Thursday, December 02, 2004

Highlights: Nice

The pan bagnat at Lou Pilha Leva
Originally uploaded by ajkinik.

As mentioned in an earlier post (“Pizza in Marseille”), my sister and I spent a couple of glorious days in Nice in September. All right, it wasn’t all sunshine and soccas—the afternoon we arrived we were greeted with several hours of torrential rain. I’ve got a couple of friends who came to Nice in the fall a few years ago and endured about 9 days of continuous downpour, so I had a few moments of panic, but by 6:00 that evening the skies had cleared up, and an hour later we were on the beach for the first of several dips in the Mediterranean during the short time we were there. (After what was largely a cold, rainy, dreary non-summer in Köln/Bonn, swimming in the sea was much-needed therapy.) Anyway, Nice is no slouch when it comes to food, as is well known, and we tried to make the most of it.

One lunch was spent at Lou Pilha Leva (10 Rue du Collet) in the heart of le Vieux Nice. There, the seating is open-air and informal and the restaurant is actually spread across two sides of the street. One side is the food side, the other side specializes in drinks. You queue up on the food side to place your order and collect your dishes, but then waiters/busboys circulate to take your drink orders and clear the tables. We had our second pissaladière—the classic Niçoise tarte topped with caramelized onions, a few olives, a few anchovies, and some herbes de Provence—in two days, but Lou Pilha Leva’s was by far and away the superior one. The crust was crispier than the one we’d had the day before, the topping was tastier, with the onions expertly prepared. It was also warmer this time around, more satisfying. We accompanied our pissaladière with our very first socca—yet another staple in this region. Socca is a crêpe made with a chickpea flour and olive oil batter that’s then poured into these huge, round pans and baked in the oven. At Lou Pilha Leva the soccas come out of the oven fresh every couple of minutes and they’re swiftly scooped onto plates for the eager crowds. There’s not much to socca and it’s typically served unadorned, but it has a lovely flavor and it makes for great finger food. We completed our trio of Niçois classics by having a pan bagnat. We’d had a couple since we’d been on the Mediterranean, but, again, Lou Pilha Leva’s was the best of the lot. It came overstuffed with tomatoes, peppers, tuna, and olives, and literally bursting with an olive oil-heavy vinaigrette. Outstanding. The meal was capped by an impromptu performance by a roaming band of buff, tan, shirtless, drawstring-pants-wearing capoeira enthusiasts. I’m a bit of a sucker for that kick-the-cigarette-out-of-the-nervous-tourist’s-mouth trick.

Later that same day (remember, we had to work quickly), my sister and I took a tip from some friends and made our way to l’Escalinida (Rue Pairolière). The skies were misting slightly—even though we couldn’t see any clouds—but we chose to eat al fresco anyway. The dining room was nice and cozy, but the courtyard outside--again, in the heart of le Vieux Nice--was so much more picturesque (so we thought). We ordered wine and a salade Niçoise to begin with. The salad was the definitive Niçoise, made with an artisanal flair. Everything was top-notch, from the greens, to the olives, to the tuna, and the vinaigrette and herbs were perfectly balanced. We followed this up with two brilliant mains. I had the gnocchi with pistou on a tip from one of my friends, while my sister had the veal piccata. The gnocchi were made on premises and were touted as being a specialty of the house. They were, without question, the most tender gnocchi I’ve ever had, and the pistou that adorned them was outstanding. The veal piccata came served with homemade tagliatelle, and the entire combination was fantastic. The veal was beautifully prepared and it came with a delicate marsala sauce. The noodles were simply dreamy. Then the fireworks really started. Literally. Towards the end of our meal some invisible, rooftop punks started firing fireworks directly into l’Escalinida’s open-air seating area. Éclater la bourgeoisie! When the third missile ricocheted off our table and the wait staff still hadn’t done anything more than stare impotently towards the rooftops and scratch their heads, we left, deciding to take dessert at Fenocchio, the master gelato makers, instead of in the line of fire.

The next day, before our late-morning, train, I made the mandatory visit to Alziari (14 Rue St. François de Paule) to pick up one of the world’s finest olive oils. Our friends had brought us back a 1/2-liter can a few years earlier. We’d been dreaming about it ever since that can ran dry. You can get Alziari olive oil in Paris (hell, apparently you can get it at Williams-Sonoma), but it’s much cheaper if you get in Nice and the store is well worth a visit. I picked up a 1-liter can for our household and a few 1/2-liter cans for family and friends. I also picked up some tapenade and some herbes de Provence. I desperately wanted to get some of their cailletier olives, too, but I was already overloaded. I tried a couple though, and, God, they were good (even at 8:30 A.M.).


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