This is a story that began with a meal. The location was the improbable Côte d'Azur, the blue sky coast of Southern France. Think Malibu, only with more money and even thinner, tanner bodies. Needless to say it's not the land of great restaurants, despite the temperate climate, abundant produce - from just over the border in Northern Italy on one side and Provence on the other - not to mention the pristine seafood local fishermen bring in daily from the Mediterranean.
We heard of an ambitious young chef, fresh from the sublime l'Arpège in Paris, who had fallen in love with the region and opened a restaurant, Mirazur, in Menton, the last little town just before the Italian border. When we made our way there, we found a chef whose story was as unlikely as his locale.
Argentinean-born of Italian and Spanish descent, Mauro Colagreco found his love of gastronomy under the talented and lamented Bernard Loiseau, Le Côte d'Or in Saulieu, and perfected his craft under the exigent Alain Passard in Paris. He was awarded his Michelin star the first year Mirazur opened, and when he was named Chef of the Year in the French guide Gault Millau, he became the first non-French chef to have been given the title. To this day he remains the only one.
The first taste of his food, I understood why. Here's a chef who understands and celebrates quality ingredients, not with the indignant refusal to "do much to the food", but with exquisite skills and wild imagination - the Argentinean side of him I'm sure - that both surprise and delight. I still dream of the impossibly sweet red prawn, enrobed by ribbons of fresh young asparagus, borage and wild garlic blossoms and a drizzle of buttery Ligurian olive oil. Biting into it, I realized that one of the asparagus ribbons was sweeter and had a more delicate perfume than the rest. It was in fact a thin, long sliver baby green zucchini, just pretending. That little gesture changed the dynamics of the whole composition, and it'll make you beg for more. Asked where the superlative prawns came from, Mauro told us that he drove to Ventimiglia, a small market town just over the Italian border to his favorite fish monger to get them - Gamberi Rossi as they're called there - a couple times a week. Some of the vegetables came from the budding potager that he just started down the street.