A decade ago, when I packed my bags for Nice, my Parisian friends pooh-poohed the move. The blue-rinse coast had little attraction for young sensation-seekers, particularly when it came to eating well and cheaply. But now a new tranche of chefs are bringing something more playful to the Riviera’s restaurants, where Michelin fine dining has traditionally held sway. These days it is much easier to persuade visitors to leap on a shuttle for a weekend of market shopping and dining out.
At Flaveur, set a few streets back from the Promenade des Anglais in Nice, joint head chefs and brothers Gaël and Mickaël Tourteaux are offering something innovative and refreshingly affordable. The current €26 lunch menu features sole with sesame bonbons, a pudding bowl of steak tartare with panisse chips, and a glass of local Côtes de Provence. They are not shy of unusual ingredients: another lunch dish features combawa (a citrus from Ile de Réunion), Australian finger lime and Buddha’s Hand, a Thai fruit that can be grated over fish.
Since the Riviera is a Michelin star-studded culinary training ground, chefs habitually hop from kitchen to kitchen soaking up ideas. The Tourteaux brothers already have “between 12 and 15 years of top kitchen experience” and are keen to beat their own culinary path.
This experimental ethos is echoed at the Sea Sens restaurant in nearby Cannes. Created by another set of Southern French Michelin-starred brothers, twins Jacques and Laurent Pourcel, it resides on the roof terrace of the brand new Five Hotel. It also offers smashing set lunches from €19.
But the star of the show at Sea Sens is undoubtedly pastry chef Jérôme de Oliveira. The 27-year-old is not only devilishly handsome, he is also World Pastry Champion, as demonstrated by desserts such as chocolate-covered pear layered with gold leaf and stuffed with cream and popping candy.
Why would a graduate of the prestigious Ecole Nationale Supé́rieure de la Pâtisserie pick Cannes over Paris? “There is a sense of liberty on the Côte d’Azur,” explains de Oliveira, who jacked in his job in the Plaza Athéné́e pastry kitchen to migrate south. “In your twenties and thirties you can still be considered a success.”
In early April this year, de Oliveira opened a gourmet patisserie tearoom, Intuitions by J, on the ground floor of the Hotel Five. He claims that Cannes is ready for orange blossom and yuzu cake, and salted toffee sweeties: “Visitors to the Riviera are very worldly. They have sampled the best restaurants in their home cities of London, Paris, Hong Kong and Shanghai – and they want to push the boundaries on holiday too”.
Down the coast, Patrick Cuissard, 41, arrived as head chef of Colette at the new Hotel Sezz earlier this year. He has already given St-Tropez’s often-faddy culinary scene a well-deserved kick up the backside. Cuissard’s menu was inspired by an early collaboration with Parisian restaurateur Pierre Gagnaire, and has found a ready market in the resort for its offbeat flavours.
Our amuses-bouches included eucalyptus marshmallows and Niçois socca pancake to dip into a tapenade. Shucked oysters followed, unctuous and bathed in a bowl of lavender-infused soya milk. My main mixed red mullet, carrot, coconut and Prosciutto: ingredients that are seldom paired, let alone served as a quad. And service was unpretentious enough to reach over to my wife’s plate and dig into that too.
St Tropez’s Sezz and Cannes’ Sea Sens are naturally cosmopolitan, although back in Nice, Tourteaux claims his customers are still “90 per cent French”. But that won’t last for long. In 2011 the first reviews of Flaveur appeared in Guide Michelin, Gault Millau and local restaurant bible Guide Gantié. The Riviera’s kitchen apprentices are rewriting the local culinary map.
25 rue Gubernatis, Nice
+33 (0) 493 62 53 95, www.flaveur.net
Jérôme de Oliveira at the Five Hotel
1 rue Notre Dame, Cannes
+33 (0) 463 36 05 05, www.five-hotel-cannes.com
Hotel Sezz, route des Salins, Saint Tropez
+33 (0) 494 55 31 55, www.hotelsezz-sainttropez.com