Michelin men

Cannes and the area around it are home to some of the most outstanding eateries in the South of France -- following is a look at the town's finest dining options.

Cannes veterans know that the focus of the festival is in the crescent formed by the Croisette and the Old Port, with the Palais des Festivals at its center. Many of Cannes' best restaurants can be found within this arc. It will come as no surprise that one of these, La Palme d'Or (75 bd de la Croisette, 04-2998-7414) takes its name from the coveted award that the festival bestows. Situated on the first floor of the Hotel Martinez at the western end of the crescent, it offers a long tradition of fine cuisine, a recently reworked art deco interior and a terrace that overlooks the bay and the Croisette. After a career at Maxim's and Le Francais in Paris, Castel Marie-Louise and Hermitage in la Baule and the Hotel de Paris in Monaco, master chef Christian Willer opened this restaurant in 1985 and was rewarded with his first Michelin star just one year later. The eatery's second star followed in 1991 while a young Christian Sinicropi was just starting his career there.

Although Sinicropi had subsequently left La Palme d'Or to work at La Cote at the nearby Carlton, the Hotel du Palais in Biarritz, La Belle Otero in Cannes and Louis XV in Monaco, he returned to the fold in 2001, and now, with Willer planning to retire at the end of the season, he will continue the restaurant's tradition of excellence in the coming years. (To mark the transition and to commemorate the festival's 60th anniversary, Sinicropi has published a book, "Petit Plats, Grand Ecran," which features 60 recipes inspired by great films -- an English version should be available soon).

Both men, however, collaborated on this year's menu, aptly titled "Poetic Gastronomy." With souffles in both starters and desserts, amazing combinations of fish with meat (sea bass with veal tartare, turbot with pork and prawns, scallops with foie gras, oyster with duck liver) and meat with fish (veal with crayfish sauce, pork with smoked salmon, rabbit with prawn sauce), this menu will delight and educate. The two Christians make a point of avoiding aromatic ingredients, preferring to let the true flavors of their ingredients come through in the cooking.

It also is worth mentioning that master sommelier Andre Toscano is there to provide expert help in finding the perfect vintage to complement the delicate flavors of the meal, and if one dines in the evening, stop for a digestif in the Admiral bar, where Jimmy McKissic demonstrates his mastery of the piano (he fills Carnegie Hall every year). A quick tip: Eating at La Palme d'Or at lunchtime allows one to sample this level of superior gastronomy at set-menu prices.

La Villa des Lys (14 bd de la Croisette, 04-9298-7741) also is located in one of the key festival hotels, the Majestic. With a palm tree terrace and an Egyptian interior, the surroundings are the equal to young but well-traveled chef Bruno Oger's international experience (he regularly oversees a huge team for the opening and closing banquets of the festival itself and has written several books). Geographically identified ingredients -- veal from Limousin, lamb from the Haute-Provence Alps -- are supported by champagne vinegar and black truffles to form the unique combinations that clearly were instrumental in the restaurant recently receiving a second Michelin star.

Le Royal Gray (38 rue des Serbes, 04-9299-7960) is located in the Hotel Gray d'Albion, halfway along the Croisette between the Martinez and Majestic hotels. Chef Michel Bigot's ability to combine ingredients leads to highlights such as the fricassee of lobster with tarragon sauce and Provencal herb risotto with scallops.

Those wanting to get a little farther away from the bustle of the Croisette will find the short walk past the Old Port doubly rewarding. Le Mediterranee (2 bd Jean-Hibert, 04-9299-7300) on the upper floors of the Hotel Sofitel has arguably the best view in Cannes, with a terrace overlooking the Old Port, the whole Bay of Cannes and the distant Esterel mountains. Chef Reynald Thivet's stunning combinations include basil ravioli with chocolate sorbet and shrimp with roasted artichoke, and the Brittany lobster is a must for seafood lovers. Cigar enthusiasts will appreciate the Cave a Cigares for their postprandial indulgence. If Le Mediterranee is full, try the downstairs restaurant Chez Panisse, which has a more straightforward grill-style menu but adheres to the same high standard.

Nearby is Gaston-Gastounette (7 quai Saint Pierre, 04-9339-4944), which specializes in seafood. Its bouillabaisse -- France's traditional tribute to the bounty of the sea -- is its crowning glory. Other highlights include tortellini and boiled mussels. For those on a tighter budget, great seafood can be found just behind the Hotel de Ville (Town Hall) at Astoux et Cie Brun (27 rue Felix Faure, 04-9339-2187), a favorite with locals looking to avoid festival prices. Oysters and shellfish are strongly recommended.

Perhaps the best place to see and be seen, the Carlton Brasserie (58 bd de la Croisette, 04-9306-4021), located in the forecourt of the Hotel Carlton, features a beautifully produced menu promising such delights as guinea fowl braised with boletus mushrooms and duck leg cannelloni with Provencal wine, and to follow, chocolate souffle with tea ice cream and hazelnut feuillete. The sweets trolley, by master pastry chef Hubert Coulange, is a tempting option.

For afternoon tea, Le Festival (52 bd de la Croisette, 04-9338-0481) offers a simple but high-quality menu, and its confections are second to none. Next door in the Noga Hilton is La Scala (50 bd de la Croisette, 04-9299-70 00), a somewhat more private place to dine. A four-course prix fixe menu helps keep spending within sensible limits, and patrons can enjoy the feeling of truly being in the center of the festival action. It also is one of those rare places in France that caters properly to vegetarians. And for those really craving that frenzied vibe, try Vesuvio (68 bd de la Croisette, 04-9394-0828), which serves up great pizzas and salads -- at very reasonable prices -- on the pavement of the Croisette itself.

Le Suquet

Farther away from the festival lies Le Suquet -- as the Old Town area is known -- which is chock-full of restaurants and bars and is well worth investigating, especially for anyone looking for a more informal dining experience without sacrificing quality. Le Marais (9 rue du Suquet, 04-9338-3919) offers classic French country fare, while Le Relais de Semailles (9 rue Saint Antoine, 04-9339-2232) features the best of Provencal cooking, and Au Bec Fin (12, rue du 24 Aout, 04-9338-3586) proffers traditional hearty food in generous portions. Chef Noel Mantel, who trained with Alain Ducasse, recently established his namesake restaurant Mantel (22 rue Saint Antoine, 04-9339-1310) to take advantage of the al fresco setting, serving up classic French and Italian dishes; his three-course menu du jour is a great value. Le Suquet also is the location for Athenee (18 rue des Freres Pradignac, 04-9338-9611), which features mouth-watering slow-cooked and grilled Greek specialties at prices that will provide the wallet -- and the palate -- with some relief in the event that the local fare begins to take a toll.

Mougins

Just on the other side of the Autoroute du Soleil -- the "Sunshine Freeway," which bypasses Cannes -- the hill town of Mougins is home to the Moulin de Mougins (Notre Dame de Vie, Mougins, 04-9375-7824), the area's only other restaurant to have earned two Michelin stars. Most famous for hosting the AMFAR charity dinner on the second Thursday of the festival (hosted by the likes of Elton John, Sharon Stone and Elizabeth Taylor), the restaurant was founded by the recently retired Roger Verge, who handed the culinary baton to Alain Llorca, former chef of the Negresco palace in Nice. Llorca brought on his brother, Jean-Michel, as the dessert chef, and together, they're assembling three separate menus sure to appeal to a wide array of palates.

On offer are traditional Moulin classics such as zucchini blossoms stuffed with mushrooms and black truffles, lobster ravioli stew and caramelized orange shortbread, as well as more contemporary delights such as duck foie gras candies, breaded Sisteron lamb with truffle/asparagus polenta and crispy garlic and walnut biscuits with chocolate/coffee cream. Those seeking lighter fare might want to indulge in the vegetable cannelloni, pan-fried scallops/shellfish carpaccio and sugar-free three-chocolate mousse, and if it's a shared experience diners are after, Llorca has created his own tapas-style menu with 12 tasting courses. Master sommelier Alain Parnaudeau specializes in recommending local vintages to accompany any meal.

One of the area's newest restaurants is Le Candille (bd Clement Rebuffel, Mougins, 04-9228-4343), which is located at Le Mas Candille Hotel, where head chef Serge Gouloumes prepares such delightful dishes that he earned his first Michelin star in less than five years. Although there are a la carte selections available, Gouloumes has combined his signature dishes into two menus -- the Discovery, which follows up foie gras terrine and figs with a flaked Skrei bouillabaisse and champagne-poached poultry, cheeses and dessert, or the more robust seven-course Roller Coaster menu, which offers the tempting combination of lobster tips with fennel, scallop and beetroot kebabs, turbot in wine and wild-mushroom cappuccino and Sisteron lamb in an herb crust, topped off with cheeses and two desserts.

A very different dining experience is available in Mougins courtesy of Le Saint Petersbourg (45 avenue Saint Basile, Mougins, 04-9292-9843). Featuring Russian specialties, set menus include caviar, blinis and smoked salmon, which might be a welcome change after a week of even the finest Mediterranean and Provencal cuisines.

Of course, if money really is no object, there's always the Cap d'Antibes peninsula's Hotel du Cap (Eden Roc, bd JF Kennedy, Antibes, 04-9361-3901), which operates several restaurants, all of which overlook the sea. The hotel offers the finest buffet lunch one could hope to experience.
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