By Katherine Harvey
In June, just before we left for the summer, Judy Bross asked me to write another Dispatch from Antibes. Flattered, I said I would and wondered what I would write about this time. I had covered the annual truffle lunch that takes place at Jacques Chibois’ hotel and one Michelin star restaurant near Grasse, among other subjects, and needed to come up with something interesting. After a few more spoonfuls of my pho soup (we were at Le Colonial) I decided on bouillabaisse. Judy agreed that would be a fine subject.
We arrived in Antibes on a Thursday. The plants were delivered as planned shortly after we got to the house in preparation for planting on Friday. Then came Saturday and the beginning of the arrival of many from Chicago. A friend had rented a house just out our back door and came with a charming friend, also from Chicago. That evening we had champagne on our terrace overlooking the Med and then dinner at MAMO (le Michelangelo), the local restaurant where all the celebrities go, although we did not see one. MAMO now has branches in New York (SoHo) and Paris (16th) with London and Dubai to follow soon. The New York restaurant is run by Mamo’s dynamic son Michael by Mamo’s first wife who was American. Mamo’s second wife is a babe.
Sunday the daughter of Chicago friends came for breakfast with her two adorable children after a visit to the Picasso Museum, just steps away. It could not have been more delightful and the five-year-old daughter took mere seconds to discover my soap bubble fish that sends out a continuous stream of iridescent bubbles while playing a catchy, annoying tune.
Breakfast on our terrace included a fougassette, a sweet orange water flavored bread from Veziano, the famous boulangerie around the corner known for Jean Paul’s pissaladiere, an onion/anchovy concoction with an olive on a thick piece of pastry that is a Provencal specialty. Jean Paul, who is also our alderman, is a third generation boulanger and supplies bread to restaurants from Cannes to Monte Carlo including one of my favorites in Cannes, the one star Michelin Le Parc 45 at Le Grand Hotel on the Croisette. Jean Paul was in Chicago in May meeting with Brendan Sodikoff of Au Cheval fame to discuss a possible partnership of some sort; any plans will be known by the end of the year. After breakfast we walked the group to the car park near the port and off they went to Plage Keller, the most famous of the Garoupe beaches in Cap d’Antibes, having been the day before to the also famous Plage Joseph where their hotel has a special reserved area. Both Plage Keller and Plage Joseph are owned by the Bensimon family, Keller for 30 years and Joseph for five. The ever churning rumor mill says that Plage Keller will have to be demolished in two years. More on beach demolitions later.
Then came Wednesday and another group from Chicago, this time a close friend and her son and his family. We had planned this visit in February and it included BOUILLABAISSE at Restaurant de Bacon in Cap d’Antibes, minutes away on the far side of the cove. We were guests but only our hostess and I had the delicious fish soup (and in both our cases, with langouste).
After a week our friends in the house out our back door left. We enjoyed having them here which included, in addition to dinner at MAMO, a picnic dinner on our terrace, an excursion to our favorite pizza restaurant and yes, lunch at the Bacon as their guest. Then more Chicago friends came for a picnic lunch and rosé on our terrace after a visit to the Picasso museum and the next week a young friend from Chicago who now works in New York came for champagne and a picnic dinner on our terrace bringing her equally delightful traveling companion. That was the last of visitors and picnics on our terrace until August when former Chicago friends who come almost every year will be here. It has been busy, not leaving me much time to write about bouillabaisse but getting picnics on the terrace down pat.
The legendary Restaurant de Bacon is one of the few restaurants this side of Marseille that serves bouillabaisse. The restaurant has been on the market for some time and one of the two brothers who own the establishment died recently and the next generation is eager to sell. The owner of New York New York, a steak joint in Cannes, seemed very interested in purchasing the Bacon but after a meeting weeks ago during which the New York New York lawyers (no, that is not an oversight by the editors or punctuation error on my part, that is the name of the restaurant) promised to get back to the Bacon in 24 hours there is still no offer. We will see what happens as another group, whose vision for the future of the Bacon might be more in keeping with the traditions of this venerated institution, is interested.
Bouillabaisse. That wonderful fish soup. When I started this dispatch I did my usual research and started with Wikipedia and realized that I could stop there and decided to ask my readers to Google bouillabaisse and read the Wikipedia entry. Please do that. But bouillabaisse is more than just a bowl of soup with fish and garlic rubbed croutons weighed down with spicy rouille and a potato or two thrown in. It is a legend and people are fighting for it to exist.
In France, as in most countries, there is a law in keeping with ancient Roman law regarding the coastline: it belongs to everyone. For decades in France there have been so called “private“ beaches: you pay and have a beach chair (some of the finer beaches rent towels and hotel beaches always have towels). What does this have to do with bouillabaisse? I will get to that shortly. In 2006, France adopted the decree that all should have free access to the sea. There was an uproar a few years ago when the King of Saudi Arabia appropriated a small beach next to his mansion on the sea in Golfe Juan. The outrage was so strong that in a matter of days the elevator was removed and things got back to normal. The King never showed up anyway.
But back to the 2006 Beach Decree. Previously, beach concessions had 20 year permits. The whole private beach situation was probably illegal from the beginning but it got bigger and bigger and local governments did nothing to stop it and after decades private beaches (1,500 with 600 on the Riviera) and beach restaurants were just part of going to the beach in France and it became big business with 700 million euros in revenue annually. The Decree reduced the 20 year permit limit to 12 years and declared that the total number of business could not exceed 20% of each beach and all structures must be dismountable and can remain in place for a certain number of months a year depending on if the beach station is classified and if there are rooms attached to the beach station during certain months, etc. The 20% part meant some private beaches would have to go. That is the easy explanation.
The unions of beach owners both local and national protested the Decree but to no avail. One argument they raised was that many would lose employment when the beaches and restaurants were demolished. The beaches and restaurants were demolished.
Now we get to bouillabaisse. I mentioned Plage Keller early in this Dispatch. It is famous and movie stars go there and if you are going to the beach one is usually asked, “Which beach?”. In many ways a beach is a beach but here the prestige of the beach you frequent is very important. And the restaurant attached to the beach is also important. Plage Keller has Cesar which is famous for a whole fish cooked in a sea salt. It is delicious and wonderfully dramatic to see the salt crust expertly crushed with a wood mallet. They used to serve fettuccini with vodka sauce but that seems to have been removed from the menu.
In Golfe Juan, two restaurants with a private beach served bouillabaisse: Tetou and Nounou. They were next to each other and had very different personalities. At Tetou you were asked if you wanted it with or without, meaning bouillabaisse with or without langouste. And it was hard to resist not ordering the grilled tomatoes for a first course even though just bouillabaisse was more than enough. And it was cash only, no exceptions. During the Cannes Film Festival in May every year it was next to impossible to get a reservation for lunch or dinner. A steaming terrine of fish soup was placed in the middle of the table with a ladle and a plate of fish (see Wikipedia) with or without langouste on top and then another overturned plate was placed over the fish to keep it warm. It was self- serve. Next door at Nounou it was pretty much the same for the bouillabaisse but the menu was more extensive. The owner with his white German Shepherd would come over and explain the menu and even if you had heard his explanation twenty times it was part of the show. And the colorful and colorful aquatic themed ceramic decoration by Jean Cocteau’s handsome partner Jean Marais added to the romance.
Sadly, because of the 2006 Beach Decree, after decades of serving bouillabaisse, Tetou and Nounou were demolished this spring. Robert DeNiro famously protested as did other Hollywood types. One of the servers from Nounou whose aunt and grandmother also had worked there broke down in tears during a television interview about the fate of Nounou. Jean Paul Belmondo’s favorite beach and restaurant (Moorea) where he held court for decades was returned to the public. Now the Bacon is the only restaurant between Marseille and Nice that serves bouillabaisse and the fate of the Bacon is unknown as of this writing. I suggest you go to the Bacon website (restaurantdebacon.com) to read about this dish in all its glory.…along with a recipe if you are adventurous although at this point perhaps we should all learn this skill. If you are interested in photos of what the Bacon does with fish and bouillabaisse, I suggest you go to “bouillabaisse photo bacon”.
Rumor has it that Tetou will rebuild on its former parking lot but as of now it is just rumor. The owner of Nounou is too heartbroken to make any plans for the future. To add to the pain of seeing these restaurants demolished, a place where in many cases the owner has spent the majority of his/her life, the restaurant owner must pay for the demolition of the structure and beach restoration, costing multiple hundreds of thousands of euros.
In Juan les Pins, many beach restaurants were demolished this spring and the debris, for mysterious reasons, has yet to be removed although the question of who is financially responsible for the debris removal comes to mind. The unsightly mess is not exactly a positive move for tourism which is the main industry here and many wonder how this will effect future tourism with more beach restaurants to be demolished before next summer and the removal of the debris does not seem to be a priority.
In Marseille, the place to go for bouillabaisse is Passedat – Le Petit Nice, Gerald Passedat’s three star Michelin restaurant overlooking the sea. And in September chef Passedat will also preside over the Brasserie Lutecia in the iconic left bank hotel Lutecia in Paris (6th) which just opened after a four year renovation by famed architect Jean Michel Wilmotte.
As for me, my husband and I plan on going to the Bacon next Sunday for lunch and I will order bouillabaisse with langouste. If you are in the neighborhood, please join us. And we always start with a Cocktail Robert: gin, white vermouth, liqueur of wild strawberries, the house specialty.
Igloo is back from a few weeks in the Var; his latest place to nap is the front step of our neighbor. I wonder if he has not chosen that spot as it is always in the shade and there is enough room for a person to sit down next to him and give him some of that well deserved attention. And he does not have to move a muscle which is probably the most important part.