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RESTAURANTS : Why You Won't Want to Go to the Best Place in Nice

July 31, 1988|ALAN DAVIDSON | Davidson, according to the "Official Foodie Handbook," is the leader of the British Scholar Foodies.

NICE, France — Gastronomic pilgrims know that the Mecca of Nice is the Restaurant Chantecler in the famed Hotel Negresco. Two stars and right on the sea front! I put on a tie and went there for dinner with my wife and two friends.

One of the friends had already met chef Jacques Maximin, who at once remembered her. Small, wiry and dynamic, he streaked out of his kitchen like the meteor he is and said that he had worked out a special menu for us and would come and talk later (which he did, for an hour). Better and better. Meanwhile, to work, first on the prefatory tidbit which the waiter brought: a small new potato which had been largely hollowed out and stuffed with ratatouille-- one large mouthful each, but of course in these august surroundings we made it three small ones.

Meanwhile, I looked around at the other diners. An uninspiring sight. Frankly, they looked dead from the waist up and dead from the waist down. Languid motions of eating and blinkings of their eyes showed that they were in fact alive, not stuffed dummies, but one had to peer hard to establish this.

The other thing you could tell about them was that they were almost all foreigners and all wealthy. And you could say that they suited the decor of the restaurant, which (on a charitable interpretation) is an amusing parody of the Nouveau Riche style, complete with reproduction chandeliers and a motley collection of paintings of cocks.

On to the next four courses, and an insight into the inventiveness of Maximin. One item, marinated filets of red mullet resting on the livers, was excellent; it had a fine, clear, accentuated taste of red mullet. Most items, however, were clearly intended to surprise, and did, though our capacity for being surprised waned as the meal progressed. Most had a slice of truffle on top, but none of us could detect any taste of truffle.

The wine waiter was a jolly fellow and proposed that the ladies (I don't take wine) start with an intriguing white wine of the region. After a few sips, the ladies were intrigued in an unexpected way; they wondered if the wine had been corked, and politely asked the wine waiter to taste it himself. He didn't, but swirled it around in a goblet and took ostentatious sniffs before declaring that it was perfectly normal, that the heat of the sun in Provence "ripened the grapes very quickly and produced effects with which the ladies might be unfamiliar," etc. The ladies, who collectively knew a lot about wine, sipped some more, unhappily, then desisted. The wine waiter never came back--we had to order red wine, far too late in the meal, from someone else.

Meanwhile, we worked on, interested in such things as an unusual five-layered slab of polenta and lobster meat, awarding really good marks to about one dish in four.

But it was hard to realize, in these almost funereal and hushed surroundings, that we were in the vivid Mediterranean city of Nice. Two nights earlier my wife and I had eaten outdoors at a quite ordinary Nicois restaurant in the Old Town, enchanted merely to be there. Lights bathed the worn stucco of the houses in a thrilling rose-amber light. On every balcony someone was perched. Up and down the street went an endless procession of old ladies taking their shopping home, artists carrying canvases, lovers embracing. Laughter echoed up the narrow street from the square at its end.

Nice, it seems, has its own local restaurant rating system, which pays no attention to stars in restaurant guides. On the day of our departure we had lunch at La Merenda, the only place in Nice where it's really difficult to secure a seat. Monsieur and Madame Giusti have a "full" sign permanently placed on the door. They have no phone. You have to go in at least one day ahead of time, making clear by your facial expression that you have seen the "full" sign and are not expecting a table at once.

This is the last place listed by the Michelin people, no star, just one place setting. And it was for me the climax of the visit. Imagine one small rectangular room, giving directly onto the street. The front three quarters of it are taken up with a narrow aisle leading back between two rows of small tables (seating: 20); the rear quarter by an ingeniously designed kitchen.

The other people enjoying lunch--and I mean enjoying--are 100% alive, voluble, mysterious.

The food is uncomplicated, delicious; a typical Nicois blend of Italian and Provencal. Salami or coppa; cold ratatouille; pates au pistou (pasta with haunting basil-flavored pesto); fresh sardines stuffed with an herby mixture; lentilles et saucisses (lentils and country sausages); mesclun salad; raspberries with cream and so on. No dish over 50 francs, most much less.

As a seafood specialist, I especially relished the stuffed sardines, the best I can recall eating. M. Giusti goes to the market early every morning. If the sardines do not meet his exacting standard, this item will not be on the menu.

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