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Nice, France Today


My favorite hotel in any Nice is La Pérouse, though I was less excited about it the last time I stayed there. The hotel then was triste and clunkily appointed, yet the views and location were reason enough to choose it. La Pérouse sits at that electrifying point on the corniche where the road climbs a headland and spills down into the port. Many of the guest rooms feel like eagles' nests dangling over the Baie des Anges.

Now refurbished, the hotel is no longer challenged in the visuals department. It's not the most lavish expression of le look Provençal you've ever seen, but it is bright and pretty. Breakfast is served in the shade of box-edged lemon trees with beautifully twisted trunks. And while there are shooshier pools in Nice, La Pérouse's is the only one built against a limestone cliff bristling with vegetation.

Olive for olive, anchovy for anchovy, Authentic Nice has the city's most satisfying and memorable cooking. Think of it as a cuisine (Niçoise) within a cuisine (Provençale). There is an evolved pasta tradition, and it is all but forgotten that this is where the whole mesclun craziness got started. Specialties include estocaficada (shredded stockfish and potatoes in tomato sauce); chickpea flour transformed into socca, a giant crêpe, and panisse, a polenta-like paste that's cooled, sliced into batons, and fried; stuffed vegetables; pistou (pesto); fried zucchini flowers; pissaladière (stewed onions on a pizza crust); bagna cauda (anchovy dipping sauce); Swiss chard leaves as a filling for omelettes and a sweet tourte; salade niçoise, of course; and pan bagnat, basically the same salad on a vinaigrette-wetted roll.

In all my trips to Nice, I never found a great pan bagnat. I should have been looking in La Colle sur Loup. There, at L'Établi, a wineshop a short walk from Jacqueline Morabito's boutique (see Young Nice), the sandwiches are seasoned with fleur de sel and cost an absurd $5.

If you order stockfish at La Merenda, where the seats are stools and the tablecloths paper, the waiters give you a little saucer of it first to make sure you know what you're getting. I guess they just got tired of tourists saying, "This is too funky," and sending it back. The funkiness, which is in truth delicious, comes from making the dish the way it's supposed to be made and almost never is—with the cod's swim bladder, also dried.

The personnel are much nicer next door at Lou Pistou, a similarly modest bistro with red-and-white-checked linens, polished copper cauldrons, and a broom-closet kitchen behind a curtain of wooden beads. Visiting the restaurant six times and trying everything on the menu (except the andouillette, which they were always out of), I was able to construct the perfect Lou Pistou meal: charred red peppers in garlic and olive oil, tripes à la niçoise (in tomato-and-white-wine sauce with a suggestion of cayenne), and a luscious made-to-order lemon tart.

Catherine-Hélène Barale may be old (89) and infirm and out of commission, but she does not rule out returning to her legendary Spécialités Niçoises, a dark, yawning restaurant with thick stone walls and an extraordinary collection of rusted farm accessories, player pianos, and château-issue culinary antiques. Pilgrims come for the surprisingly un-corny folk experience (lyrics are handed out for a "Nissa La Bella" sing-along) and outrageous set menu: vin d'orange, salade niçoise, socca, daube ravioli with porcini sauce, sauté of veal, Swiss chard tourte, and a thimble of marc de Provence.

Planted on the rocks just a few feet from the sea, Coco Beach began as a fisherman's shack, feeding American soldiers stationed in Villefranche-sur-Mer after World War II. It's a little fancier these days, but not much, with life buoys and pulleys on the walls, and it still serves bouillabaisse the way founder Jean-Baptiste Coco decreed: without saffron (he said it masked the taste of the fish). An unscientific poll of concierges found them divided roughly down the middle about Coco Beach, with dissenters calling it "overpriced" and "overrun with cheesy French celebrities." But for grilled fish this chaste you'd have to go to Italy.

Many of Nice's most authentic restaurants are hidden among the switchbacks in the hills behind the city, where prices plunge. Chez Simon is a familial spot with an outdoor kitchen on a sprawling terrace, where one can observe tiny babies being given their first taste of Niçois pizza culture. A calf sacrificed an entire kidney—eight inches long, four wide—for my dinner here. Still enrobed in its natural snowy fat, the kidney was heavily painted with whole-grain mustard, then hung on a hook in an open rotisserie. The cook flicked a switch and the hook turned. One of the pleasures of eating in Europe is that people aren't squeamish about ordering animal parts that can't get a tan, and that look like what they are.

The shops of Authentic Nice are having a tougher time of it. When ancient coffee roasters start ceding to nasty ready-to-wear boutiques, you know it's time to worry. Holdouts include Moulin à Huile Alziari, the number-one address for olive oil since forever; Comptoir aux Épices, which sells presoaked stockfish to Nice housewives in a hurry; Terre è Provence, whose pottery is actually made in France (as opposed to Spain, as it is nearly everywhere else); and Aux Parfums de Grasse, a genteel purveyor of lavender essence and violet water. Tout pour la Cave specializes in wine-making supplies but also carries cruets, socca pans, cornichon tongs, food safes, vinegar barrels, olive-wood rolling pins, confiture basins, and an odd, free-form cork object that always baffles Americans. Nice may be the last place on the Riviera where there is still a market for regulation bouillabaisse platters.

CHRISTOPHER PETKANAS is a special correspondent for Travel + Leisure.


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