Mauro Cologreco is a man who likes his vegetables. I doubt his mother had to bribe him to finish his greens. In the gardens that surround his glass rimmed oasis in Menton there are no fewer than 39 varieties of tomato growing.
Mauro’s restaurant; Mirazur is a serene no-man’s-land in an area vomiting with excess. On the Mediterranean coast nature’s bounty is obvious; the water is crystal turquoise, the cliffs startlingly steep. Competing with that are the toys; the boats that bob in Menton’s harbour easily sleep 14. The soundtrack of nearby Monaco is one of Ferraris, small dogs and helicopter blades.
Mirazur is like a bubble, perched above it all. As a restaurant it seems to draw inspiration from four things. Its location – by the sea and smack between Monte Carlo and the Italian border; the Argentinian heritage of the chef; his time under Alain Passard in Paris; and of course- the famed gardens.
The garden is where you start your journey at Mirazur- and while you may physically move, its sprit stays with you for every one of the 13 courses that follow.
At 7pm on a summer’s eve the sun is still high. A Campari orange in the shade next to bean-bag sculptures of mock rocks is how we begin.
Four tastes of vegetables are presented on a black tablet as complimentary starter. There’s a shot of gazpacho, crunch of a miniature cone bandaging together shredded root vegetables, a spoon of baby pea puree topped with a blanched almond and a caramelised onion tartlet festooned with a dandruff of goats cheese.
From there we walk up curved stone stairs to a startlingly modern dining room with tables that stud an enclosed semi circular balcony. The windows look out to Monte Carlo and beyond. A chef’s choice menu and going light on the wine seems to be the way to go.
At the sound of our mangled vowels when ordering a half bottle of bio dynamic white we’re allocated some young staff who claim to be excited to have people to practice their English with.
Squat glasses with diced granny smith apple, salad cream and a paco-jet spray of seaweed foam are a cute introduction that have whispers of a Waldorf salad about them. Then it’s a postcard from the Italian side of the border with a parmesan and olive salsa over an artful splat of potato puree, decorated with onion curls and some fronds of rocket.
The modern art all over the walls echoes the bright splashes of colour on the plate. Next local red prawns come decorated with whispy discs of red rimmed radish and translucent turnip, with edible borage flowers from the garden and dots of balsamic.
Sprinkled around are sprigs of salsify- edible sea asparagus. Some of the salsify are local and some on exchange from Japan. It’s a dish made for ladies who lunch, light and sweet with the saltiness of the salsify providing seasoning.
There’s a parade of salads that follow, with more borage flowers coming out to play This time they’re with green beans, transverse ribbons of asparagus, roasted pistachios and little jewels of dark cherry.
Then it’s four different specimens of zucchini and some sea snails. These all get drenched in a savoury broth made from grilled vegetables. The sea snails are more texture than taste, and have the elasticity of a rubber band. Draped over the top is a herb that they explain is used locally for phytotherapy, to aid digestion. Its slight bitterness punches up the broth and leaves an aftertaste that reminds me of homeopathy.
It’s a trip back to France with nettle puree and two frog’s legs, cooked at low temperatures until they’re hospital gown white. They’re hiding beneath a confit tomato that implodes when attacked. Along side are fingerbowls that are prettier than some bridesmaid’s posies. These come with an invitation to ‘ignore the Michelin star, please, use your fingers to eat the frogs’. We do.
If any dish sums up the bower-bird internationalism of Mirazur, it would be the squid. Cooked to just firm, its tentacles clamber out from a base of calamari and onion confit. A herb puree bubbling over the top makes it look like a bastard creature dredged from the deep. Around it are Japanese style characters of intertwined squid ink and chorizo puree, which give bonus levels of salt and spice.
The classic ‘white fish filler’ course has been cooked at low temperature for around 25 minutes and has a texture somewhere between Sea Bass and Marlin. A base of pureed white bean with a strangely floury texture coats my mouth like spackle before its punctuated by leaves of purple and green basil.
Then it’s time for the meat. If vegetables are the new seafood, then chicken is the new meat. And if ever there was a dish to fly in the face of the notion that chicken is a waste of a meal, slow cooked light and dark meat from a class A Bresse chicken would be it. On a voluminous white plate it looks like a self contained model of a universe, populated with crisped potato, celeriac and fennel puree, granules of black sesame and curlicues of lamb jus. It’s a pity to have it end.
The sun has set, the lights on the harbour are twinkling and from here the night starts to slow down. Until now there’s hardly been anyone else in the restaurant, and the full force of attention has been on us- clearing plates, resetting cutlery (with Laguiole knives no less for the chicken) and checking if we’re ok. We joke when asked if there’s anything else we’d like that ‘perhaps some fireworks over the harbour could be arranged?’ Hilariously, 20 minutes later Catherine wheels start over Monaco- as part of a continuing coastal celebration of Bastille Day.
It’s a surreal accompaniment to a cheese plate, where stand outs include a day old goat cheese from a local supplier and its week-older sibling. They both help us make our way through the apple and cinnamon scroll, foccacia and slice of brown that have sat sadly on our bread plates while we were distracted with the earlier colour and movement.
Dessert comes first as a mound of Japanese nettle jelly, with a taste of red bean topped with almond cream and pineapple sorbet. It’s slippery and murky a walk in a bog, with the pineapple adding little darts of sun.
Then it’s a dish that the waitstaff are hopping with excitement about. Dessert crescendos to a symphony on tomatoes; a celebration of their status as a fruit.
They come as dried crisps, pink and green sorbets, and cooked in a sugar spiked confit which which goes splat. Alain Passard may have been famous for his sweet tomato cooked with twelve spices (which even makes a guest appearance in a West Wing episode) but it seems his love of the fruit has been well divested to Mauro. Here it’s a cool and considerate way to bring 13 courses to a close.
Before we leave it’s a Jamaican Blue Mountains espresso, petit fours and an infusion of leaves of lemon verbena. These are plucked at the table with long silver tweezers and left to brew. We ask where the leaves have come from.
They’ve come from the garden, picked just as we arrived. But of course. A chef so in tune with his surroundings would have it no other way.
30 Avenue Aristide Briand, Menton, France
Tel:(0) 4 92 41 86 86
Ranked 35 in Restaurant Magazine’s 2009 Top 50 restaurants in the world