MENTON, France – When you’re invited to dinner at the world’s best restaurant, you show up with certain expectations. (And when American Express Travel is the one inviting you, these expectations are quite high.) Some of them are rooted in reality: Namely, that the food will be artfully prepared, with no fewer than fifteen courses, and that the wine pairing will be better than all the ones that came before it. Others a little outdated: That the dining room will be glazed in gold, the waiters dressed in white tuxedos, and the menu packed with only the finest in foie gras and caviar.
Mirazur, the sun-drenched restaurant on the edge of the French Riviera that this year took the top spot on San Pellegrino’s list of The World’s 50 Best Restaurants, met none of these expectations — in the best way possible. To put it simply, the meal — which I and a few other journalists were enjoying as one of the American Express By Invitation Only events created for Platinum credit card holders — was a complete breath of fresh air.
This should have come as no surprise, given the talent behind the operation. Mauro Colagreco, the self-proclaimed "chef without borders" (born in Argentina, has Italian ancestry, lives and works in France, married a Brazilian), is all about breaking convention. He's the first non-French chef to win three Michelin stars — in France. Along with a slew of restaurants around the world, he runs an everyday Neapolitan pizza joint called Pecora Negra by the pier in Menton, where Mirazur is located, and is about to open a bakery specializing in heritage grain loaves not too far away.
All very impressive. But the best thing about him may be that he's one of the most down-to-earth chefs I've ever met.
We spent an afternoon with him and his wife Julia at Tenuta Selvadolce, just across the border in Bordghiera, Italy. The winery, a favorite of Colagreco's, has an interesting origin story: It's run by Aris Blancardi, a former veterinarian with no winemaking experience (he doesn't even drink wine), who saved his family's picturesque plot of land by turning it from a dying flower farm into a biodynamic vineyard. Overlooking Blancardi's ocean-facing infinity pool and vintage Fiat, we communed around natural wines, 36-month-old aged comte and Sardinian goat cheeses, and focaccia Blancardi's wife picked up from her favorite bakery for the occasion.
Time slowed down. Jokes were made. Arms were draped around shoulders.
A classic Ligurian scene.
Later that day back at Mirazur, no more than a few hundred feet on the other side of the border, the scene was just as idyllic. As the name implies, the two-story jewel box of a restaurant, clad in white with blond wood and minimalist furnishings, is a literal window on to the Mediterranean. Its immediate surroundings are just as eye-catching, and include a lush back patio where we ate fresh pesto and oven-baked socca (the results of a cooking lesson led by Colagreco that kicked off the evening) and a stunning vegetable garden bordered by property owned by Belgian royalty, as well as the chef's own home, which supplies much of the restaurant's menu.
Colagreco settled on this prime piece of real estate in 2006 (when the rent was cheap) after working for such legendary French chefs as Alain Passard and Alain Ducasse. In the years since, he's refined his own culinary style, influenced by his multicultural background, the surrounding terroir, and the freedom of being able to work outside the bounds of classic French gastronomy. (Consider these the perks of being a foreign chef in France.) Every dish served at Mirazur is a unique interpretation of the surrounding land and sea. Literally. Every day, Colagreco conceives a new menu around what's available, an approach that simultaneously delights his diners while undoubtedly driving his kitchen team mad (I'm guessing with frustration or joy, depending on the day).
On the night of our dinner, waiters dressed in custom suits from Argentinian athletic wear brand Miwok handed out Champagne to pair with perfectly crisp potatoes mille-feuille skewered on sticks, anchovies dusted with bottarga and capers, and gem-like radishes topped with caviar and flowers. Once seated, our meal kicked off on a philosophical note with a simple loaf of heritage grain bread accompanied by a poem from Pablo Neruda.
What followed was just as honest: zucchini from the garden artfully arranged over shrimp from nearby San Remo, a tartlet of rare in-season mushrooms, a fricassee of shellfish in pesto so rich and comforting it recalled a surf-and-turf rift on boxed mac and cheese, and a fresh piece of turbot covered in sudachi and trout eggs from the Roya valley just north of Menton. Dessert was deliciously straightforward: a fig leaf granita atop fig panna cotta served with an aromatic scoop of rosemary ice cream topped with a luscious, almost carpet-like slab of Peruvian chocolate.
Maybe it was because our group had just dined at Ducasse's incredibly opulent, three-Michelin-starred Le Louis XV in Monaco, a gilded example of a traditional, French haute cuisine meal that lasted forever and left me feeling like a brick.
Or maybe it was because the next stop on our journey would be former World's Best restaurant El Celler de Can Roca in Girona, Spain, a home, garden, and think tank helmed by the larger-than-life Roca brothers (who, along with Colagreco, belong to Amex's Global Dining Collection of world-class chefs), where the dishes were theatrically composed but the ingredients almost unrecognizable. (Yeah, this was one hell of a trip American Express invited Fathom to join.)
But the simplicity of my meal at Mirazur has stuck with me ever since.
This is a restaurant where every ingredient on the plate is easily recognizable. Where the idea of food as an expression of its environment is taken to the next level. And where one walks away from the dinner table light on their feet, amazed at how the chef managed to impress without overloading any of the senses. It's a dining experience that may not blow away the foie and caviar crew, but for those who appreciate subtlety, incredibly fresh ingredients, and one hell of a view, it's an unforgettable stop to add to a trip along the Côte d'Azur.
Good luck getting the reservation.
Plan Your Trip
How to Get There
Mirazur is located on the eastern edge of Menton in southern France. Menton is a bright, colorful hillside town with a beautiful pebble beach, a fisherman's port, and tons of aristocratic, old-world flair. It's one of the sunniest places in France, and it's worth spending some time here. Fly into the airport in Nice and take a bus, train, taxi (for about $100), or drive your own car to get there.
Where to Stay
I stayed a half-hour drive away in Monaco at Hotel Metropole, an American Express Fine Hotels and Resorts property. Like most places in the weird, wonderful, tiny country, this place is over the top. Everyone who stays here seems to drive a Rolls Royce. The lobby is dark and mysterious, covered in exotic plants, and smells like amber. The hotel is home to one of three Givenchy spas in the world, a restaurant from Joël Robuchon, and a pool designed by Karl Lagerfeld. If you're on a blow-out, once-in-a-lifetime trip along the French Riviera, this is a good place to stay (or better yet, Chèvre d’Or in nearby Èze), but if you prefer to keep accommodations simple (and meals big), there are plenty of Airbnbs to choose from along the coast.