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Finding Gourmet Food on Riviera

August 30, 1987|ROSE DOSTI | Times Staff Writer

CANNES, France — When you come to the Cote d'Azur you'll find a few places to eat that are sure to express you to the top floor of food heaven.

Make a point of an evening in Nice (train or cab will get you there from most any point on the coast).

You'll find the Chantecler, the two-star restaurant in the Hotel Negresco tres expensive, but worth the price, even with the bombardment of snobbishness from the maitre d' down to the busboys.

You'll probably enjoy talking to the chef, Jacques Maximin , if you can talk the maitre d' into letting him out of the kitchen.

"The chef is not permitted to talk to the guests, Madame," said the maitre d'.

But Maximin did emerge, looking far more disheveled and soiled than I remembered him at an interview in Los Angeles a few weeks before.

In Los Angeles, Maximin displayed a hautiness in keeping with his reputation as a Napoleon in the kitchen. A lion. In Nice he looked more like an overworked busboy. Luckily, he did not recognize me and I was able to conduct a typically brief and inane conversation that did not give away my alarm or compromise me professionally.

I found the Negresco dining rooms far less illustrious than Maximin's cooking, but you can't have everything; not even in France. You can, with confidence, however, order anything on the menu and enjoy every bite.

You'll get somewhat of a preview of Maximin's style if you visit Hotel Meridien in Newport Beach, where Maximin acts as one of the consulting chefs responsible for supplying the Meridien with a steady flow of proteges fresh out of French kitchens.

Several Small Courses

I had a fixed-price menu degustation (several small courses), that you probably won't find available this season.

The Swiss chard mousse, a layered Bavarian (gelatin) dessert specialty of Nice, stands out in my mind. But then, so does la terrine de cochon de lait et son boudine d'oignons blancs , a terrine of pistachios, sausages and sauteed apples; ratatouille de crustaces (a ratatouille of red and yellow peppers and seafood in natural juices), and une rognonnade de lapereau en polenta (polenta topped with a rabbit stew) and soupe d'oranges a la meringue (got that?) .

I had driven up from Cannes, where I was staying at the Hotel Martinez, which overlooks colored umbrellas lining the rim of the beach like a Pointillist School painting, and the magnificent expanse of the azure sea.

I had a meal at the hotel's La Palme d'Or restaurant that was as good as the one served at the Negresco, and was less expensive. Somehow the people were nicer at La Palme d'Or, perhaps because Richard Duvauchelle, the hotel director and one of the friendliest Frenchmen you'll ever meet on either side of the ocean, sets the mood.

Duvauchelle has lived and worked in the United States, so he knows our ways. He also knows the Cote d'Azur from point to point, so ask to meet him if you are dining there.

Make a point, also, of meeting chef Christian Willer from Alsace, a Gault et Millaut Cle d'Or (golden key award) recipient on the climb. His smoked salmon mousse with almonds and red mullet with olives, lobster cassoulet served with tiny melon balls, foie gras with gooseberry topping, pigeon wrapped in spinach, gorgeous bread basket and fabulous cheese tray, were as memorable as the food at Negresco's.

Perhaps one of the most charming of all meals was at La Ferme de Mougins, a hideaway farmhouse in Mougins, set like a jewel in the hillside. What a place. The food, by 28-year-old Patrick Henriroux, was outstanding. Henriroux received his Gault et Millau Cle d'Or award this year and deserves it.

Started With Lobster

We started with a lobster tail with tiny balls of avocado swimming in a cream sauce and served with greens on the side. Grilled sea bass was served with zucchini blossom pouches stuffed with duxelles (mushroom-wine sauce) . We would have happily stopped with the second dish, but it went on, as do menus degustation with a third, fourth, fifth and sixth, ending with Grand Marnier ice cream topped with fresh wild strawberries.

I especially enjoyed a watercress salad surrounded with cheese butter balls, which you can spread on toast. That was the fifth course. The fourth was simply baby lamb chops (two of them crossing swords) with morel mushrooms. The third, asparagus in a cream sauce with grilled sweetbreads. I mean heavenly.

Owner Henri Sauvanet talked us into a 1984 Sancerre rouge from Le Close Du Ray, a wine gaining in popularity in France and rare in the United States. I had tasted the white Sancerre but never red. We tried it again recently at Le Duc, a fish restaurant in Paris. White or red, grab it if you find it.

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