Our wine correspondent Jim Walker continues his wining and dining ways in southern France and, in the process, discovers that some stars can be illusionary. Read on for all the delicious details.

Sébastien Perinetti and Elmahdi Mobarik of Le Canon restaurant

In my last Gentleman’s Portion post, Noshing in Nice is Nice, n’est-ce pas? I described a few dining experiences that my wife Hélène and I enjoyed during a recent visit to Nice. Here are some more gustatory glimpses into the care and feeding of your frequently thirsty and famished wine correspondent.

Le Canon: It was yet another perfect day in Nice, about 23°C and gloriously sunny. Hélène and I had decided to heed the advice of our good friend Hugh Oddie and sample the charms of a Michelin one-star restaurant. We searched the Internet for just such an establishment and settled on the nearby Le Canon. The walk over was but two blocks, making it easy to arrive on time for our 12:15 reservation. We had learned that Sébastien Perinetti was the manager and made the wine selections while Elmahdi Mobarik was the chef. We looked forward to sampling the fruits of their combined efforts.

It was a small, charming place with room for maybe 30 diners. About 10 patrons preceded us and the place was almost full by 13:00. Here’s what Madame and I both settled on:

  • Fregola sarda aux sanguins du pays, Parmesan de montagne;
  • Épaule d’agneau de l’Aveyron confite, coucous d’épeautre bio, courge marina di choggia; and
  • Tarte Bourdalous aux poires de saluzzo, glace au fromage blanc.
The inviting interior of Le Canon

You can bet that I needed help interpreting the menu. The starter was comprised of a modest number of wild mushrooms scattered on little, round bits of pasta in a tangy broth replete with superb Parmesan cheese. Hélène loved it. I thought it was pretty good. It was accompanied by a glass of truly yummy 2015 Chateau Le Grand Verdus Grande Réserve white Bordeaux made entirely from Semillon grapes plucked from 70-year-old vines and aged in Burgundy oak barrels. Served from a magnum, it was crisp and fruity – a perfect match for the mushroom dish.

The main was the most tender and delicious lamb we have ever had (think duck confit but from a shoulder of lamb instead of duck). The couscous and squash were delightful complements. This was washed down by a 2020 La Roche Buissière ‘Flonflons’ Côtes du Rhône by Pierre, Antoine and Laurence Joly. This organically farmed red wine was a blend of 70 per cent Grenache and 30 per cent Syrah, unfiltered and fermented with natural yeasts. It was fresh and fruity (strawberries, raspberries and cassis) with aromas of Provençal spices. What a salubrious match for the lamb!

The wine service at Le Canon was interesting. Everyone seemed to be having the same wines. The server came around with the bottles and poured. Who were we to say no? They were very well selected.

Dessert was essentially a baked pear surrounded by heavy pastry (I could barely cut it) and what seemed like vanilla ice cream. It was okay but certainly not memorable.

Now at this point I have a confession to make. I am pretty sure that Le Canon was not a one-star Michelin establishment. When I Googled one-star restaurants in Nice, it showed up. But I could find no other reference to that coveted star. Overall, this was a pleasant experience and a fine spot for a relaxed meal. A minor quibble – there was only one server. She was efficient and professional but run off her feet. The prices were very reasonable, well under what one would expect from a Michelin one-star.

We will be on the look out for a real one-star Michelin restaurant the next time we visit Nice.

One of the precipitous laneways in picturesque Saint-Paul-de-Vence

Le Tilleul, Saint-Paul-de-Vence: For those of you familiar with the hilltop town of  Gordes in the Luberon region of southern France, Saint-Paul-de-Vence is much like it, only on steroids. One must be part mountain goat to navigate its precipitous streets with panache.

We set out early one morning with this charming town as our destination. We hopped on the tram towards the Nice airport and got off one stop before. Then we looked for the number 400 bus stop to Saint-Paul and beyond. We thought we knew where it was having gone to Vence, a few kilometres beyond, a couple of years earlier. But it wasn’t there. The stop was there, but not for the 400 bus.

At this juncture, please permit me a wee rant. The French are atrocious when it comes to signage of any sort, kind or description. Take street signs. They might be found high up on a building, or they might not. It hardly matters because the street names seem to change every block or two. Specific building numbers are practically non-existent. But then, when you don’t know what street you are on, what good are building numbers anyway?

Back to our journey to Saint-Paul. Upon seeing us flounder as we searched in vain for the 400 stop, a young lady asked if we needed any help. We explained our predicament. “Oh, they’ve moved it over there across the road.” No sign, no nothing. Merci, mes amis!

The very valuable decorations of La Colombe d’Or

Once on the bus, our ride to Saint-Paul-de-Vence was uneventful. La Colombe d’Or is a very famous restaurant at the entrance to the town. It has been there for a long time. Ages ago, then unknown artists such as Pablo Picasso, Marc Chagall, Henri Matisse, Joan Miro and Alexander Calder frequented the joint and accumulated sizable tabs. The cany owner, Paul Roux accepted their works as payment, some of which still adorn the walls of the restaurant.

We didn’t grace La Colombe d’Or with our presence, selecting instead Le Tilleul (the linden tree) reputed to be one of the finest restaurants in the village. We won’t ague – it was terrific.

We settled in at a somewhat isolated table on the expansive terrace that overlooked the charming countryside. Hélène chose a croque-monsieur infused with truffles, which was the best ham and cheese sandwich either of us have ever had. I settled for a delicate slab of duck foie gras with fig chutney – divine. Both were washed down by that ubiquitous Côte de Provence Rosé. A splendid café gourmand ended a fine repast on a high note.

Afterward, we chuffed our way up and down the picturesque village, astonished to find (apparently) real works by those lads who frequented La Colombe d’Or so long ago. I would have thought they’d all be in galleries, museums or private collections. I did not ask the prices.

Le Tilleul alone is worth the visit to Saint-Paul-de-Vence. And, there is so much more.  

Marché de la Libération bounty

Dining alfresco chez nous: Lest one conclude that Hélène and I spend all our time dining in exotic Niçoise restaurants, permit me to set the record straight.

We began another splendid day in Nice with an early morning stroll over to Avenue Jean-Médecin and then caught a northward tram for three stops to the old train station and our destination, the Marché de la Libération. We had come to the venerable market in search of seafood and other fresh delicacies to accompany a bottle of 2020 Meursault-Genevrières by Michel Bouzereau et Fils that we had purchased a few days prior from Christian Esparza in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence and had decided to have for our lunch that day.

The displays of fresh-caught fish and crustaceans seemed to stretch on forever. We wondered how much went unsold and what they did with the residual bounty. Choosing from all this was a great challenge, but we finally settled on a nice chunk of cabillaud (cod) and six gambas (good-sized shrimp). We also picked up some lettuce, tomatoes, shallots, green onions and a couple of melons.

A divine alfresco lunch chez nous

We trotted back to our rented digs and prepared the feast. The cod was pan-fried with the shallots in butter from Normandy, the shrimp were steamed and a garden salad with fresh Provençal olive oil and balsamic vinegar was prepared. We then set it all up on our patio and dug in. It was scrumptious.

Not so the Meursault-Genevrères! Perhaps we had committed infanticide? It had been suitably chilled and decanted a couple of hours before slurping. It wasn’t bad, mind. More like a village wine. You could tell it was a Meursault, but it was lean, not at all complex and a little too tart for my taste (not at all as described in the above link or how I remembered that first bottle so long ago). And to think it cost as much as each of our restaurant lunches. 

We enjoyed many other memorable meals out on that patio, but I’ll spare you all the delectable details save for one. Not so much for what we ate (it was a classic cassolette), but for the wickedly wonderful wine we drank. It was a 2016 Domaine des Tours, a vin de pays de Vaucluse that our friend and vinous mentor Christian Esparza had given us a few days earlier.

Moi with our marvellous 2016 Domaine des Tours

This was no vin ordinaire. It was produced by the Reynaud family of Châteauneuf de Pape renown from fruit sourced in the southern Vacqueyras region. It was time that we permitted it to reveal its favours. And, what favours they were. Mostly Grenache with a dollop of Syrah, it was a classic southern Rhône. I would have guessed it to be a very good Vacqueyras or Gigondas. It offered up heady aromas of wild strawberries, black cherries, new suede and garrigue (pungent Provençal undergrowth – rosemary, thyme and the like). It was round and medium-bodied with gentle tannins. I wished that I had cases more of it.

Now then, considering all these tales of eating and drinking our way around southern France, one might reasonably conclude that we must have put on a great amount of avoir du pois. Mais non. We didn’t gain a single gram. Our secret? We walked everywhere. Not only to the restaurants, wine shops and markets, but long strolls along the Promenade des Anglais, treks to the museums and art galleries and to virtually every boutique in Nice in search of goodies for the grandchildren. It seems one can have their cake and eat it too.

Cheers!  Jim

Featured image: The bucolic dining terrace at Le Tilleul in Saint-Paul-de-Vence

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This is Jim’s 79th blog on Gentleman’s Portion. The SEARCH function at the top works really well if you want to look back and see some of his previous stories.

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