When you’ve exhausted the restaurants along Cannes’ quaint, cobblestoned Le Suquet, when you’re tired of fighting the crowds at La Cave or Le Pizza and can’t stomach another oyster off the fruits de mer platter at Astoux et Brun, venture on a scenic drive through Provence’s tiny hill towns for the gastronomic equivalent of a blockbuster.
These lesser-known villages are the territory of foie gras, pistou, artichokes every way, stuffed zucchini flowers, red mullet and all kinds of little birds, pigeon and partridge among them; and they’re overflowing with romantic culinary hide-a-ways such as Colombe d’Or in St. Paul de Vence, which serves Provencal favorites under treasured Picassos, Chagalls and Braques. Some top local chefs are putting their own twists on classic Provencal cooking. Others are moving farther afield into the land of wasabi and truffle ice cream. All of them are worth the trip.
Lavender scents the hillsides of Grasse as well as the boutique inn and restaurant La Bastide Saint Antoine. Chef Jacques Chibois earned two stars from Michelin at the Gray d’Albion in Cannes and remembers his festival connection with dinner china decorated with the names of past fest winners. There are more than 400 olive trees on the grounds, from which Chef Chibois makes his own oil, and the terrace features sweeping views all the way to Cannes and the Mediterranean beyond. Savories include the grilled roast pigeon with herbs and fennel served with red leaf chicory and fava beans. Try the wild strawberries with basil sauce, candied olives and vanilla-flavored olive oil for dessert.
A Benedictine nunnery in the 12th century, the restored Hostellerie de l’Abbaye de la Celle in the Haute Var is now part of Alain Ducasse’s culinary empire. Surrounded by plane and chestnut trees, the country inn and restaurant has its own vineyard and pristinely arranged vegetable garden. Chef Benoit Witz helps oversee the seasonal plantings, sowing his most used ingredients, the herbs. “We gather them according to our needs — basils, sage, marjoram, mints,” says Witz. “There are also zucchini flowers to gather at dawn before the bees come to gather honey from them.” The vet chef who began his cooking career with Paul Bocuse in Lyon and who helped open Louis XV, espouses the “cuisine of the essential — respect for the products and the terroir before anything.”
That respect for the essential is also found at a number of upscale mom-and-pop establishments. Near Fayence, at the Michelin-starred Le Castellaras set in an old stone house, Chef Alain Carro presides over the kitchen while his wife runs the front of the house. Daughter Hermance Carro works in the kitchen and she’s about to open her own restaurant, Le Relais d’Olea, in nearby Seillans. Signature dishes include the red mullet sauteed with squid in a garlic butter, served with artichoke rosettes and topped with citrus vinaigrette. The wine cellar boasts more than 180 varieties.
Closer to Cannes, the ancient hill town of Valbonne is home to Daniel Desavie. A contemporary of New York restaurateur Daniel Boulud and classically trained under Roger Verge, Desavie buys directly from local farmers, and his almost retro menu features the ubiquitous zucchini flower — here stuffed with lobster mousse in a beurre blanc sauce. And, of course, there’s also the venerable Le Moulin de Mougins, in an historic stone mill, a top spot for classic haute cuisine; as well as the Eden-Roc at the Hotel du Cap in scenery-rich Cap d’Antibes — a regular haunt for power brokers.
But to be truly transported, Kei’s Passion in Nice mixes Provencal, traditional French and Japanese market-driven ingredients into a unique melange. Here, the young Japanese-born chef Keisuke Matsushima tops zucchini flowers with a green tea sauce and wasabi, chutney and curries make cameo appearances. With its here-and-now decor (more Philippe Starck than Pierre Deux) and innovative bent, Kei’s Passion is ready for its moment in the culinary spotlight.
(Pat Saperstein contributed to this article.)
La Bastide Saint Antoine
Hostellerie de l’Abbaye de la Celle
Le Moulin de Mougins
Eden-Roc @ Hotel Du Cap