It’s been a long time (over a year) since I have been able to indulge in the combination of several of the pleasures in life that I absolutely took for granted before the pandemic: travelling to foreign climes, seeking out the very best restaurants, and drinking exceptional wine. I hope I’m right when I say that I won’t be taking these things for granted in future.
It is also important in rediscovering these pleasures to acknowledge the privilege that I have in being able to do these things, both from a material aspect – that I can afford to do so; but also from a circumstantial aspect – that my situation allows me to do these things. Many are either unable to do these things, or their current situation does not allow them to. I hope that this blog will be seen as allowing people to enjoy vicariously these experiences and will not be seen as gloating or show-boating, instead a celebration of the joy of travelling and indulging our more epicurean side.
It was recently the occasion of my wife and I’s 10 year wedding anniversary (hurrah!). We were supposed to have been travelling to Japan to celebrate this momentous time, but for obvious reasons we re-planned. The south of France was a more-than-fitting alternative. We were keen to do some walking in the French Alps and had attempted twice during this 18 month annus horribilis to make this trip, but had been unable to do so due to various travel restrictions. So, with the regulations finally allowing to make the trip, we decided to treat ourselves to a few days in the beautiful seaside resort town of Nice before we headed into the mountains for some fresh air and serious hiking. For our anniversary dinner we wanted somewhere special, so we headed to the beautiful Le Negresco hotel, situated on the Promenades des Anglais, for dinner at their one-starred restaurant – Le Chantecler.
The hotel is absolutely beautiful as you will see from the photos above. It makes for a very impressive structure, dominating the sea front (in a good way), but inside features a really intruiging balance of very traditional decor (such as in the dining room for Le Chantecler, where noble portraits hang on wood-panelled walls and woodwork that dates back to the 18th century) with spectacular and modern reception rooms (see above right – check out that chandelier!). The head chef of Le Chantecler is Virginie Basselot, one of France’s culinary rising stars.
“Livre des Vins”
As we were celebrating we started off the meal with a half bottle of Louis Roederer’s NV Brut Premier, which was a rich and decadent wine. It had lovely biscuity, briochey textures and a fresh and fragrant mouth-feel. I don’t remember having had this particular wine before, but I really enjoyed it – perfectly made for sipping as we perused the menu. We decided to go for their five course “Le Chant des Saveurs” (trans: “the song of flavours”) selection; having not been used to tasting menus recently we thought that their eight course surprise menu would be too much for us to manage (looking back in hindsight, I think we made the right choice!). The bubbles also gave me time to look over the wine list which they call their “book of wine” – I think you can see why!
There were the usual preludes where our bouche was “amused” by various delicious morsels and clever concoctions to start (below left). An honourable mention here should go to one particular bite which was a rather ingenious sphere suspended on a stick that when you bit into released a cold liquid that contained all the flavours of a Ratatouille – fresh tomato, courgette, aubergine, pepper. You really did feel like you could taste them all. Mind-blowing stuff.
It was time now to get into the menu for real though. We started with a Tartare of Mediterranean Sea Bass and Normandy Oysters served with Lemon Cream and Sologne Caviar (above right). This was a simply superb dish. The tartare itself was the highlight as you would expect – the oysters and sea bass had been delicately prepared and gave a lovely balance of meaty fishiness and salty freshness. The addition of the caviar on top obviously gave it a little decadence, which I loved, but the clever bit was the addition of the lemon cream which gave a bit of sharpness and bite to the dish as you ate it. There is a bit of a theme in the presentation of several of the dishes in the use of plates where sauces / oils etc. are used to adorn the dish – here there was a sauce of basil that also really lifted the dish, but also its presentation with the striking jade-green dots giving the plate some vibrancy.
Next up was the only dish on the menu that we didn’t really get on with. “Veggie Ham” served with a Herbal Sauce and Capers. This was supposed to be a very clever dish – it used a pickled watermelon to appear as an ersatz ham. It didn’t taste, smell or look like ham. There was an interesting, slightly pungent sauce alongside it that we found out was made from jalapeño. I think I can kind of see this being a take on a ham and mustard vibe – but I think this was a case of trying too hard to be clever. It didn’t float my boat at all – fortunately the rest of the menu very much did!
Back to the sea now (which we could see from our table!) with a Pearly Cod served with Fondant Pepper Artichokes, Japanese Pearls (Tapioca) and a Lemon Balm Butter. This was the best dish of the lot in my book. The cod itself was simply divine. It actually managed to feel like it wasn’t cooked at all, it was so delicate and succulent, and had so much flavour in it. However the joy was increased by fishing below the fish (apologies…) where there were buried treasures aplenty. The usage of tapioca pearls was ingenious and really added to both the texture and sensation of the meal. In addition to this, you had this glorious lemon balm butter which simultaneously added to the decadent nature of the dish and also gave it a bit of a kick with the addition of the lemon balm. The little flowers on the plate, also added to the flavour palate – as well as looking the part – they gave a little touch of exotic richness.
But what about the wine??
You’re probably thinking by this point: “surely they’ve not gotten this far into the meal still on that half bottle of Champagne?”, and you’d be correct. We had moved by this point to a wine that I was very excited about. As a full on wine geek, you can probably imagine that I’d looked over the wine list in great detail in advance of us actually arriving at the restaurant. I wanted a special, memorable bottle and one bottle jumped out at me: a 1995 Louis Jadot Batard-Montrachet Grand Cru. Now this was only a half bottle, but this intrigued me even more. Half bottles tend to show their ageing qualities earlier than full bottles, so the opportunity to try a properly top class white burgundy and see what happens when it ages, was too good an opportunity to miss. Also, the price worked (full sized bottles of Grand Cru Batard-Montrachet would have required me to have to remortgage my house…) so I was all in for this.
I asked for the biggest wine glasses that they had and got to savouring the wine! It did not disappoint – on the nose it had developed those beautifully brioche-like notes that you get with aged Chardonnay. I also got some hints of camomile and vanilla. Overall the effect was very heady and enchanting. When tasting the wine was rich and decadent, it had golden red apple notes, but with some pastry/biscuity richness. After an initial burst of flavour, the mid- to end-palate was overtaken by an overall sense of pretty floral and light notes. The finish went on for at least two minutes and was mesmerising, however it wasn’t in a blockbuster “look at me!” kind of way, but in a really classy and elegant way. I think it’s fair to say that I was extremely happy with this wine – it also paired with the cod like an absolute dream.
Back to the food now…
Our last savoury dish was the Local Organic Poultry “Terre de Toine” served with Steamed Camargue Rice, Tandoori and Stuffed Zucchini. We were presented with the dish which had been baked inside a pastry crust on a bed of rice and prepared with tandoori spices. Now, in the UK we are very familiar with tandoori spices and I feel that as a result the effect here they were looking for as something a bit exotic and different didn’t quite translate. However, the dish itself was very clever and well-constructed. The chicken was beautifully cooked and the spices gave it a nice lift. Cleverly, the chefs had included the chicken skin which had crisped up nicely on top of the chicken to give it extra texture. The stuffed courgette flower was also filled with some of the chicken flesh and chicken skin, which worked very well. I really liked the plate and thought it was cleverly done, even if the result wasn’t quite the novel sensation that they were hoping for.
For the dessert, I went for a Champsoleil Olive Oil served with Local Orange Blossom Water Crémeaux and Fine Leaves of Venezuelan Chocolate. I was really intrigued by what looked like a very savoury sweet course. As you’ll see from the photo, the dish was once again presented absolutely beautifully – and I was very glad that I chose this dessert from the menu (there was a choice between a rhubarb dessert, which Isabelle opted for). The leaf itself was as delicate as could be – the waiter admitted that the break more of these than they successfully plate! – but it had a wonderful richness to it. The olive oil and orange scented water were absolutely genius as they gave a beautiful floral and fruity lilt, whilst also having a richness to it, giving the dish some depth. The little congratulatory message from the kitchen was another lovely touch.
Well there you go. A suitably decadent way to celebrate 10 years of being the luckiest man around. Also to celebrating being able to go to nice places, eat nice food and drink nice wine.
Have you been able to get away yet? If not, where are you looking forward to going when you can? Let me know in the comments!