Film Scouts on the Riviera 1999

1999 Cannes Film Festival Diaries
Dīner ("dee-nay", not "dye-nurr") #3: The Hills are Alive - Mougins and Beyond

by Jim Byerley

Film Scouts on the Riviera 1999 is brought to you by:

Cannes, May 15, 1999

The Cannes Film Festival can become hyper, hectic and draining after only a few days. During the twelve day endurance test, try to plan a relaxing meal break to the country where it is still possible to breath exhaust-free air. Many hardened Cannes veterans venture up to St. Paul de Vence for a restorative lunch on the glorious terrace of Colombe d'Or. It's an enchanted place, though the town has gone a bit overboard on soap and candle shops. Don't miss the appetizer de la maison which includes enough small plates to feed a family of seven. In nearby Grasse is the superb Bastide St-Antoine, with yet another stunning terrace, featuring a view (on a clear day) all the way back to the bay. The food on the plate (two stars in the Michelin Guide) isn't bad either. Chef Chibois used to cook at the Hotel Gray D'Albion in Cannes, before retreating to this elegant oasis. Cannes' loss is the province's gain. In the hills near Auribeau-Sur-Siagne, a mere 13 kilometers from the Croisette, is the fashionable country inn known as Vignette Haute. The chic medieval ambiance is overly calculated, but where else can one sit on a bale of hay while spending 600 F for dinner. Live farm animals (surely they are not now computer generated) can still be seen grazing behind a glass shield from the luxuriously laid tables. I dare you to look one of the cute little lambs in the eye, while devouring the chop on your plate. Jacques Maximin has set up an exquisite little restaurant in his own home, amongst the olive groves, near Vence. The intimate dining room of Maximin is tres petite, so make a reservation well in advance. His cooking is once again up to the standard set at Chantecler in the Negresco Hotel of Nice back in the 1980's. This charming two-star destination can cost you well over 700F per person.

Mougins is probably the most popular out-of-Cannes destination due to its proximity. The town is slowly going the way of St. Paul de Vence with numerous art galleries, postcard stands and specialty shops. Restaurants have always prospered here and there are numerous choices. One misses the Relais de Mougins, which was the domain of Andre Surmain, one of the co-founders of Lutece in New York. His long-running establishment has been replaced by the simpler Brasserie de la Méditerranée. If Martha Stewart lived in a cave, it would look like Bistrot de Mougins. This steadfastly reliable downstairs spot serves simple bistro fare with a prix fixed menu of 175 F. Some report slow service to be a problem. Reservations, no matter, are essential during Festival time. Feu Follet is still drawing diners, as is the beautifully decorated restaurant Les Muscadins. It is located in the small hotel of the same name, which offers eight distinctive and tranquil rooms. If you want to leave the Croisette hustle behind and can't afford the Hotel du Cap, here's the spot.

Currently enjoying a resurgence of sorts is the awfully pretty L'Amandier de Mougins. This old mill, located near the entrance to the village, is cozy and utterly charming. The current Michelin Guide has awarded L'Amandier the "Bib Gourmand" designation. This symbol (given to 500 restaurants throughout France) indicates places that offer a good bargain for the price charged. Here the prix fixe menus are 140F and 170F, which is incredibly reasonable considering the quality of the cooking. Among the appetizers were a delicate flan de crabe and a mixed salad consisting of mesculun, spinach, tomatoes, asparagus, Daniele ham and a hint of Parmesan. Also offered were a tasty fois gras salad over haricots verts and a Tex-Mex crab and avocado timbale, with what looked like authentic Doritos taco chips for adornment. Second courses were a salmon brulee and a piece of cod, languishing in a mashed potato bed. The tasty dark sauce surrounding it had a balsamic vinegar base. Main course of choice was tender lamb (from Sisteron?), accented with a melange of chopped vegetables including carrots, peppers, turnips, peas and broccoli. Beautifully presented desserts were a runny-in-the-middle marquise a chocolate, an apple tarte a la mode and a crusty crème brulee with candied grapefruit rind on top. The house Rosé is perfectly drinkable and also fairly priced. Haute cuisine at Denny's prices. Highly recommended, though Michelin has not seen fit to restore L'Amandier to starred status.

Down the hill from the picturesque village is the legendary Moulin de Mougins. Now demoted to only a single star in the Guide Michelin, chef Roger Vergé seems to be working harder to re-establish his former three-star glory. Around a bend in the road at St. Basile, is the flower-filled Ferme de Mougins. It remains one of the prettiest restaurants anywhere, though it too has recently fallen from Michelin favor. It is a quiet oasis of civility and calm. The ride into the country, if by car or cab, will restore your energy and give you the courage to plunge into the Palais Fou next day.

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