Mauro Colagreco couldn't resist Mirazur in Menton, but how forward-thinking are the blue rinsers of the Côte d'Azur?
When Mauro Colagreco first clapped eyes on Mirazur in Menton, he knew resistance was futile. Though he and his fashion-stylist wife, Daniela, were looking for a small place in Barcelona, when a friend of a friend told him about this restaurant on the Côte d'Azur, vacant for two years and still going begging, their fate was sealed. "I said it was impossible," recalls Colagreco, his eyes still brightening at the realisation that Mirazur is his. "A place like this for us? What a chance: the view, the garden, the building. We'd been moving all over France like gypsies and suddenly this place turned up."
And what a place. A vast 1950s white modern building – a former tabac, ("a very nice tabac," laughs Colagreco) over three floors, with glorious 360 degree views of the Mediterranean and across to Menton Old Town; outside there's a herb garden, decked terrace and bar, lemon grove and magical fairy-lit arbor. It's also only a matter of metres from the sea and from the Italian border, and just a 10 minute drive from the deep pockets and high rollers of Monaco.
Considering it's a first restaurant, Colagreco's not exactly starting small. It's as if he's chosen it (on lease from a Brit, Lord Likierman) with a view to ‘growing into it'. There is space for a function room, parties, more terrace space – but for the time being he's keeping it small, using a bar area and the top floor, limited to a manageable 45 covers. Mirazur's Restaurant Manager, Guillaume Mantis (who came on board six months ago when Alain Kerloc'h, the original Manager and founder, moved away), says it's a beast, "It's a big structure and it had to work quickly. There was no money for a publicist, so it was important that people talked."
Luckily for 30-year-old Colagreco, it wasn't long before word of his talent was out. Brought up in La Plata, Argentina, in a part-Basque but mainly Italian family of obsessive foodies, an interest in good food was inculcated in him as a child. In fact, his family are so food-crazed that when Colagreco enrolled at culinary school, his accountant father did the same and got trained up in patisserie. By the age of 21 he had started working in a hotel, and was getting into francophone culture, art and literature: it was now or never to move to France to learn the fundaments of her cuisine and to see something beyond what he'd read about.
Since arriving in France eight years ago for catering college in La Rochelle, he's gone on to notch up experience – of the élite, three-star variety – with the late Bernard Loiseau in Saulieu ("a wonderful energetic person with a huge heart who opened the door to haute cuisine for me"), Alain Ducasse au Plaza Athénée in Paris, with Guy Martin at Le Grand Véfour and, most significantly, two years with Alain Passard at l'Arpège, the man on whom the young Colagreco did his college project. Meeting his idol wasn't a disappointment, "Quite the contrary. It was just after he'd stopped cooking with red meat. It was a total revolution in three-star kitchens. His is a very spontaneous cuisine; he'd just go to the fridge, see what was in it, then start coming up with ideas. He's creative and demanding, and there are no limits, no taboos."
With this CV it was no wonder that France's most famous critic, Le Figaro's François Simon was down in Menton within a month of its April 2006 opening. Once Simon declared him "crazy, alive and talented" and decreed Mirazur "the place to be", progress was fast and furious.
Within eight months, Gault Millau called this Boy Wonder "Revelation of the Year"; within ten, the Michelin guide awarded a first star.
There'll be no resting on laurels now, though.
Colagreco and Guillaume Mantis have a game plan to take the restaurant onwards and upwards, so even for those less preternaturally gifted and focused as Colagreco, Mirazur acts as an object lesson in running a financially and artistically credible young business.
"The beginning is a very important time when you're doing something ‘vanguardist',"
maintains Colagreco. "It would have been easier to do pasta or risotto, but that's not me. Mine is very personal food."
For the opening of Mirazur, he created his ‘Martini de Tomate et Fleurs du Jardin', a martini glass of delicately seasoned, clear tomato jelly topped with 12 to 15 herbs including borage, fennel, oregano and hyssop flowers: a dish tantamount to a culinary manifesto that kicks off the tasting menu. It's subtle and clean but with the impact of the herbs concentrated in the flowers; it looks pretty but it packs a punch.
His philosophy was mature and evolved from the beginning, but finding suppliers outside his Paris comfort zone was a challenge. But getting the fast track on the best producers, the best fresh seafood and blink-and-you-miss-them seasonal vegetables was vital for a Passard boy.
Colagreco can't do much better than Menton for this. The Italian border is less than 30 metres from Mirazur's front door, so he has the pick of markets on the Ligurian coast on the Italian side and the Côte d'Azur on the French.
"Professionally, the first year of business was an exceptional one for me because I was really learning again," says Colagreco. "The local products were a revelation. Even over the distance of just 20km from Ventimiglia to Menton you see the produce change. All the wild flowers and herbs were totally new – you don't find them in Paris.
"For the first year I was only sleeping three or four hours a night. I'd finish work at 2am then be up in the morning for the markets. I didn't know a soul and had to go to find local suppliers. Now they come to me, but I still like to go, not every day maybe, just to keep my eye on the quality."
He's currently enamoured with the ‘Gamberoni di San Remo': large red prawns that he serves so precisely grilled they remain close to raw inside.
These he serves with more flowers including those of fennel, hyssop and yarrow. "You won't find the gamberoni in Paris. They wouldn't survive the journey."
Another quirky product peculiar to the very arid climate between San Remo and Nice is the gnarly, curled up ‘courgette trompette', which in purée form adorns his ‘Jardin d'été, Legumes Cuits et Crus' (‘summer garden' with raw and cooked vegetables).
In the spring, Colagreco's seven-strong brigade (up from three for the first year) also has a bouquet of wild flowers to hand, as many as 70 different varieties. A lady in the hamlet of Monti, outside Menton, gathers Mediterranean wild flowers and herbs for them; while at the Rosmarino Villa up in the hills further outside, Colagreco gets his mountain flowers. As for the Mirazur garden, it benefits from the Riviera's near-tropical climate and is abundant in oranges, grapefruits, mandarins and, naturally, the lemons for which Menton is renowned; there's a 250-yearold avocado tree (whence the avocados for Colagreco's dessert, Avocado Mousse with Banana Ice Cream) and a bed full of herbs planted in the last year, including absinthe, oxalis (wood sorrel) and achillée millefeuille (yarrow).
The rest of the restaurant's infrastructure has some catching up to do, something Mantis' front of house is well aware of. For example, the wine list has a paltry 75 bins; Mantis says they have to up it at least twofold and employ a sommelier to get to the next level, code for two stars, then one day, three. "I think he's ready, he thinks he's ready. We know the ‘recipe'. We all believe in Mauro. We maybe don't tell him every day but I think he can sense it. We have the creativity in the kitchen; we need to improve the comfort, the service and the cellar."
Without a sommelier proper, they rely on their wine consultant Eric Scheins of new wine company, Terroir & Co, who set up shop around the same time as Colagreco took on Mirazur and who is also ‘swimming against the tide'. Wines that make it onto the list tend to be rare or from small producers, many of whom farm organically.
There's a light smattering of ‘big names' from Bordeaux and not too much of the local Provençal rosé: "People like to drink it here but it doesn't suit Mauro's food which is so subtle. We probably have one ‘gastronomic' rosé that really works here," says Mantis. Thus all 75 wines, with an emphasis on Burgundian and Piemontese wines, are hand-picked, there to suit the cuisine, not for ‘show'. "You want it all at the beginning but it's not possible. You can't tie up your money with stocks of wine."
They've got the name chef, the building, and a plan of action. Next up is redefining Menton for the next generation of diners. "You've got to have balls to open a place like this here," says Mantis. "Locally, people assumed that, because of his name, Mauro was an Italian chef trying his luck on the French market. When they found out he's Argentinian, they said ‘he must be mad'."
Menton's not known as a gastronomic destination. It's best known here as a kind of Eastbourne of the Riviera for the blue rinse and pearls brigade. "It's a like a retirement home on Sunday lunchtimes," smiles Mantis. "But things are changing, with new bars, restaurants and hotels along the coast, and we're proud to be part of that." There are still hangovers from the old Menton, like the lady who comes by every night en route to the beach restaurants to sell flowers to gentlemen to give to their wives, a cultural reference point he enjoys, "We put our foot down to the guy selling lighters though."
And then there's the popular belief to fight against, namely that there's ‘nothing after Monaco' for tourists journeying from France to Italy. "We're the last restaurant before Italy.
People pass through here to cross the border for cheap cigarettes and alcohol. We're the last restaurant in France," sighs Colagreco.
"We'd rather be considered the first."
Mirazur, 30 Avenue Aristide Briand, 06500 Menton, France +33 (0)4 92 41 86 86 mirazur.fr
NICE BUNCH THE STARS OF THE SHOW IN THIS INCOMPARABLE AREA
As boutique as boutique hotels come, this wee place in the bonny village of Saint-Paul de Vence has just five rooms, is open just three months a year and only has 25 covers in the restaurant (where residents get priority booking). Snagging a table is thus a task of almost el Bulli-esque proportions, but this hasn't stopped the creative cuisine making waves locally.
The owners-cumchefs- cum-resident artists do ‘one menu, one price' for €50 with menus changing daily.
Toile Blanche, 826 Chemin de la Pounchounière. 06750 Saint-Paul de Vence, France +33 (0)4 93 32 74 21 toileblanche.com
By rights, Dominique Le Stanc, an Alsace-born chef formerly of the swanky Hotel Negresco, should have no business running this legendary 20-cover Niçoise bistro with its rickety wooden stools and blackboard specials. His six months of training with the former owners of 40 years, the Giustis, must have stood him in good stead: La Merenda is still the place-to-go for food lovers on the Riviera.
Try regional favourites like Pâtes au Pistou, Tarte de Menton and Tripe. The no credit cards, no reservations rule still applies.
La Merenda, 4 rue de la Terrasse, 06000 Nice, France, no phone, no website.
Look out the window and the view's pure Riviera: the big blue, starry nights, speedboats and the rest. Look inwards, and you get the views of three large plasma screens and a live stream from chef Jean-Marc Delacourt's kitchen. The high tech, Delacourt's slightly ‘Star Trekky' chef's whites and the global wine list with references from Slovenia to Thailand aren't for everybody, but the weeklychanging, Riviera cuisine (Saint Pierre with Orange Flower Oil or Strawberries and Raspberries in a White Chocolate Soup) will shut up his detractors.
1 place Marcel Eusebi, 06950 Falicon, France +33 (0)4 93 84 94 57 parcoursliverestaurant.com
Another gastronomic address in Menton is Paris- Rome, the seaside town's other Michelin-starred restaurant at the Paris-Rome Hotel. The Castellana family have been running this cosy, traditional restaurant on the road from Paris to Rome since 1908. The menu walks the line between classical Provençal and Italian influences and innovative, modern touches like Filet of Charolais Beef "Rossini, Version 2007" or Canon of Rodez Lamb with Deconstructed Caponata and Basil Caramel.
Hotel Restaurant Paris-Rome, 79 Avenue Porte de France, 06500 Menton, France, +33 (0)4 93 35 73 45 paris-rome.com
On the menu?
Slow-cooked Egg, Quinoa, Asparagus and Parmesan; Fricasée of Cod Tripe; Saddle of Sisteron Lamb, Pine nut Purée, Glazed Carrots and Wood Sorrel; Ste Anne d'Auray Pigeon, Polenta with Coffee and Coconut Emulsion; Meadowsweet Foam, Shiso Jelly and Pineapple Sorbet.