This post is dedicated to those of you staying safe by isolating at home in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. Fresh from the CD archives of unpublished posts comes a escapist visit to the romantic Provencal coast of France and Monaco. Which, by the way, is not so romantic when you’re brought there for work, but it in no way negates the stunning beauty and luxury of the region. Seeing my old photos of the striking scenery and wonderful food – not to mention that I did not have to pay for it – still brings back great memories, minus a brush with food poisoning from a very reputable restaurant that you will not see me write about on this blog. Word to the wise: my coworkers were right to stop me from eating (more) duck. It goes to show that E. coli can find you anywhere, regardless of the income bracket you’re imitating…
The thought of Monaco or the neighboring French Riviera of Provence tends to bring up a few common themes for many of us: Playground of the rich, yachting capital, Grace Kelly, Casino Royale, the Cannes Film Festival, and celebrity hideaways. In reality, Monaco is surprisingly tiny (less than 2 square kilometers or one square mile in size) and unsurprisingly chic. Its sharply rocky, arid hillside real estate may be surrounded by some of the most stunning scenery, but it’s not exactly a first choice to locate a nation (principality to be specific). Seriously, think about it: Built where sea meets mountain, no arable land to grow anything, tough to build structures and roads, susceptible to the elements – would you expect that to produce one of the wealthiest nation states per capita?
So to see it as it is today – tightly wound roads slicing between slick hotels, casinos, beach clubs, museum-quality retail, and historic structures that conceal its very bloody history — hosting visitors ranging from middle-class tourists to the wealthiest guests of royalty, makes it all the more miraculous that this tiny principality has become iconic as it is now. Monaco is so small that if you were driving through on your way to Italy, you’d easily forget you were driving through a nation city-state in its own right. The border between Monaco and France is as blurred geographically as it is politically and culturally. As an outsider driving between France and Italy, Monaco might appear an as just another picaresque town along the charmed coast of Provence. And Provence itself is a region with a character all its own – a sort of commingling of French and Italian history, its storied riviera of sparkling turquoise waters and rugged mountains isolating the region from its national capitals.
The cuisine of Provence and Monaco is then, unsurprisingly, is influenced as much by its geography and climate as its political history as a series of coastal kingdoms and principalities, sometimes independent, sometimes ruled by the King (or now President) of France. Part Mediterranean, part Alpine, the cuisine is truly a fusion of coastal, French, Italian, and even Spanish influences. At any rate, my first trip to Monaco and the French Riviera was a great whirlwind of lovely scenery and haute cuisine, exploring what inspires this lovely region that serves both as playground for the wealthy, where food is at times striking works of art, yet it also is home to he “French country” pastoral aesthetic.
Phillippe Starck’s A’Trego is a great starting point to understand the region and its cuisine. Located on the sleepy French side of the coastal village of Cap D’Ail, which forms part of the border between France and Monaco and abuts a sea wall, the rotund A’Trego appears underwhelming at first glance, looking very much like a 1960s beach house. Once upstairs, however, the quirky furnishings and decor – apparently handpicked by Monsieur Starck himself – reveal a great attention to detail and a lot of investment to make the restaurant truly unique. In this region, aesthetics are just as important as flavor, and one must work hard to achieve both in order to survive in the crowded restaurant landscape.
I would describe A’Trego’s as “modern maritime” decor. It has an intentionally rough-hewn, almost industrial aesthetic but with a quirky, modern, Alice in Wonderland twist. Wooden benches alternate with wicker chairs, paired with industrial metal tables finished to resemble polished cement in the indoor dining room and glassed-in veranda. The restaurant’s open air terrace hosted our meal. Sitting at a weathered wooden table, we were presented with cork-encased menus, again reinforcing the nautical theme, as well as a welcome aperitif of Prosecco (a homage more to the more accessible Italian sparkling wine than the elitism of Champagne).
My team’s host and I split two starters: A burrata and tomato salad (though that description doesn’t do it justice) and black truffle pizza. The “heart of Father Marco’s burrata” was uniquely and stunningly presented in a hollowed tomato atop a bed of arugula (rocket) and served with wedges of fresh tomato. A dropper of aromatic pesto completed this enlightened alternative to the Caprese salad. Oh, the French! The white truffle pizza was closer to a gourmet American flatbread than I expected, its “thin” crust (described by our host) actually was quite thick and rustic. I suppose “thin” is relative in comparison to the region’s standard focaccia base for pizza. Atop the crust was a white sauce that seemed part Bechamel and part creme fraiche, dotted generously with shaved black truffles. A crisp and tart Provençal Chateau de Berne rose complimented the rich dishes nicely.
The restaurant is known for its meats, and our host cautioned us that contrary to local expectation, meat dishes were far more exemplary than fish or seafood. For my main, I wanted a lighter dish after the cream-heavy appetizers, so I chose another starter, the Charolais beef tartar. This local Mediterranean style resembled a reimagined Italian beef carpaccio more than the flavors of a northern beef tartare. Lacking the characteristic egg topping, this version is studded with Parmesan and olives marinated in oil and lightly flavored with pesto. A garnish of arugula mellowed the powerful flavors of the tartare. My overall impression was that I prefer the Italian style of tartare to the classic French.
My colleagues chose penne Arrabbiata, grilled chicken, pommes frites, and a burger. I ordered a side of grilled seasonal vegetables (delicious), and chickpea fries. The chickpea fries were perhaps the most interesting choice, as they almost resembled polenta in texture. They had crisp exteriors and an unexpectedly soft but flavorful interior. Their pommes (potato) frites were on point. I was glad I had not ordered them so as not to overindulge.
Each dish was beautifully presented and perfectly executed, yet again representing the discriminating aesthetic and culinary traditions of this region. The deceptive simplicity might easily fool you, but perfection in Provence and Monaco is the culmination of centuries of Mediterranean tradition married with modern imagination and innovation, and a significant bit of capital!