The Native Companion and I were in Nice for New Year's. Before we returned to Paris I was able to convince her to submit to the rigmarole necessary to assure a lunch table at La Merenda, the city's most storied address for traditional Niçoise cuisine, run since 1996 by chef Dominique Le Stanc.
La Merenda famously has no phone, so one must personally pop by to request a table later in the day. As it happened our agenda that morning consisted of wandering aimlessly around the port, so this fit right into our schedule. The restaurant's popularity far exceeds its tiny space, however, and tables were understandably slow to turn that day. We had to circle back round twice after the appointed time came and went.
I didn't mind. I was enchanted the moment I laid eyes on La Merenda's sparse menu, scrawled on a blackboard posted to its frosted windows. If menu writing is a kind of literature, Le Stanc's menu at La Merenda possesses the hymn-like simplicity of Kafka's shortest works - "The Wish to be a Red Indian," perhaps. In the space of one sentence, Kafka proposes a subject before shearing it away in stages, until nothing remains but a profound absence. All the daily repetition of kitchen work and the generational repetition that has yielded traditional cuisine - all that absence of novelty - is contained on La Merenda's blackboard. The rarity of such a statement - anywhere in the world, let alone breezy, tourist-stricken Nice - gives La Merenda a curious power. At lunch, one can even overlook the dismal wine selection.
The menu contains the entirety of the wine on offer at La Merenda. It is overpriced conventional local wine. I've worked with many talented chefs who don't give a fig about wine. That's kind of their prerogative, given that successful chefs usually have a wine guy on-hand to proffer something potable. Le Stanc's position is more perverse, for he inflicts his wine-indifference on a well-heeled clientele who in most cases would probably be in a position to consume more (and more expensive) wine, if encouraged.
Should wine sales comprise a key plank in the financial basis of a good restaurant? Is good wine a necessary component of a meal? I admire Le Stanc's courage in posing these questions. At lunch on January 2nd I was more than willing to entertain them.
(Mulling it over, though, I can't shake the feeling that wine non-lists like La Merenda's are basically back-pats to the barbarians who actively deny the complexity of the subject of wine, or, for that matter, any subject outside their immediate realm of expertise.)
At least the beer is organic. And La Merenda's continued success is all the more impressive for occurring in the absence of good wine, not to mention a telephone or credit card machines.
Before he arrived at La Merenda, Le Stanc led a storied career, culminating in two Michelin stars for his work as chef at Chantecler du Négresco. That he abandoned such a position to work on the grandmotherly scale of La Merenda is posed as the ultimate head-scratcher in just about every press mention of Le Stanc. I don't know. La Merenda's service style is diametrically opposed to that of Michelin-starred hotel restaurants, to an extent that precludes the possibility of coincidence. I'd wager Le Stanc simply became allergic to the inane pomp of "fine" cuisine.
This reactionary dynamic seems to cut both ways at La Merenda. The subject of wine, as I mentioned above, has basically been abandoned as frivolous. But menu plating, across the board, evinces wondrous sternness and purity. No dishes arrive with an excess of components. Some, like a plate of nuanced, savoury tripe in thin tomato sauce, accompanied by delicately fried panisse, are nothing short of perfect.
Other dishes wear their simplicity less elegantly. The olives topping the arugula salad are pre-pitted. The restaurant's celebrated pasta au pistou, while striking and tasty, remained the kind of pasta that could be celebrated only in France. Almost anywhere in Italy it would be merely correct.
The tarte de blette (chard tart) we ordered for dessert was more impactful. For non-natives like myself such a dish presents terrific cognitive dissonance. The Niçois specialty, presented larded with sultanas beneath a snowfall of baking sugar, highlights the relation of chard to rhubarb, with the former having just the slightest cabbagey accent to its sweetness. It was the rare dessert that felt like it could double as an appetizer.
La Merenda shines only intermittently under a close-read. Taken in perspective its resplendence becomes unquestionable. The menu, when it changes, does so almost imperceptibly. Le Stanc's decades-long fidelity to his menu inspirations is nothing short of moving in an age when great chefs are afforded every opportunity, and every incentive, to riff and improvise.
The result is a timeless restaurant that overcomes its faults by existing at a savvy remove from questions of taste. Like an old recipe, its worth is validated by its persistence.
In 2015, Paris Match ventured La Merenda could be "the best restaurant in France."
A 2013 piece on La Merenda in L'Express Styles.
François Simon had a few thoughts on the curious service at La Merenda in his 2012 blog piece.
A 2011 piece about La Merenda by Gilles Pudlowski, including a good summary of Le Stanc's long career. Pudlowski too throws in some nonsense about it being the "the best bouchon in the world."
A rave about La Merenda at Food Tourist.
Le Fooding's review format is particularly suited to a restaurant like La Merenda. Pretty much the entire menu is recited.