The Cannes Film Festival celebrates its 50th anniversary in 1997. The old girl is looking awfully spry, not a day over 29. Sure, there will be huge crowds in the South of France, bust-baring starlets, duelling cocktail parties and movie star gridlock, but we still have to eat, n'est pas? The '97 exchange rate of French Franc to U. S. Dollar is somewhat better than last year, so restaurants and cafes won't seem quite so expensive. Maybe a Coke and an expresso can be sipped on the Carlton terrace for less than $25.00. Maybe.
The red Michelin guide was released in the Spring and there's a new star (*) in Cannes. Just to refresh, the Michelin is the most influential restaurant guide in the world, a veritable Bible to foodies everywhere. It lists hundreds of places, but rates only the very best restaurants of France with one *, two ** or three *** stars. There are presently fewer than 20 three *** star establishments in the entire country.
In the not too distant past, there were several three *** star establishments within easy access of Cannes. L'Oasis in La Napoule, La Bonne Auberge in Antibes, Moulin De Mougins in Mougins and Louis XV in Monte Carlo. No more. They have all either closed, changed chefs, been sold to the Japanese and/or been demoted to fewer stars. To lose one's hard-earned stars is a chef's worst nightmare. Rumors abound about troubled cooks leaping from rooftops or from 6th floor windows after a drop in their Michelin rating. The biggest scandal in these parts this year is the further loss of star power by Roger Verge at Moulin de Mougins. He had the coveted three *** star rating for ages. Two years ago he lost one * star (too much moonlighting was the rumor) and this year has been stripped of yet another. Quel horreurs! Thank goodness the Moulin is a one-story building. As the ratings go down, the Verge prices go up. 1997 menus are priced at 615 and 740 FF! You could go for broke and order a la carte, if the Sultan of Brunei is treating, that is.
The brand new one * star in town is the Villa des Lys at the Hotel Majestic. Finally they can compete with the dining rooms at the other de luxe hotels in town. La Belle Otero at the Carlton has two ** stars, as does La Palme d'Or at the Martinez. The new chef at Villa des Lys worked under the legendary Georges Blanc in Vonnas so he should know a thing or deux about sauce pan magic. There are fixed-price menus at 240, 390 or 460 FF. Not exactly giveaway prices, but comparable to the other luxury establishments on the Croisette. These places all serve classically prepared French cuisine, but have yet to knock my socks off. Maybe this is the year.
The other reliable (and less costly) Cannes restaurants seem to be growing older with grace too. Still a favorite is the teeny tiny Le Maschou up the rue St. Antoine in the old section of town. Things don't change much here, thank goodness. A big basket of fresh vegetables, sliced ham and crunchy toast precede the main course of fowl, lamb or beef. Nothing fancy, but the cave-like place is filled to overflowing with happy diners every night. The Restaurant Armenian on the Croissette continues to pile the middle Eastern delicacies (from eggplant caviar to mint ravioli, meatballs and various shish kebabs) onto your crowded table. The decor is tasteful Las Vegas, but that hardly detracts from the exotic fare. The Cote Jardin (12 av. St. Louis) is a small, established bistro with moderate prices (180 FF menu) that has been recommended by foodie friends (thanks Peter) from Los Angeles. Another long time favorite is Maitre-Pierre at 6 rue M. Joffre where the ratio of Franc to food quality is unbeatable. Roger Ebert, a guy who obviously appreciates fine dining, is another Maitre-Pierre fan giving two forks up. Mere Besson at 13 rue Freres Pradignac is insanely popular, but recently the kitchen has not been up to past glories. I still remember with great fondness, however, Mere's punchy aioli. That's the tangy garlic-laced mayonnaise served with steamed fish and vegetables, which is still a weekly special. My mere never made anything like that. Her mayo was strictly Hellman's.
If it's sunny along the Cote d'Azur, the lucky lunchers not already ensconced at one of the many beach bistros, will head for the hills. It's hard to top a mid-day meal at the legendary Colombe d'Or in St. Paul de Vence. One must start with the famous house appetizer that contains a dizzying number of dishes from local olives to smoked fishes to a dandy charcuterie. Hopefully, the sunshine on the glorious terrace will hold and you can spot Arielle Dombasle munching a radish at a nearby table. If it rains, sit inside and gaze at a modern art collection envied by MOMA. The Relais and Chateaux property Hotel Le St. Paul is just up the street and offers another civilized lunch respite from the hordes of daytrippers that clog the narrow alleyways of St. Paul.
Biggest gastronomic news in this neighborhood is the return of Jacques Maximin. The erratic, but sometimes brilliant, chef gained two ** stars at the opulent Chantecler at the Hotel Negresco in Nice. He left a few years back and opened his own place in an old theater. Dramatic, yes, but the curtain quickly came down. Next he moved to a place in the hills, but that restaurant affiliation was also short-lived. Now he has settled down at his own villa near Vence. This one smells like a winner. The Michelin has granted Maximin two ** stars the first time the place that bears his name has been listed in the guide. No mean feat. Seating is limited, so reserve.
Somewhat further afield is another two ** star newcomer. La Bastide Saint-Antoine is scenically situated outside Grasse and the mastermind in the kitchen is Jacques Chibois. You may remember him from the Royal Gray in Cannes. Set among olive trees, this 18th-century villa graciously offers magical (and expensive) dinners for 380-550 FF. No doubt, we've all paid more for less.
Last year, thanks to the adventuresome Sydney Levine of Film Finders, a lucky group of diners trekked west to Chez Bruno, a highly sophisticated country restaurant some 45-50 minutes by autoroute from the Croisette, near the town of Lorgues. A fabulous meal was had by all and what a bargin (by Cannes standards) at 270 FF. The larger-than-life chef, Bruno Clement, recites the day's specialties table-side and then dazzles you with his sensual creations. In the same neighborhood is located another refined surprise. Les Gorges de Pennafort is an elegant smallish hotel in the middle of nowhere (between the towns of Callas and Muy) with a fabulous restaurant on the second floor. The dazzling scenery, featuring the dramatic gorges themselves, begins just across the road. A haven of peace and quiet, you may be very well tempted to move into one of the comfy rooms of Pennafort and leave the craziness of Cannes at a distance.
Getting back to the Mediterranean, lets talk bouillabaisse. The Cannes-goer's favorite spot remains the legendary Tetou in Golfe Juan. They still don't take credit cards and the fish soup costs an arm and a fin, even if you ask them to hold the lobster. This beach place is the chicest roadside diner ever and is worth the franc outlay. Check out the designer frocks and precious jewels on the stylish ladies removing the bones from the fish at your table. Make this a someone-else's-expense-account evening. Just beyond, on the other side of the Cap d'Antibes peninsula, is the marvelous Bacon. It is barely less costly than Tetou, but its bouillabaisse is its rival. The incredibly fresh fish is superb too when simply grilled with fennel. A dribble of olive oil over the top and you're in poisson heaven. Save room for Bacon's frozen nougatine dessert, as you gaze dreamily across the bay to the lights of Antibes. No wonder they call it Baie des Anges. Another recommended seafood place is the one * star La Reserve Loulou in Cros de Cagnes, a bit further on in the direction of Nice. Also getting positive feedback (so to speak) on the restaurant known as Bruno et Judy in La Napoule. Only a five minute drive westward along the coast, it is worth investigating.
Cannes, 1997. Hopefully, it will be a banner year for movies. Even if the competition films turn out to be stinkier than last month's langouste, the star gazing on the Croisette and in Riviera restaurants will be better than ever. Happy 50th.
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