The ambience at Les Palmiers in St. Tropez.
PROVENCE - I’d had my fill of bratwurst and smoked fish, so I was delighted that my next stop was in France. After landing in Nice, I went to spend a few days with contemporary art collectors on the Côte d’Azur where the wining and dining never stopped. The first night, we went to The African Queen, a Riveria institution named for the Humphrey Bogart/Katharine Hepburn film, which is situated beside the yachts in the port of Beaulieu-sur-Mer. The food celebrates the cuisine of Nice, so I chose a hearty meal of crispy sardines stuffed with spinach, followed by one of their legendary pizzas topped with eggplant, mozzarella, and tomatoes. While the restaurant has long been a magnet for celebrities and film stars, I spotted American art dealer Christophe van de Weghe at one table, and Miami collectors Mira and Don Rubell at another.
Loup de Mer in St. Tropez.
The next day it was off to St. Tropez by boat, where we had a heavenly lunch at Les Palmiers, one of the hot beachside restaurants, which is an oasis of white décor. After a carpaccio of artichokes with some salad and shaved summer truffles on top, we shared two enormous loup de mer baked in a salt crust, all washed down with lots or rosé. For entertainment, a fashion show from the boutique featured bikini-clad models sporting fur coats and vests – incongruous, yet somehow it worked. Or maybe it was the rosé.
The Château de Saint Antonin, a former 17th-century monastery.
From St. Tropez, we headed into Provence, where our first stop was the Chateau de Saint Antonin, a magical former 17th-century monastery that sits at the foot of Mont Sainte-Victoire, along the so-called “route Cézanne.” The mountain was truly majestic, barren of trees, yet awash in reflected color, and I truly understood why this was one of the artist’s favorite subjects, painted over 60 times in a palette of cool blues, grays, lilacs, and ochres. Before hiking at the foot of the mountain, we went to visit his studio in Aix-en-Provence, a beautiful garden and an adjoining building that was replete with so many of the objects which populated his still life paintings – jugs, fabrics, apples, and of course, the plaster cast of the little cupid.
The roasted baby chicken, a dollop of ratatouille and stuffed zucchini blossom.
We went back to the chateau for dinner, prepared by chef Olivier Grimaud, who, since 2000, has been the “chef de partie” of the Republic Française, and has already started cooking for President Hollande. After drinks in the lovely garden, we dined al fresco under a starry night, reminding me that van Gogh’s home in Arles was not far away. We started with a delicious gazpacho with a swirl of lively pistou, followed by a succulent roasted baby chicken, with a dollop of ratatouille and a stuffed zucchini blossom alongside. There was a proper cheese course, and a dessert of individual molten chocolate cakes with coffee granite. The culinary adventures would continue the next day in the Luberon, so we said our goodnights and goodbyes (although we rejoined the group at breakfast for some heavenly local melon, yogurts, and pastries).
Stay tuned for part two when I visit the Luberon and the Centre Georges Pompidou.