Review: Le Saint-Martin

(by peter)

‘Good evening Mr and Mrs Richards. Would you like an aperitif to start? We have a very nice champagne to offer you – very hazelnutty…’

The glamorous, multi-lingual waitress left these words hanging, part of a well rehearsed sales pitch she repeated to every new table. It was a gentle but firm invitation not to disappoint or challenge her in these ultra glamorous surroundings.

Needless to say, this didn’t stop us.

‘What champagne is it?’ we enquired.

‘Ah yes, it’s a very nice one. It’s called Krug.’

We politely requested the wine list and, having seen the per-glass price of ‘prestige’ champagne at €45, opted for a glass of slightly less ruinous, but equally pricey, Moët (€20) and local Provençal rosé (€12).

So began our evening at Le Saint-Martin. This two-Michelin-star restaurant is part of a glamorous Relais & Châteaux hotel, Château Saint-Martin & Spa, set on a steep hillside with dramatic views overlooking Vence, a pretty and ancient town a short drive north of Nice on France’s famous Côte d’Azur.

To set the context, it’s fair to say that pretty much everything is ruinously expensive on the Côte d’Azur, especially in summer. (I was here in rainy February hosting a series of wine events – written up in this blog – and even then Nice was both pricey and alluring in the wintery drizzle). So at a hotel and restaurant of impeccable credentials such as Saint-Martin, it’s fair to expect an evening that isn’t going to be cheap.

The one question at the forefront of our minds was: would ‘not cheap’ equate to ‘mind-blowing’ or ‘expensively disappointing’…? We were hoping for the former.

A sense of hauteur is immediately apparent at Saint-Martin. This is not arrogance on the part of the staff – quite the opposite, for they are welcoming and attentive to a fault. It comes partly in the lavish traditional furnishings (rich carpets, ornate mirrors, baroque paintings) – but most notably in the view and setting itself.

After a steep and winding drive up from Vence, you enter the hotel under a vine-strewn pergola, via a capacious entrance hall, through a couple of luxuriant sitting rooms…and suddenly you are confronted by the panorama.

It’s a sensational setting, especially late in the day. The evening sun billows over the hillsides, which fall gracefully away into the deep-blue Mediterranean. From this vantage point, the cathedral bell tower of Vence, a local landmark for miles around, suddenly seems small and somehow inconsequential. The sense of immense space and calm is affecting. The temptation to savour it to the strains of Krug is powerful – but not irresistible. (The views are a constant feature, even inside the restaurant, which has floor-to-ceiling windows.)

We enjoyed our drinks and amuse-bouches on the terrace. The latter included tiny tartlets of goat’s cheese and chives with a globular beetroot topping, small balls of foie gras coated with powdered black olive, and impossibly thin pastry crisps sandwiched together with a basil and tapenade paste. All of which were perfectly nice morsels, made with top-notch raw ingredients, great technical skill and impeccable presentation, but somehow lacking a certain ‘wow’ factor.

It was to become a running theme throughout the meal and ultimately became – more or less – our final assessment of the food at Le Saint-Martin.

We went for the five-course degustation menu at €130, eschewing the option of including wine (for €195). Past experience has taught us that you rarely get great value from the ‘wine included’ tasting menu option, many sommeliers having freely admitted to us that there are pressures to keep these glasses cost-effective and relatively ‘safe’ in style – unless the venue is particularly well known for its wine offering, or its forward-looking head sommelier.

The menu ran as follows (with unannounced extra dishes in italics):

  • ‘Scrambled eggs’ – egg-plant (ie aubergine) purée with liquidised eggs and crispy croutons served in a playful ‘boiled egg’ presentation (see photo)
  • Foie Gras in crème brulée style topped with caramelized honey and crispy strawberries and toasted milkbread pancake
  • John Dory in a veil of Iberian bacon, seasonal vegetables and herb sauce
  • Duckling roasted with white Balsamc vinegar, strong jus, cherries in a bitter almond milk and grated turnip
  • Cheese board – selected and matured by Monsieur Mons
  • Red berry compote with redcurrant crunchy topping, served over a pot of liquid nitrogen
  • Banana diced, thin coconut bar, crispy pineapple bits
  • Mignardises and chocolates

The chef Yannick Franques is a former protégé of Alain Ducasse, so a relatively traditional yet brilliantly executed style of cuisine was perhaps to be expected.

The most successful dishes were probably the foie gras – a playful take on a French classic, with the crunchy strawberries adding a delicious tangy fruitiness to the flavour – and the banana pudding, a wonderfully presented and executed dish, full of beautifully harmonious flavours yet with a lightness of touch that stopped it being overwhelming or sickly.

The John Dory was pleasant but unexceptional, the duckling impressive (the soft-textured meat wonderfully complemented by the cherries) but not outstanding.

All in all: distinctly impressive but not sufficiently exceptional in our opinion to justify two Michelin stars and the hefty price tag.

(On the subject of Michelin, we are more and more inclined to take their recommendations with a pinch of the proverbial salt. The system has an inherent lack of consistency which means that a great restaurant in one area may be overlooked while a lesser restaurant elsewhere is starred. I suppose this is not just Michelin’s fault – any system of restaurant ratings must be to some extent subjective and variable. It’s just as much down to the way in which the Michelin ratings have become so feted as to be widely perceived as almost the ultimate and sole arbiter of gastronomic quality. As ever, it’s always worth getting a second opinion…)

And what of the wine?

The list was exclusively French – which is a mistake, in our book, especially when this area has such a wealth of gastronomic influence from nearby Italy, so why not incorporate its spectacular wines too..?

It appeared to cater for a clientele prepared to spend over €100 per bottle, which was too much for us. Our options were somewhat limited as a result, especially as we wanted a versatile bottle to cope with all the dishes listed above.

The sommelier was helpful but not particularly knowledgeable about the list – she had to check the details we asked about and was vague on specifics, which is not really good enough at this level.

We considered a Bernard Burgaud Cote Rotie 2001 at around €90 but ended up with the Domaine Gauby Côtes du Roussillon Villages Les Calcinaires Rouge 2005 (13%) at €75. (In the UK, £14.50 for the 2009 vintage at The Wine Society.)

This turned out to be one of the highlights of the night.

With a bit of bottle age, the wine had a delightfully rustic nose, with aromas of grilled meat and baked herbs, but also an elegantly scented floral hint. Lots of black and red fruit, with leafy notes. On the palate, it was supple and juicy, pleasantly refreshing but also delightfully complex and food-friendly. A delicious wine which reminded us once again that we need to buy more wines from Roussillon, one of our favourite areas for both reds and whites, especially from the fabulous Gauby estate. We rated it at 8-8.25/10.

Before we left, we requested a copy of the menu.

Normally such a request elicits a photocopied menu, which is great.

On this occasion, a full menu was produced, signed by the chef, with the following inscription (the rough translation is mine):

Manger est un besoin. Savoir manger est un art.

(Eating is a necessity. Knowing how to eat is an art.)

Eating most certainly does become an art form at Le Saint-Martin, set against a vivid backdrop of the Côte d’Azur countryside.

It’s just a shame that, in this case, the art is somewhat predictable and traditional, and comes at such a high price.