Kiwi and eucalyptus cream or soup of nasturtium: its part of the repertoire from Mauro Colagreco, a protégé of Alain Passard and the late Bernard Loiseau, who is creating waves on the Côte d'Azur, says Andy Lynes.
On reflection, I shouldn't have been surprised that my 14-course blow-out dinner at Mirazur in Menton in the South of France turned out to be quite such a singular experience. It was, after all, prepared by Mauro Colagreco, an Argentinian-born chef of Italian and Spanish descent, in his Côte d'Azur restaurant that's within walking distance of the Italian border.
With so many cultural and geographical influences at play, there's little point trying to pigeonhole creations such as oysters with kiwi and eucalyptus cream or a soup of petit pois and nasturtium served as a dessert. Even Colagreco struggles to define his own style.
"It's about freshness, the product and simplicity," he offers, then adds with a shrug: "but that's just my opinion."
Things become clearer when you learn that 33-year-old Colagreco's two defining culinary experiences were with the late Bernard Loiseau at his restaurant in Saulieu in the Côte d'Or, Burgundy, and at L'Arpège with Alain Passard.
"Loiseau opened the doors of haute cuisine for me," Colagreco says. "There, I understood for the first time how to make sauces and stocks using only reductions and concentration of flavours. But Alain Passard was the one who really made the mark on my life, because he used vegetables like meat and fish."
The influence of both men is clear in a ragoût of courgette and baby squash served in a grilled vegetable bouillon, with the incredibly fresh-tasting and lightly cooked vegetables taking centre stage in a crystal-clear broth made from the juices of grilled peppers, courgettes and aubergines.
With vegetables playing such a key role in the meal, it's not surprising to discover that, in addition to a kitchen brigade of 12 (seven paid chefs plus five stagieres) and a five-strong front-of-house team, Colagreco employs three gardeners. The restaurant's terraced gardens provide about 40% of all the vegetables used, including broad beans, peas, courgettes, carrots, tomatoes, aubergines, spring onions, salad greens and herbs.
"My aim is to not have to buy any vegetables within two years," Colagreco says. In the meantime, his border location enables him to cherry-pick the best produce from both the Côte d'Azur and Italy's Ligurian coast.
"What we can't get in France we find in Italy and vice versa," he explains. "For example, we get cima di rapa (turnip tops) in Liguria but not in Menton."
It's a dream location for any chef, but Colagreco reveals that he had originally intended to open a restaurant in northern Spain. A conversation with a friend over dinner at Akelare in San Sebastian changed all that.
"He told me he knew of a restaurant in the Mediterranean with equally stunning views and I said 'I want to go there'," Colagreco recalls. The impressive 1950s building, remodelled by award-winning architect Rick Mather, includes the main restaurant, bar area and private dining/banqueting space (originally designed as a tearoom) as well as the external garden spaces featuring a cocktail terrace and a covered timber deck, all with views of the sea and Menton itself.
"The first time I went to visit the restaurant I said: 'Wow! It's fantastic, but it's not for us; we can't afford it'," Colagreco admits. Luckily, the owner was willing to cut a deal - the building had lain empty for two years - and offered a reduced rent for the first year to allow Colagreco time to get the business up and running.
Within two months of Mirazur opening in April 2006, France's leading restaurant critic François Simon gave the restaurant a rave review and, in October of the same year, the Gault Millau guide named Colagreco its "revelation of the year". And earlier this year, the guide crowned him its first ever non-French chef of the year.
Although a Michelin star in early 2007 pulled in the international food-blogging community, the locals failed to cotton on to Colagreco's success. "Even after Mirazur had been open for 18 months, people in Menton believed the restaurant was still closed," he says.
Word of mouth has finally rectified that situation, and during the high season between June and September, Colagreco says Mirazur is full, serving a maximum 40 covers for both lunch and dinner. "We're using all the building now, but not all the time. I want to do more banqueting; that is very important because this is such a big place," he explains.
Colagreco estimates that he changes his menus - which include €35 (£32) lunch, €55 (£50) decouverte and €80 (£73) dégustation options in addition to the à la carte - every one or two months. But it's on the daily changing €90 (£82) carte blanche menu where the chef is at his creative best. "It's a risk, but I need that spontaneity. It's very personal," he says.
Although he'll cook some of the dishes just once, others, such as an exquisite salad of raw and lightly cooked asparagus, evolve into signature plates. "Originally, the asparagus was more cooked and I served it with both grapefruit and orange segments. Now, I've taken away the orange and introduced a lemon, honey and vanilla dressing," he explains.
Mirazur is a seasonal business and Colagreco uses the winter months when the restaurant is closed either to travel (last year saw him join Sat Bains and Claude Bosi in Japan for the centenary Umami summit in Kyoto) or to pursue numerous consultancy opportunities.
In addition to creating the menus for Hi Beach restaurant in Nice, Colagreco is consultant chef at both the Napoleon Beach hotel in Menton and the prestigious Alvear Palace Hotel in Buenos Aires.
Thailand and India are next on his list but for research purposes only. "I've had a lot of proposals, including Miami and the United Arab Emirates, but I'm selective," he says.
"I was asked to create a restaurant concept for a hotel chain but I turned it down. I've got enough to do for one year."
30 Avenue Aristide Briand, 06500 Menton, France
Tel: 00 33 4 92 41 86 86
Heat the cream to 70˚C, pour over the Parmesan and whizz in a blender.
Separate the parsley leaves from the stalks and wash the leaves. Next, bring 200ml water and 50g of the butter to a boil, pour over the parsley in a blender and whizz. Season with salt.
Heat the rest of the butter in a saucepan until it turns golden brown, add the quinoa and stir until the grains are transparent.
Add the Parmesan cream, wet with a small ladleful of water, cover with a round of parchment paper and cook over a low heat.
Add water a little at a time until the quinoa is cooked. Set aside in a warm place.
Cut the cèpes into thin shavings, then place the quinoa in a dome in the centre of a plate. Cover with the cèpe carpaccio, starting in the centre of the plate to give it volume.
Arrange the wild rocket, its flowers and the yarrow on the plate. Add the snail eggs mixed with a little olive oil.
Just before serving, season with fleur de sel and olive oil. Emulsify the parsley sauce and place spoonfuls of foam around the carpaccio.
ROASTED WHITE ASPARAGUS, HAZELNUT MOUSSELINE, ABSINTHE AND WILD STRAWBERRIES
To dress the plate
Heat the sugar in a saucepan until it turns to caramel and deglaze with the Banyuls vinegar.
Add 22 of the wild strawberries. Cook for 10 minutes, then strain and boil until the mixture reduces to a thick syrup.
Crush the 100g Piedmont hazelnuts and cook with the milk for 15 minutes. Blend to form a thick, smooth cream.
Make gomasio by roasting the black sesame seeds and 30g hazelnuts in a frying pan over a low heat, then finely chop them with a knife and add the fleur de sel.
In a sauté pan, melt the butter with the star anise and orange zest. Roast the asparagus spears over a low heat, letting them brown lightly.On a slate, draw stripes with the strawberry gastrique and a tear shape with the hazelnut cream.
Sprinkle the asparagus with the gomasio and place them in the centre of the plate. Arrange the absinthe leaves, wild strawberries, halved Piedmont hazelnuts and strawberry flowers around the slate.
For the smoker, place some sawdust in a dish and heat in the oven. When the sawdust is very hot, light it with a match so that it burns out. Cover the dish with aluminium foil, piercing it to let the smoke through. Place the dog cockles in the same oven.
For the smoke sauce, open the dog cockles in water, saving the cooking juice (1 litre of juice for 3kg cockles). Add the butter to the juice and let it melt. Place in the smoker for one hour. Taste and smoke a little longer if necessary.
Next, sweat the celeriac with 100g butter, add the milk and cook for 20 minutes. Blend to obtain a very smooth mousseline.
Wilt the 80g sorrel in olive oil over a high heat for a few moments just before serving the dish.
Cook the sea bass slices in a frying pan with a little olive oil.
Place a quenelle of celeriac mousseline in the bottom of a shallow bowl, add the sorrel, pour over the smoked emulsified sauce and top with the sea bass. Finish with fleur de sel and a few wild sorrel leaves.