougainvillea all lend beauty to Cannes. Off the Croisette you have some really nice houses.

The beach along the Croisette is wide and sandy, with no rocks, manageable waves, clear warm water and very, very clean. Simply very inviting. What the authorities have done is permit some of the big hotels to colonise the beach directly in front of the hotel. The Hotels set up sun beds [available at a daily rent to anyone not only hotel guests] and sofas [free] where you can eat and drink. You have full food and drink service, and a huge tub of toys for children [spades buckets et al]. There are other sections of the beach which are open to public i.e. uncolonized. Here you can bring your own beach chairs, towels and food. So, you, as well as the local have a choice on your day at the beach, a DIY experience or an upscale Hotel experience. Fair, in my view. This being summer holidays in France, we saw lots of families and lots of kids walking to and from the beach carrying surfboards, towels, floats and rafts. Quite delightful.

We spent two afternoons on the beach in the La Plage Du Martinez, their private beach. Without any doubt, I can tell you that this was the best beach experience we have had ever! Yes, it does not have the tropical beauty of Malaysia or Thailand and the like,but as far as ambience and vibe is concerned, there is nothing to beat this. We have had Champagne in plenty of exotic places, atop Eiffel Tower, in planes, in boats, at the Australian Open, but having a bottle of icy Tattinger on a beach in the South of France under the baking sun! Boy, there is nothing that comes close. In the background a DJ played totally appropriate Lounge music and joining him were at various times a percussionist or a violinist or a saxophonist. The experience was sublime, enchanting. And after baking in the sun, the refreshing cool water was an absolute delight.

Walking to the old town and market was great fun too. The large covered market had all kinds of stuff available, food, vegetables, fish and meat. This is open everyday except Monday till 2 pm. A very nice place to visit. We went to specialist cheese shops and bought cheese, the butchers for sausage and an unusual shop selling all manner of tinned fish. HRH the Queen of Kutch bought some very good looking Doughnut Peaches which were in season. Everybody was smiling, helpful and friendly.

One evening we had a cooling off drink in the old town. I will not write more. Have a look at the photo.

All in all, we had a super time in Cannes. Great food, a nice old town and a beach that topped everything. The Hotel was stunning. I cannot recommend this enough. Please do go. If you drive in Europe, you absolutely must make Cannes a place to visit and drive on from there.