The Roaring 20’s were spent along the Riviera by the likes of Hemmingway and F.Scott Fitzgerald and his wife, Zelda, who lived for a couple of years in the villa that is now the Hotel Belles Rives in Juan-les-Pins.
The minute you walk in you can feel their fun-loving spirit and you can relive what it must have felt like to live there due to the impeccable preservation of art and architecture of the hotel.
To add to the ambiance and legend, the famed Chef Pascal Bardet arrived a year ago to become Chef de Cuisine of the Belles Rives’ restaurant, La Passagere, after having worked for Alain Ducasse for 17 years.
I was invited to lunch, to sample the tasting menu.
For me, La Passagere is the embodiment of what a three star Michelin restaurant should be (although it has yet to gain a star in the red guide). For one, you can’t have a great chef without a great “front room” staff. And the two need to exist in a nearly perfect atmosphere. La Passagere has all of this.
It has a great chef, in my opinion.
The sommelier, Aymeric Verdi, was one of the best I have experienced. After asking me some questions, he learned of my love for the Riviera and chose wines only grown there. All were Bellet wines (only produced behind Nice) from Chateau de Cremat. A white to start with, a rose, and then a deeply aromatic red.
This is where he reached perfection: he spun the romance of the wines into my imagination by telling the story of Coco Channel, who spent a great deal of time visiting her friend at the Chateau and asked if she could use the interlocking C’s for her logo. Permission granted, it was the Chateau de Cremat that changed their logo, to interlocking C and K—so that she could have the one she requested.
It has a great Maitre d’Hotel, Franco Forte, who effortlessly guided me through each course, who filled in quiet spells between courses with information and suggestions, who ensured that my entire stay was a sublime experience. He decided on this perfect sunny October day to seat me outside by the sea.
It has an ambiance which in every detail is perfection. An incredible location inside an historic building, right on the Mediterranean sea. The chargers on each table are unique, hand-painted replicas of parts of paintings from throughout the hotel. The plates reflect the sea and the period of the hotel, with gold art deco borders in a wave design. And the water glasses are from the nearby village of Biot, the breath of the blowers captured in bubbles that catch the glint of the sun.
Chef Bardet chose to begin his opus with a tribute to the connection to the sea lapping a few feet from my table.
I was presented with a small, local Lisset mackerel preserved in chilled white wine jelly, garnished with tender baby celery leaves and delicate seaweed. Every mouthful of seaweed and fish a natural pairing, every bite vibrant and light.
A bread basket arrived with a selection of warm rolls: cereal, fougasse, whole wheat, chestnut, and olive oil with black olives—baked by a baker in old town in nearby Antibes. I was charmed by the chestnut one with nice chunks throughout, and with the perfume of the warm olives in the olive oil roll.
A tour de force arrived next, ravioli with a soft raw egg inside, barely cooked so that when you pierced it the egg yolk spilled out to be sopped up with paper thin slices of cep mushrooms and paper thin slices of parmesan cheese. All were floating in a clear veal broth.
My next dish hit the highest note of all the compositions. Rouget in vin rouge sauce, which had so many textures yet had one harmonious flavor.
The small pink rouget fish were caught off Juan-les-Pins. They were set on a bed of crisply fried black trumpet mushrooms and softly cooked celery, topped with fried celeriac strings and fresh baby dandelion leaves.
The sauce was absolutely amazing, created with fish bones and heads, deglazed with red wine, with the rouget liver added in as well.
To follow, a dish from the farm. A roast suckling pig roast with petits farci, tiny vegetables from the nearby village of Cagnes which were stuffed with finely minced vegetables. The pig was so tender you could almost eat it without using a knife, and the sauce, made with pig’s feet, was deep and unctuous.
As the sea breeze came up and the palm trees swayed, dessert was brought out. An individual pear souffle, so light it could have been lifted in the wind and blown out to sea. An icy cold pear granite with a tinge of vanilla was at its side as a tease.
And when I thought all was done, another dessert was placed before me. This was a coffee entrement made with mascarpone cheese, chocolate and Amaretto, set in a very coffee tasting creme anglaise, sided with a light coffee ice cream.
Oh, and there was more. A trolley was rolled out by the delighted Jennifer Confortini (Chef de Rang) who seemed to understand and share in my pleasure at each and every new plate brought out from Chef Bardet’s kitchen.
Her trolley held three baskets. One had ganses with orange and lemon. One held little doughnuts (beignets) filled with fresh fig jam. And the other was a simple sweet brioche beignet. They were warmed by the afternoon sun and were just about the perfect ending to a perfect meal.
Would I like to meet the chef? Mais oui!!!
As you can see from the picture below, this chef is a happy soul, in a happy place, doing happy things with food. His enthusiasm and joy in his profession came shining through each and every rapidly phrased French sentence.
Next time, I will come back and start my evening outside with candlelight and the stars. Then I will come in to dine in the formal dining room for another—I know—excellent meal by an excellent chef. I can’t wait.
Chef Pascal Bardet
His superb team: Franco Forte, Maitre d’Hotel; Aymeric Verdi, Sommelier; Steeve Moracchini, Chef Patissier; Jennifer Confortini, Chef de Rang.
La Passagere Restaurant, Hotel Belles Rives, 33 Boulevard Edouard Baudoin, Juan-les-Pins, France