NICE, France – (Please note that since the publication of this article, Restaurant JAN and chef Jan Hendrik van der Westhuizen have received their first Michelin star.) Can someone explain to me the criteria Michelin uses to award stars? This is obviously, in Europe at least, the reference which distinguishes an excellent restaurant from a merely good restaurant.
In this series, Cédric Lizotte visits some of Europe’s best restaurants. He shares his inside knowledge about the best places to sample the delights of some of the best chefs on the planet. Follow his gastronomical journey with the hashtag #CedricInEurope.
Yet I have visited a “starred” restaurant that did not impress me at all.
And I visit restaurants barely mentioned by the guide and have my breath taken away – almost.
Jan restaurant in Nice belongs to the second category.
I am not alone in this view. In its January issue, Condé Nast Traveler has included Jan in its list of 18 best restaurants in the world.
Opened in September 2013 by expatriate South African, chef Jan Hendrik van der Westhuizen, the restaurant carries a dark and classic look that demands a certain respect, a certain dignity.
This is not a bling bling restaurant.
It is chic in the aristocratic sense. White linen tablecloths, silver cutlery and quality crockery; tasting menu, sommelier, nouvelle cuisine.
Moreover, these chic restaurants set high standards. Good table manners are different from one country to another.
Once inside, I do a quick scan of the premises. The Maitre d found my reservation, settled me at my table. The server arrived quickly, offered a drink, explained the menu and offered homemade breads (fennel and poppy) in addition to the tapenade. (This olive paste tends to be obligatory throughout the southern coast of France).
I quickly learned about the standards that are equally obligatory at Jan.
My server, Philippe Foucault, pointed out to me – with all the kindness in the world – that I had used the fish knife to butter my bread.
You know, this knife?
No half measures at Jan. The meal that followed reflects that well.
Restaurant JAN: The Food
As appetizer, a single cherry tomato stuffed with cod, accompanied by a strawberry sauce with a purple basil leaf. The basil leaf is is so tasty that it’s almost bitter; the seafood flavours frankly contrast with the delicate flavors of the tiny tomato.
Restaurant JAN: First course
As a starter, salmon, quail egg, guacamole, wasabi cream, asparagus, accompanied by a glass of white wine, South African of course! Stellar Organics Reserve, Flower Series, a blend of semillon and sauvignon blanc.
The asparagus could not have been cooked any better, the salmon is very subtle, and the taste of wasabi is present, but also super-subtle. There’s almost no salt. And wine – have you ever eaten a kiwi with its skin? – has as much fruit as acidity, which accentuates each of the finer ingredients of this dish.
A second seafood dish follows, with the same wine.
Pan-fried scallops, herring eggs, mousseline of cabbage, blackcurrant and (brace yourself) powdered popcorn. Exceptional. The creamy mousseline at the bottom of the dish is tasty, the broth at the base of the foam superb. Blackcurrants and caviar explode, a the seaweed cracker is slap in the mouth. The tiny blackcurrants completely cut the fat of the dish, cauliflower gives an earthy side and the scallop is just perfect, warm and smooth on the inside, crusty and brown on the outside.
Restaurant JAN: Meat
Roulade of guinea fowl, carrot foam mauve, pink endive, mushrooms.
Bordeaux, Château Poitevin, Cru Bourgeois, 2011 (Médoc).
List the ingredients and only one is enough to make your mouth water.
The meat does melt in the mouth; the carrot puree is very pretty even if not very flavorsome. The endive is perfectly grilled. Not only are the flavours very good on their own, but in this case, they blend exceptionally well. The smokiness of the morel is superb with the toasted sesame seeds accentuating the smoked side, and the wine rests on that smokiness, on the bloodiness of the meat and the aromatic mushrooms to perfectly blend as a whole.
Restaurant JAN: Dessert
Malva, caramel, roasted banana, crumble powder, 75 Valrhona chocolate mousse, banana ball. What is a banana ball? No idea. But it’s delicious!
This dessert, unlike other dishes, is not so subtle. The dessert wine (“vin doux naturel”, I should say) is a Domaine Fontanel Maury 2011. It’s wonderfully deep and dark. It tastes like supersweet grapes!
The chocolate mousse has lots of flavour, the roasted banana is tasty, and the whole dessert is a delicious, intense, a symphony of textures in the mouth. And the ingredients tasted together as one bite makes me quickly realize that this is simply a deconstructed banana bread. Finding the familiar within the extraordinary is always fun.
This is a restaurant on the French Riviera, and it sits right next to the the port of Nice.
This is perhaps why the majority of guests during my visit were obviously not locals. And if Condé Nast Traveler considers this one of the best restaurants in the world, maybe the people of Michelin should reassess the case of Mr Jan Hendrik this year …
12 Rue Lascaris, 06300 Nice, France
+33 4 97 19 32 23