The Luxe Life



September 4, 2003 -- The Chateau Domaine du St. Martin has always had a touch of noblesse oblige, a sense of self as lofty as its hilltop perch 1,600 feet above the French hill town of Vence, 20 miles from Nice. Not for it the bohemian mix of petanque and Picasso that made La Colombe d'Or in neighboring St. Paul a storied hideaway. No, the Domaine was more chestnut paneling and heirloom tapestries (Gobelin, to be precise), of public rooms named Chagall and Matisse but hung with 18th-century paintings, of landscaping that seemed more croquet-lawn than boules-pitch in spirit.

Now though, with the suburban tide of Vence lapping at the hills and the town itself inundated daily with daytrippers looking for cut-rate Provencal mystique, the Domaine's demeanor seems more a sure-handed touch of class, the reason to stay up here, above it all, basking by the infinity pool, walking in the bare gray hills behind the property, savoring the panoramic view from the dining terrace of the hotel restaurant, La Commanderie.

The food there is better than ever thanks to chef Philippe Guerin, appointed in February, 2001, whose resume includes stints at a trio of two- and three-star dining rooms (Alan Chapel, Jardins des Sens, Les Chantecler). He has retained the restaurant's star with cooking both suave and polished--very much in keeping with the hotel--yet with deft, contemporary dashes. For instance, grilled red mullet is made new again by cooking it with spicy caramel as is roasted crayfish by a reduction of balsamic vinegar and raisins.

Last year the Domaine unveiled six new, two- and three-bedroom villas called The Bastides. Perched on a terraced hillside above the hotel, they should be the best rooms in the house. But here formality got the best of romance (or even reality). The Louis XV- and XVI-style furnishings, although beautifully done in Pierre Frey fabrics, are too small and too sparse for the generously scaled living and dining areas, and the overall arrangement seems more suited for the sort of society tableaux you'd see in a painting of that period than for modern life. "Be on your best behavior," they seem to admonish. My advice: Book one of the roomy, high-casual junior suites--ours, No. 40, had a wrap-around terrace from which the eye could run all the way to the sea on a clear day--or Room 35, a cozy duplex with a fabulous round tub and superb views by virtue of its location in the tower that overlooks the dining terrace.

When it came to dining off-campus, we were three-for-four, with Colombe d'Or the only strikeout (generic dishes indifferently prepared). Our most delightful discovery was the one-star Le Cagnard just down the road in Haut-de-Cagnes, a pedestrian-only village wound as seamlessly around its hillside as stripes around a barber pole. The restaurant occupies the lower level of the Hotel Cagnard, which is buried in a side street and from the outside looks like a dive. But Jean-Yves Johnany's cooking is deliciously rustic and the dining room is a convivial space with a brilliantly painted caisson ceiling, each square a little palio of Provence.

The most romantic spot was the terrace of the restaurant in the Hotel Saint-Paul in St. Paul--a slim space, garnished in green and cupped between two ancient buildings. Chef Frederic Buzet can be contemporary (a little tower of brandade on a plinth of artichoke heart) or traditional (Loup de Mer in clay for two) in presentation, but he always delivers the flavor. (The hotel itself is very cozy with several beautiful suites that look down valley.) Finally, there was Le Petit Maison near the Cours Saleya market in old Nice--"a local secret" the concierge at the Domaine told us, which seemed true judging by the clientele. The fish, especially the St. Pierre for two baked in salt, was superb, the all-white dining room a refreshing dash of hip (photos of celebrities shot off TV screens, a chandelier of handwritten notes of praise) and the marriage proposal we witnessed a reminder about the way to a man's heart.

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