I first learned of Menton, a small resort town on the French Riviera, through a dessert.
It was a cold December night in Paris, and the biscuit molleux I ordered at Michel Rostang was kissed with the sunny scent of lemons from that city on the Côte d’Azur. I remember that meal in the 17eme well, heavy and rich, paved thick with truffles. And that dessert threw back the heavy curtain of winter with its light and bright fragrance from the south.
At the time I didn’t think I’d ever have cause to visit Menton, a faraway shelf of citrus groves by the sea. But in September of this year, I found myself in a little roadster speeding towards it from Monte-Carlo on a winding ledge along the Mediterranean so breathtaking that I made the drive almost every day I was down there just to experience its thrilling scenes over, and over again. My destination: Mirazur.
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Just this side of the French-Italian border – the border post is literally next door to the restaurant – Mirazur is a confluence of cultures.* The chef, Mauro Colagreco, is Argentinian by birth, Calabrian and Basque by blood. He has traveled all over Latin America, the Caribbean, and spent his formative years as a cook in the Michelin-starred kitchens of France: Loiseau, Martin (le Grand Véfour), Ducasse, among others.**
But it is the influence of Passard (of l’Arpege), under whom he cooked for more than two years, that you will find most on his plates: blocks of colors, clean and natural flavors, with a strong emphasis on terroir – the land and sea that surrounds him.
He has a garden not far from the restaurant, where he gets much of his produce. And, of course, the Mediterranean, just steps away from his kitchen, is a trove of treasures, like esperdenyes, which he served, lightly cooked with nothing more than garlic puree and two silken scallion stalks.
But what I remember the most from my two meals at Mirazur was the citrus scent of lemons, for which Menton is known. Whether real or perceived, it seemed infused into everything – the olive oil***, the food, and the air, where it commingled with the brine of the sea to create a fresh, breezy breath. I left the place with the smell of it in my nose, on my mind, and in my memory.
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I had dinner at Mirazur first, and then returned for lunch the next day. Both times, I put myself in the kitchen’s hands, giving the chef carte blanche.****
What I love about Colagreco’s cooking is that it’s unafraid of flavor. I think a lot of “new natural” or “terroir” cooking so worships the pristine, unadulterated state of produce that it’s loathe to do much with it. Yes, the Platonic vegetable, in its natural state, can be immensely satisfying with nothing more. But imagine the synergy that can be created when they’re coupled and gathered, their flavor intensified and distilled with heat and time. Colagreco allows for both, holding up a prism to his ingredients and casting a spectrum of flavor – shades of intensity – from both land and sea.
In one meal, for example, there was an oyster wrapped in an opaque gelée, clean and crisp, followed later by a filet of sole atop a hearty stew of chickpeas and squid, rich and bold. Both were unmistakably of the sea, but whereas one was a refreshing dip, the other was moody and deep.
At another meal, there was a collection of cucumbers, with parsnip, shiso, and yellow tomatoes. Delicate and light, this was a sunny day in the garden. Later, there arrived a tranche of suckling pig with a crackling crust sided by polenta and roasted porcini, a forage through the woods.
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Highlights from my first meal included a simple carpaccio of gascon, dotted with raspberry purée, and a forest of wild mushrooms and herb sponges with Parmesan espuma and warm quinoa risotto underfoot. This second dish was comforting and rich, intense with umami.
There was also a stunning slice of smoked veal, which reminded me very much of the smoked veal I had earlier this year at l’Arpege, in terms of both quality and juiciness, as well as the restraint in smoking. The meat arrive orbited by a swirling constellation of black garlic, root vegetables and confit aubergine so silky it was spoonable. This was summer at its finest.
And for dessert, there was a lovely green tomato gazpacho, served with green apple sorbet and yogurt, a tangy and refreshing reminder that fruits and vegetables can live together.
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While my first meal at Mirazur was very good, the second one was stellar. It seemed clearer, more focused, and yet, less-scripted.
This second day, there arrived a ginormous slab of foie gras, wearing a beautifully pressed, checkered suit of grill marks. It came with textures of beet – raw, liquified, and roasted. Visually, the contrast was stark, the lines clear, but in the mouth, the transition between liver and beet was elusive, mercurial. There was only the crunch of salt crystals to help punctuate the difference.
Dorade royale came sheathed in papery, crisp skin, the plate painted with a stunning rainbow of summer colors: bright-green verveine and lime sauce contrasted by the cool, pastels of peaches, both cubed and puréed. The peach purée had the consistency of gel – like an emulsification – but was entirely, and intensely peach, more fragrance than flavor. This was a magnificent dish.
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Saffron and orange blossom are two flavors I generally find overdone, and the first dessert at this second meal seemed to know this about me. Both the saffron creme and orange blossom sponges were subtly scented, merely accents to what was otherwise a beautiful dish focused on orange sorbet and almond foam.
Fruit and vegetable reunited once again to end this meal in a plate of mini carrot ice cream cakes ringed by melon gazpacho. It’s amazing how color and flavor can be aligned, confused, and fused. Like the foie gras and beets that came before it, this orange-colored coupling was seamless, the marriage unlikely, yet obvious all at once. The movement between carrot and melon was fluid, at times, almost unnoticeable. But here was a tender, juicy melon ball, to enchant you with its flavor and texture. And then a crunch of carrot, a chip that was like the carrot version of haw flakes, to remind you of its sweet charms, too. The dialogue between the two was amazing, beautiful, delicious.
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Were there missteps? A few, but very minor ones, all on the fringes. Given how humid it was, there were a lot of chips – like ones made out of celery root and beet, both amuse bouches, and a sweet rice chip, a petit four – that weren’t quite crisp. On the second day, there was a green tea macaron, pretty and perfect in form, but stale and chewy, perhaps also a victim of the wet, seaside air (though this doesn’t explain why the ginger financier next to it was dry).
But everything else was pretty great, especially the bread. In addition to a basket of rolls and thin sheets of crunchy pain du Sarde (Sardinian flatbread – these did manage to stay crispy), there was a beautiful blossom of potato bread, which arrived fresh from the oven, fluffy and hot, with a silky pour of Colagreco’s lemony olive oil on the side.
Service at lunch was no more or less correct than the night before, it being more friendly and warm than snappy and straight. The front of the house here seemed unusually young, but eager. Most of the servers were bilingual, if not multi-lingual. The tables around me were seated with both French and Italians, with some Spaniards and Americans mixed in as well.
Did I mention that the view from this restaurant is simply stunning? To one side, you have Italy along the cliffs, to the other, the sprawl of Menton, tumbling from the mountains to a small harbor below. And from my seat, I had a view of it all.
In January of this year, The New York Times named Mirazur one of ten restaurants worthy of a plane ride. For my second meal there, I wouldn’t hesitate to agree with that rather ballsy recommendation (but M. Wells? benu?). It is, undoubtedly, one of the most magical places and meals I’ve ever had, and I do urge you to consider it as detour, if you’re ever in that region (that should tell you how many Michelin stars I think it’s worth).
30 Avenue Aristide Briand
06500 Menton, France
+33 04 92 41 86 86
* On my second visit, I parked up the street in Italy and crossed back over the border on foot to Mirazur. If you don’t have access to a car, you can take a short train ride to Menton from Monte-Carlo (or Nice, further afield).
** For more, read this interview he gave Eater just days after I ate at Mirazur.
*** Colagreco has his own label of olive oil, which is infused with ginger and lemons.
**** Actually, I had planned on ordering a shorter tasting menu at lunch, so there wouldn’t be any overlap with the carte blanche dishes I had the night before. On a whim, I asked my server how much of that day’s carte blanche would differ from the one I had the night before. She looked at me, astounded: But, why would we serve you the same menu twice? Of course, it would be entirely different for you.