Still looking to book an apartment in Le Penne?
Here are two rental apartments in Le Penne near
L'Auberge de la Penne.
• La Guérite
• Chevre d'Or
CAGNES SUR MER
• Restaurant Lou Lou
• A La Table d’Edmund
• L'Auberge de la Penne
Looking for restaurants in Nice?
Visit our restaurant guide to Nice on our Nice Pebbles site
L'Auberge de la Penne
1 rue Pontis, La Penne
+33 (0)4 93 05 09 81
I first met Benoît Poulet at the Cours Saleya market, where appropriately enough ("poulet" means chicken) he sold farmers' eggs alongside his organic vegetables. I remember him telling me that he let his chickens run free in the forest, with the result that some fell prey to hungry foxes. Idealistic you might think, yet it's this very quality that makes his restaurant in the tiny village of La Penne so exceptional.
Philippe, Sam and I first drove to this restaurant about an hour from Nice through a twisty mountain valley a couple of years ago, staying for a night in one of the simple rooms that Benoît and his British wife Maria haven't yet had the time to redecorate. Though the dining room also had a rustic spirit with wood beams, sunflower-yellow tablecloths and a sweeping view over the village church and the green mountains, I remember being astonished by Benoît's attention to detail. Even when only a few people have reserved, which happens in the off-season since La Penne is not on the road to anywhere in particular, he will plan a full menu of complex dishes with two or three choices for each course.
Word about the Auberge has gradually spread, and last year Benoît and Maria were too busy to come to the Cours Saleya. But their food is not easy to forget. Before Christmas Philippe and I returned to the restaurant with two food-loving American friends who are living in Nice.
Though the village is only a few kilometres from Entrevaux, the road quickly feels remote and lonesome. Just when we were starting to doubt our memories, the village appeared and we zig-zagged up to near the top where the restaurant looks out over the valley. Benoît and Maria greeted us with their usual warmth and presented us with the blackboard menu. The first sign that this is no ordinary country auberge: the not-so-little bowl of chestnut and squash soup topped with milky froth and served with truffled scrambled eggs in a radicchio leaf. That was just the amuse-bouche, not even listed on the menu.
The prix fixe cost €36 for four courses or €31 for three: clearly we would be foolish not to order the full four courses. First up was a plate bearing foie gras terrine, a millefeuille of pan-fried foie gras and melting-soft apple rounds, and a foie gras flan with lamb's lettuce salad in a basket of crisp brick pastry. Accenting it all was balsamic vinegar reduced with lemongrass, whose surprising flavor was easily detectable. Benoît was not just serving us foie gras, but foie gras prepared three ways with modern flourishes and presentation worthy of a Michelin-starred restaurant. His career has taken him to London and Los Angeles, so his cooking is more cosmopolitan than you might expect.
To follow this luxurious starter, what could be more appropriate than lobster prepared "lasagne-style" with tiny diced vegetables, confit tomatoes and lobster bisque? At this stage I snuck into the kitchen to watch Benoît, who was layering three different kinds of homemade pasta - plain, tomato and squid-ink - inside pastry rings for precise presentation. The lobster bisque came in a shot glass alongside the lasagne. "It should be poured over top when you eat it," he told me, "but it looks nicer this way."
For the main courses we had a choice of three dishes: duck breast with chanterelles, sea bass with Menton lemon, and venison cooked at low temperature with "sauce Périgord". On this cold winter's day we all had a longing for meat, and I didn't regret my choice of crisp-skinned duck magret, which came on a bed of apricot-colored mushrooms. Alongside it were lacy slices of socca, the chickpea pancake beloved of the Niçois, and a vivid green Savoy cabbage leaf wrapped around a mix of finely diced, lightly cooked vegetables. More intriguing still were the accompaniments for the venison: a purple potato mash topped with thick truffle slices and a "risotto" of potimarron diced nearly as small as rice grains and cooked as in the classic rice dish with white wine and stock just until al dente.
Since Benoît isn't one to do things halfway, dessert was a full plate of homemade confections: runny-centred chocolate cake, a mini variation on tiramisu, homemade vanilla ice cream and a macaron in a cage of spun sugar.
Once we had finished the last drops of our Domaine de Sainte-Croix Côtes de Provence a long hike through the hills would have been ideal, but after chatting a little with Maria and Benoît we had to rush back to Nice to pick up our son from school. Poor Sam, toiling over his handwriting while we stuffed ourselves with delicately nibbled on lobster and foie gras, venison and truffles. But I have a feeling we'll be back with him before long, now that the local truffles are at their best.
Riviera Pebbles says,
Making the trip to one of these ‘out of the way’ restaurants is well worth it from your holiday apartment in Nice. Not just for the quality of food on offer but to see another part of Southern France – the scenery and food being so varied in this part of the world. Armed with sat nav, and a glowing recommendation from someone who used to live in the village, Gayle and I headed off to a remote village called Blausac to a restaurant called Le Moulin de L'Oliveraie ( Lot de la Torre, Route de al Torre, Blausac tel 04.93.79.59.16).
After using my limited French with the locals in the village we discovered the restaurant in a remote corner past the mayor’s office. On a Tuesday lunchtime in February we were surprised to find a virtually packed dining room. The surroundings were rustic rather than salubrious with its terracotta floors and wooden beams and this adds to the mix of the food on offer – a hearty gourmet 3 course lunch for 22 euros each: half the price of what you would pay for the same quality in a restaurant in central Nice or Cannes. I would describe the food as good old fashioned French home cooking. The locals clearly loved it and so did we.
So next time you’re feeling adventurous on the Riviera, why not head inland for great food at yesterday’s prices. And if you can secure one of the few tables on the terrace by booking ahead, you can enjoy breathtaking views of the mountains and breathe in that getting away from it all country air. We expect most guests staying in one of our rental apartments will head off on a day trip. Any day will be fine, except Mondays when it is closed (and the village very sleepy).
– Matt, Riviera Pebbles. If you would like to contact Matt, you can email him at email@example.com.