Food challenge: how to eat 9 Michelin stars of fine cuisine in 3 days

Tristan Rutherford roams the French Riviera and Monaco to sample the best dishes from 5 restaurants which between them have been awarded 9 stars by the famed gourmets’ guide

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 28 January, 2016, 8:00pm
UPDATED : Monday, 01 February, 2016, 12:39pm

It’s going to be a difficult day at work. I’m lunching alone at Nice’s Michelin one-star restaurant, Flaveur. In front of me sits a fishy amuse-bouche fantasy. There’s parsnip mouse topped with tobiko (flying fish) eggs. There’s melt-on-the-tongue mackerel on a giant seaweed “chip”. Plus a luminous yellow cube of haddock on a mousse of citron caviar. And a perfect square of trout gravlax on a perfectly round coriander biscuit.

But that’s not the difficult part. My problem is that I have another Michelin-starred dégustation in Nice this evening. And another two-star tasting menu near Italy tomorrow. And another in Monaco the day after that.

My Michelin missionis to eat nine stars in three days as deadline dawns on a guidebook project. That I fail in this and manage “only” six stars isn’t through lack of trying.

Fortunately, I’m on the French Riviera. This coastal strip is one of the few places in the world outside London, Paris, New York and Hong Kong where such a dining challenge is possible. My real fear is fitting in up to 6,000 calories per day. I have no choice but to press on.

Back at Flaveur, the restaurant’s young head chefs, brothers Gaël and Mickaël Tourteaux, serve me another new invention every 20 minutes. There’s a three-layer carpaccio – petal-thin raw chestnuts above field mushrooms above beef brisket, perched on a bone marrow risotto. Then a seasonal taste of venison with umami-rich plum and black garlic dumplings, a juniper mousse that smacks of a Christmas gin and tonic. Elder brother Gaël Tourteaux joins me for dessert: a pear, cardamom and nutmeg display of ice creams, jellies and biscuits, all coloured the same stone grey like a winter garden.

Where did he learn to do this? “There’s simply a wealth of Michelin-starred restaurants on the French Riviera,” says Tourteaux. “I learnt my skills in Le Chantecler. My younger brother Mickaël practised at the Moulin de Mougins [a nearby legendary two-star where superchef Alain Ducasse learnt his trade].”

Like most chefs from the South of France, Tourteaux is familiar with The New York Times, FT and SCMP. The conversation turns to China. “We welcome more and more Chinese diners,” explains Tourteaux, while I glug a palate-cleansing tray of test tubes filled with ginger milk and fresh herbs. “They are up to date with fine dining trends. For example the concept of a gastronomic voyage when you eat a menu degustation. They’re also extremely polite, which makes a change from some European nationalities.” Tourteaux is doubly delighted because the previous day a table of mainland diners purchased a very expensive bottle of Burgundy. “It’s becoming as famous as Bordeaux,” he says, smiling, “and I have lots more in my cellar.”

Five hours later I’m sitting in the office of Jean-Denis Rieubland, head chef of the aforementioned Le Chantecler inside the five-star Hotel Negresco. Lobsters and oysters are being shelled around us. Rieubland explains why the French Riviera is such a foodie destination.

“For me it’s all about the ingredients,” he explains. “The sun shines on the South of France to give us 300 sunny days each year. It pours its energy into our Niçoise olives, globe artichokes and the Bellet vineyards above Nice airport.” Does Rieubland utilise any 21st-century touches as they do at Flaveur? “We are really a classic two-star restaurant,” he says. But as my lunchtime experience shows, Rieubland’s clientele is slowly changing from older French diners to younger Europeans and Chinese. “President Hu Jintao stayed upstairs in the Negresco’s suite royale in 2011, so we had an increased interest from Chinese guests after that. The one thing I know is that our Chinese guests love to eat.”

As do I. In the hushed formality of Le Chantecler’s dining room I’m served butter-soft duck on a mash of quince and chestnuts. Then grilled scallops surrounded by a beetroot rainbow. Following a one-star with a two-star is also an excellent opportunity to compare the Michelin rules. Dishes here are delivered under silver cloches by waiters with the dress and demeanour of a 19th-century palais.

It’s deliciously overwhelming, like dining with Napoleon III. My second wine pairing of the day is also more extravagant. I’m sent dizzily to bed with a 1996 El Pison Rioja that tastes like ruby nectar.

The following day promises to be a cinch: just a single two-star Michelin lunch followed by an early night. I sip sparkling water on the 40-minute train ride from Nice to Menton on the Italian border as it zips above the beaches of Villefranche, Monaco and Roquebrune.

As Mirazur occupies the 11th spot on the annual list of the World’s 50 Best Restaurants, head chef Mauro Colagreco is categorically the best chef in France. Unlike the fancy fustiness of Le Chantecler, Colagreco’s trick is to remove any diversions (think white dining room, black suited waiters, blue sea panorama) so your sole distraction is his food.

It’s my only meal of the day, and it’s an utter privilege. Raw tuna, caught by a local fisherman, is paired with bitter almonds and citrusy raspberries. Crustaceans are served with edible flowers on an airy pillow of tapenade-stuffed bread. It’s Picasso on a plate. Michelin-starred meals should leave you entranced and incredulous, not sated and stuffed. Mirazur leaves me hungry for more. Fortunately, tomorrow I have one final day gastro onslaught, this time in Monaco. Shockingly, this one-square-mile nation boasts nine Michelin stars, surely the highest concentration on earth.

Alas, Monaco’s three-star Louis XV by Alain Ducasse (Michelin’s most acclaimed restaurant on the French Riviera) is closed for refurbishment until April 2016. My stomach is thus “saved” from the five-hour foodie onslaught I last enjoyed here in 2013 (it included 57 pieces of silverware and a dessert decorated in gold leaf). I won’t meet my personal Michelin goal, but restaurant manager Michel Lang talks me through the renovation instead.

“Louis XV will be more contemporary, young and purified than it used to be,” says Lang. “Also with a completely rewritten Riviera menu, new contemporary outfits and lighter tableware.” Still the same service for 2016? “You have to keep the professionalism required within a Michelin three-star restaurant, but what’s new is our ‘office’ in the centre of the salon. This piece of furniture will unfold as the meal progresses.”

Like all the Riviera’s restaurants, Louis XV keeps one eye on the times and another on the key overseas dining sector. “I am sure this evolution will seduce and satisfy all our guests, in particular Asian clients.”

In Monaco you never more than a five-minute walk from a Michelin-starred restaurant. For a final gourmet hit I try the principality’s most inventive restaurant, one-star Yoshi. It’s a collaboration between Takéo Yamazaki, its Japanese head chef, and Joël Robuchon, the restaurateur who currently holds 25 Michelin stars, more than anyone else in the world. It’s effortlessly amazing. During one course I lift the enamel lid off a miso soup bowl to discover a fish ball that distils more crustacean flavour than an entire lobster. In another dish I peel layer upon layer off a meaty marinated black cod with my chopstick. Dessert is a fruity ikebana: a perfect triangle of dissected blackberries, apricot, papaya, mango and melon.

Over a bowl of green tea, Yamazaki says that gastronomy on the French Riviera is like the chicken and the egg. “Firstly, it’s a world famous destination with direct flights to New York, Moscow, Dubai and worldwide. Secondly, with 29 Michelin-starred restaurants, the region naturally attracts wealthy gastronomes, who keep flying in to eat more fine food.” There’s one more bonus. “It also attracts chefs like me,” smiles Yamazaki. I’m sure glad it does.

The venues

Flaveur, 25 Rue Gubernatis, Nice, tel: +33 4 93 62 53 95, flaveur.net

Le Chantecler, Hotel Le Negresco, 37 Promenade des Anglais, Nice, tel: +33 4 93 16 64 00, hotel-negresco-nice.com

Mirazur, 30 Avenue Aristide Briand, Menton, tel: +33 4 92 41 86 86, mirazur.fr

Louis XV by Alain Ducasse, Hotel de Paris, Place du Casino, Monaco, tel: +377 98 06 88 64, alain-ducasse.com (reopens in September)

Yoshi,Hotel Metropole Monte-Carlo, 4 Avenue de la Madone, Monaco, tel: +377 93 15 13 13, metropole.com