Food for me is one of the highlights of travel. I love to sample local specialties, discover new flavors and tastes. Before we headed to Nice, I did some research on its cuisine and restaurants where we could try traditional dishes. There's much more than salade nicoise although that was an entree at Chez Palmyre, a tiny restaurant in Vieux Nice I had read about. There was nothing special about the food (good but basic), however the price (14 euros or $11 for four courses) and the ambience merit a visit. It's a neighborhood kind of place where the diners, a total of 24, greet each other with the obligatory air kiss on each cheek. Suzanne, the owner, takes orders, then shouts them to the cook back in the kitchen. Chez Palmyre dates back to 1926 and has become a Nice institution.
As is La Merenda –another mini place with room for just 24 customers who sit on stools which would be more at home in a kindergarten classroom. The restaurant is mentioned in almost every article I had read about Nice. The challenge is to get a table as La Merenda has no phone. You just show up early in the day and request a place for later. While waiting for our food, we struck up a conversation with the man at the next table, just centimeters away. Larry, a soon-to-be 50 New Yorker who just "came into some money," had quit his job and was traveling the world. He also has a blog: www.intrepideaterreturns.blogspot.com
With a title like that, no wonder he ordered tripe as his main course. Bicycle Bob went with another signature Nice dish: stockfish. The fish is soaked for five or six days in running water. Its weight triples. Then it is simmered with onions, tomatoes, garlic, black and green olives, bell peppers, olive oil and a few potatoes. I tasted it — not for me. I was happy with boudin, blood sausage served with a mashed potato/onion combination and applesauce. All three of us began the meal with an entree of stuffed sardines, truly excellent. As Bicycle Bob doesn't consider a meal complete without dessert, he ordered lemon tart, another winner.
We were guests of the Nice Tourist Office for lunch at L'Escalinada where we began a wonderful meal with La Ribambelle, the restaurant's combination entree plate with squid, octopus, grilled red pepper and beignets, airy, melt-in-your mouth fritters of eggplant and zucchini: a fabulous combination that was a meal in itself. A large bowl of chick-pea salad was also placed on the table. We learned that when Nice was part of Savoy (Italy),during much of the first half of the 19th century, it could not trade with France, so it looked to North Africa. Much of the Nice cuisine still has that influence.
The restaurant's menu listed some local favorites, such as Testicules de mouton panees (translation not required) and Merda de can ("dog shit" in the local dialect). Not to worry, it's actually gnocchi with Swiss chard. We played it safe. I chose scampi for my main course, while Bicycle Bob went with wild rouget (red mullet). We were both more than satisfied.
We dined at yet another restaurant specializing in cuisine Nicoise, Lou Balico. L'omlette de poutrine is considered a local delicacy. I had to try it. We had seen poutrine at the market — miniscule, silvery fish caught only in February and March. The omelet was delicate and light, but a bit on the fishy side. Bicycle Bob opted for rabbit with a tapenade sauce.
"You know, I'm not really thrilled with this traditional food," he remarked after this meal. So, for our last adventure in Nice dining, we went to La Zucca Magica, (the magic pumpkin), a vegetarian restaurant run by Italians. We're not vegetarians, but it was our favorite. It's also a favorite of Mark Bittman, the New York Times food writer.
The decor is pumpkins and gourds and squash — hanging from the ceiling, on the tables and window sills, depicted in paintings and photos on the walls. It's dimly lit with flickering candles, cozy and inviting. There is no menu. You take a seat, order some wine, and food starts arriving — five different dishes, one after another.
We started with a pesto, cheese and artichoke creation that was heavenly. Then soup, a blend of spinach and ricotta with a hint of nutmeg, followed by a "pumpkin sandwich," a cheese and pumpkin concotion. The main course was a pasta dish combining black olives, mozzarella and pumpkin. Topping it all off we savored apple and pumpkin strudel with cinnamon ice cream. Bicycle Bob, who is a pumpkin freak, was in his glory, and I'd easily convert to vegetarianism if every meal could be like this. We'll go back next time we're in Nice.
And, then we'd also like to try Keisuke Matsushima, a Michelin one-star restaurant run by a 31-year-old Japanese chef of the same name specializing in "Japanice" cuisine. It's highly recommended. If the dollar holds its course, we may be able to afford it.
Last but not least on the Nice food scene is socca, a giant crepe made with chick-pea flour, cooked on a wood-burning stove on a sheet of tin-plated copper. There are numerous places in the alleys of Nice's old town where customers wait in line for a paper plate of the pancake which is chopped into bite-size pieces. The legendary place for socca is Chez Theresa in the market where the lovely Theresa is more than happy to pose for photos.