In an ambitious and advance-driven time when a change of chef or culinary concept can spoil your next gastronomic experience at a renowned restaurant, Hostellerie Jérôme is the guardian angel of taste. The chef was never replaced since Bruno Cirino took over the historic restaurant and inn in La Turbie. Owning his family business with his wife Marion, the enumerate sommelier, who knows her precious stock of French treasures like diamonds in a jewellery box, gave them the liberty of creation.
Hostellerie Jérôme: a special place
Hostellerie Jérôme is perched above the Monaco’s rocky coast, and it takes about 25 minutes of a nauseating drive, so set off well ahead of your dinner reservation. Acquiring the sea-facing fringe of the ancient La Turbie village with the Mediterranean pine-like curve of Cap Ferrat in the horizon, the pentacle of tables on the terrace are highly desirable. The much larger frescoed vault was painted in the style of Pompeii, yet the interior hardly beats fresh Maritime air and a view stretching over the Bay of Angels grasping even the horn of Cap d’Antibes. Perhaps for the vista and as a strategic post, the inn lodged Napoleon Bonaparte in 1796.
Regaining his second Michelin star this year after it was taken away in 2014, the powerful red book nods to Bruno Cirino’s cuisine of “unusual humility, lively and light, imaginative, marked by its terroir, but free and spontaneous. Always renewed, never similar, it draws its strength from its direct link with its farmers, breeders, fishermen, market gardeners.” Beyond the paragraph uttered by Michelin, our dinners at Hostellerie Jérôme over the past four years were spotless, except for one Monday evening when my favourite ravioli were served not warm enough, red mullet slightly overcooked, and the blow blasted by a mishandled coffee at the end. An off service, but on most good days currently this is the best fine dining in Côte d’Azur for us.
The chef is a master of local ingredients. When Bruno Cirino cooked on the Atlantic coast in St Jean de Luz over three decades ago, he was reportedly the most difficult buyer of vegetables at the Biarritz market, and has not let his guard off when moving to the Mediterranean with his wife Marion, a former harpist that he met at the Royal Monceau in Paris, where he cheffed for a while.
Marion as the host ushers you to your white-clad table. Soon, light series of amouse-bouche entertain the mouth with an aperitif. In summer, a refreshing tomato gazpacho with green herbal sorbet and elegant marinated tomato tarts with red and spring onions. Followed by herb pesto in olive oil and blanched almond dip for the bread assortment of crispy sticks, savoury gougères filled with melting hard cheese or bricks of focaccia. A continuous flow of Michette, a typical Provencal roll dusted with cracked wheat is so wholesomely aromatic and champs so satisfyingly, that it can make a meal. Its ally, a cube of the deepest yellow grass-grazed butter from Brittany made by Le Ponclet family farm, gently salted and topped with fresh seasonal flowers like fennel, tastes of the summer meadows. A plate of crab claw, once dressed in white almond puree, raw almonds and garden leafs, other time the chef added peeled white grapes with herbs, superb! You won’t be charged for any of these, but the price reflects in the other plates. The choice of pottery is like the cuisine at Hostellerie Jérôme a blend of local tradition and contemporary purity. Heavy colourful terracotta mingles with glass and pristine white bowls, squared modern platters and design spoons.
A kind and rather restrained team of international, young apprentices serves the Mediterranean garden, the sea’s treasures next to the French delicacies like pigeon, the chef’s signature and his wife’s favourite dish.
The menu does not change radically at Hostellerie Jérôme. Slight seasonal variations transform the familiar plates though. My revered Ravioli with buffalo milk cheese, mushrooms and black truffles starter lost their vegetarian value as the chef added to this perfection the redundant crayfish. The delicate buffalo cheese is made in-house, and the raw mushrooms vary. When porcini are not provided by the foragers, the prised, young, orange-lined Caesar’s mushrooms shaped like an egg (hence their Italian name “ovoli”) step in. A shaving of parmesan seals the land’s Franco-Italian flavours.
Lighter, more purist are the San Remo Gamberoni “Il violetto d’Oneglia” served with preserved wild fennel, Bellini juice and crystallised verbena, hazelnut butter and capers. The verbena-scented and wrapped in new almond crust Mediterranean langoustines are the last of the only three staples to start with.
In the mains, local fish plays high note. Galinette (gurnard) with wild fennel is served in two stages. The fillets of Rougets (red mullet) is the one risky dish at Hostellerie Jérôme I would not order again after having it overcooked. Incredible though was Mostelle (Forkbeard), a bycatch fish that is captured while searching for rock fish. In texture similar to hake from the same fish family, smooth, served on a generous carpaccio of porcini mushrooms with olive oil. The winner.
The best ingredients only
Seafood is not exclusive on the menu as the Sambucano lamb from the Alps with zucchini, sweet garlic and thyme excels, and the Pigeon in its reconstructed entirety is cooked so perfectly, that after trying it from a friend’s plate I would dare, which I never do after many bloody disappointments at top French restaurants. Served in its reduction with succulent roasted mushrooms.
Cheese selection from Toulouse based MOF (Meilleur Ouvrier de France) Xavier, also trusted by Michel Guérard and other Michelin chefs, lands on a wooden horizon engraved with swallows, the vintage trolley. In dried-fig leaf wrapped Banon, Persille de Tignes from Savoie and Bichonnet are superb for goat cheese lovers, while not usually a fan of blue cheese, the Bleu de Severac from Aveyron was not too overpowering, and the Basque Ossau fermier hard sheep’s delicacy affirmed the savoury joy.
Desserts at Hostellerie Jérôme show seasonal fruits in not too embellished, direct beauty. During summer cherries, peaches and strawberries show up, but my choice were the ravishing Roasted country figs, black sugar olives with a buffalo milk sorbet. Les Petites Fours are exquisite, please keep space for the toasted Piedmont hazelnuts served bare next to succulent ripe figs in August, more savoury than sweet olive and hazelnut tartlets that turn me into a ravenous ‘hungryvore’, and the nice ganache enrobed in dark chocolate that goes well with coffee. A shame though that the exquisitely Giamaica coffee from Verona’s master roaster Gianni Frasi, the last torrefacteur in the world to roast his beans directly with an open flame, was terribly prepared. We know his coffee very well, since we visited and tasted the best cup of espresso in our life from his own hands in Verona. It was over-pressured, while a crack in one of the cups sealed the disaster.
Commendable wine list offering a fair deal on the Riviera
The 30.000 wine bottles in the cellar at Hostellerie Jérôme La Turbie received the 2018 “Tour des Cartes” prize for the “best wine list of a gourmet restaurant.” The prices are reasonable, great deal even. We usually go local with bottles from the Southern France. Château Rayas 2000 for 250€, Chave’s Hermitage for 300€ are rare prices on the Riviera’s wine lists. A warning, we have consumed most of Mme Cirino’s stock of Rayas, the scarcely distributed Châteauneuf-du-Pape tasting like no other wine in its region. Unusual for this southern Rhône appellation and unlike its more famous Chateau de Beaucastel, the 100% Grenache Noir, Rayas ages with grace, each vintage telling the story of its challenges as well as the good days. Typically, deep cherry, can touch on smoke, spiciness and in good vintages (most), a refreshing acidity with a very long finish. Domaine Tempier is the best producer in Bandol making age-worthy single vineyard red wine blends of predominantly Mourvedre with Grenache, Cinsault and Carignan. Another great local option.
Hostellerie Jérôme is set at the foot of the Trophée des Alpes marking the victory of Augustus the Emperor over the Ligurian troops. The family runs also the more budget-friendly Café de la Fontaine facing the main village thoroughfare. A hearty Provencal cuisine not discounting on the quality of the regional produce is cooked simply in a rustic style. We prefer either over the nearby overhyped Mirazur in Menton.