Sunday, April 20, 2008
Château de la Chèvre d'Or
Spring has been in a playful mood this year, getting our hopes up only to dash them like the wave that swept through our beach picnic yesterday, soaking us from head to toe. Yet the season started promisingly with a brilliant if chilly day in Eze Village, a little town 20 minutes from Nice that clings to the top of a craggy rock overlooking the sea.
Philippe and I came here on the first day of spring (ages ago, I know) to have lunch at the Château de la Chèvre d'Or, named after an animal that frequently pops up in Provençal lore. Various tales explain how this old stone house came to be called La Chèvre d'Or, but what is certain is that the golden goat has prospered since Robert Wolf opened the restaurant in 1953. Now part of the Relais & Château chain, the Chèvre d'Or has transformed half the town into luxury accommodation, attracting wealthy Parisians in need of sun and tourists from all over the world. The hotel employs more than 100 staff to take care of its four restaurants and 34 rooms, which are scattered throughout the village.
I had heard nothing but good things about the food at La Chèvre d'Or before coming here, but with the restaurant freshly re-opened after its winter break who knew whether an unexpected wave might come crashing through this meal? Chef Philippe Labbé put any fears to rest with cooking that walked a fine line between traditional and daring, never slipping too far one way or the other. I also couldn't help but notice that he shares my love of citrus, which endeared him to me throughout the meal. Oh, and that champagne did put us in a good mood from the very beginning, as did a series of well-chosen glasses of wine from the sommelier.
Crisp parmesan cones perched in shot glasses set the tone, alongside a paper-thin parmesan tuile sprinkled with paprika.
Beautiful as they looked on their silver spoons, these salmon sushi couldn't help but seem out of place here - a small blip in the Provençal spirit of this meal.
I would normally be alarmed at the idea of Niçois ravioli (filled with beef and chard) with an avocado sauce vierge, but the chef pulled it off here with a good shot of acidity from lemon zest and juice. Surprising and delicious.
The meal's first course after the amuses-bouches involved different takes on sea urchin and caviar, as in this iced cocktail of fennel and spider crab jelly topped with sea urchin "tongues".
Most intriguing of the three small dishes was a translucent sea water "raviole" with an intense sea urchin filling. I had visions - most likely inaccurate - of the chef hiking down the steep trail known as the Nietzsche path from the top of the village to the sea to collect water in a bucket.
I loved everything about la barbue sauvage, wild brill with spiky artichokes and a separate small dish of gamberoni with artichoke. Labbé deserves credit for showcasing an often underrated fish, rather than choosing the more obvious turbot or sole.
You might have heard of Bresse chicken, but did you know that the Bresse region also produces rabbits worthy of star chefs? The doll-sized rack of ribs alongside the stuffed saddle and confit shoulder was not for those who squirm at the thought of eating bunnies.
A thin slice of mango filled with iced vanilla cream was fabulous and we could have happily stopped here, but along came trio of desserts...
This photo aims to disguise the fact that I had taken a few bites before I remembered my duty. Alongside it was a praline cream with a crumbly apricot topping and a chilled coupe of coffee, lemon, chocolate and nougatine - all as rich and over-the-top as it sounds.
As you might expect the Château de la Chèvre d'Or is not a cheap place, but with set menus at €65 or €95 at lunch (€180 at dinner) and spectacular plunging views of the sea, it's definitely worth a splurge. In summer the best seats are on the terrace, which gets a cool breeze even on the hottest days.
* Carol Van Rooy is the winner of my book giveaway - thanks to all you borage lovers out there! I've sent you an e-mail, Carol, and will put the books in the post as soon as I hear from you.