Situated in a beautiful location on the Côte D'Azur, near the border of France and Italy, Mauro Colagreco's Michelin-starred Mirazur serves up a creative menu of locally sourced dishes. Rosie Birkett reports.
Mauro Colagreco doesn't need to look far to find beautiful, fresh ingredients. As he wanders around his sprawling, multi-level organic garden, which has an in-built Napoleon irrigation system, avocado trees, 250 different local herbs and flowers, tomato plants - there are 39 different varieties - and all manner of other fresh produce, it's hard to imagine the Italo-Argentino chef cooped up in Paris for five years, where he worked in the windowless kitchens of culinary heavyweights including Alain Ducasse and Alain Passard.
He opened Mirazur in 2006, housed in a striking 1950s modernist building in the coastal town of Menton, right on the border of France and Italy. He won a Michelin star within nine months of opening.
Like the south-facing garden that provides Mirazur with so much of its produce, the 40-seat restaurant is spread over numerous levels, with tables and chairs laid out in the garden and on the terrace. A three-course lunch menu - plus amuse-bouche, three tapas dishes and petits four - is served at €33 (£27), while three courses à la carte, also including the added extras, is priced €85 (£70), and the 12-course tasting menu is €105 (£86).
Mirazur has panoramic views out across the Mediterranean, the harbours and the old town of Menton, which is famous for its lemons - every year hosting a lemon festival. The restaurant's location, just 30m from the Italian border, means the chef can call on produce from Italy's Ligurian coast - not readily available in France - as well as his locality in the Côte d'Azur.
"The Côte D'Azur is one of the best places for produce - fish, vegetables and herbs," he says. "My cooking style is very fresh. I try to take out the green of the vegetables and express that on the plate. " A signature dish of prawns from San Remo - an Italian coastal town 45km away - with lemon cream, red cabbage sauce and spinach candy, perfectly exemplifies this ethos, fusing produce unique to the area and cooking the main ingredient in a simple, modern way that preserves its innate freshness. The prawns are plunged very quickly into hot water and served almost-translucent in the Japanese manner with head and tail on with the bodies peeled, tasting sweet and clean against the more complex, rich sauces.
As well as local fish and vegetables, sauces, purées and emulsions feature prominently on Colagreco's ever-changing menu, which he describes as a nod to his time in Burgundy at the three-Michelin-starred Relais Bernard Loiseau in Saulieu. "One brilliant thing about that kitchen was the sauces - the reductions were done perfectly and slowly," he recalls. And while his time at Ducasse's Hotel Plaza Athénée in Paris undoubtedly improved his technical ability, it's Alain Passard's L'Arpège which he cites as his most formative kitchen experience. "There was amazing creativity, spontaneity and produce with Passard," he explains.
Passard is renowned for his fixation and innovative way with vegetables and, like his mentor, Colagreco experiments with baby vegetables. "The moment of harvesting is important," he says. "I try them in the garden and the textures vary according to how old they are." He also plays with temperature and cooking times. There is a seasonal salad of six different sorts of delicately cooked green and yellow beans, with little curls of raw trompette courgette, big, juicy halves of poached cherries and a shallot and pistachio dressing that gives it a salty, earthy crunch, with lemon verbena for a citrus lift.
Another stand-out dish is a plate of squid ink, black olive and olive oil emulsion with marinated anchovy fillets. It's presented as a glistening black, sea-flavoured slick with two jet-black crispy rice crackers carrying two shimmering silver fillets of anchovy. It's an umami explosion - again combining carefully prepared fresh ingredients with flourishes of technical brilliance.
Desserts show the same commitment to fresh, local produce, with fruit featuring heavily in sorbets and sauces, and nuts also playing a key role. A dish of honeyed pistachio sponge cake comes with a pistachio cream and tuile, strawberry sorbet and crunchy pistachio opaline. The plate comes strewn with berries - blackberries, cherries, raspberries and wild strawberries -straight from the sun-drenched garden.
Mirazur, 30 Avenue Aristide Briand, 06500 Menton, France
Tel: 00 33 4 92 41 86 86
WHAT'S ON THE MENU
• Scrambled eggs: watercress emulsion and Iberico ham
• Chincard fish carpaccio: citrus virgin sauce
• Tomato martini: nasturtium, borage flowers, herbs and local saffron
• Little garden: zucchini, baby carrots, radish, turnip and Parmesan bouillon
• Grilled foie gras: onion cream, cherry and yuzu
• Slow-cooked pigeon, beetroot, Menton lemon compote, red berries, black sesame sauce
• Almonds espuma: orange sorbet, saffron oil
• Dessert chocolate
• Pistachio sponge cake, pistachio cream and tuile, red berries, strawberry sorbet