A Japanese Chef Does French. Nice.

An appetizer at Keisuke Matsushima in Nice, where the Tokyo-trained chef dishes up southern French and Mediterranean cuisine.
An appetizer at Keisuke Matsushima in Nice, where the Tokyo-trained chef dishes up southern French and Mediterranean cuisine. (By Robert V. Camuto)
Sunday, October 21, 2007

There was a time not long ago when the best restaurants on France's Cote d'Azur had a familiar ring, named for the colorful characters who presided over kitchen and table: Chez Rene, Chez Loulou, Chez Pipo, JoJo.

Nowadays the Renes, Loulous, Pipos and JoJos often either are gone from this world or have retired, having passed their family recipes on. At the same time, chefs from other parts of France, Europe and the world have come and breathed new life into the cuisine of coastal Provence.

Chez Keisuke Matsushima doesn't quite roll off the tongue in the patois of Nice, but it is a stellar example of the new generation in France's Sunbelt. As you may have guessed, Matsushima -- as the locals would say -- n'est pas d'ici (is not from here). After studying French cooking in his teen years in Tokyo, Matsushima moved to France at 20 and worked in gastronomic kitchens across the south. At 25 he opened Kei's Passion, a block from the sea near Nice's iconic Hotel Negresco. Three years later he was awarded a Michelin star.

The latest chapter of this story opened last November when Matsushima, not yet 30, expanded and changed the name of the restaurant -- in local tradition -- to his own name.

Keisuke Matsushima is not a Japanese restaurant or even a Japanese fusion restaurant. It serves southern French and Mediterranean cuisine: On our visit, the changing menu included galinette (a Mediterranean fish of the mullet family), carpaccio, fried artichokes with risotto, truffles with scallops or foie gras, squab with turnip pastry, all prepared and served with rare perfectionism. Couple that with the carefully selected list of small-production natural wines (heavy on the Rhone Valley), and you might say that Matsushima has produced something more French than most of his French peers (while retaining his Michelin star).

On an afternoon earlier this year, my wife and I visited his new restaurant for the first time.

The interior is modern minimalist: light, faux-wood walls, dark wood floors, dark tables and angular black leather chairs. The staff wears black suits and ties, and the headwaiter speaks perfect English. Small cards on the table warn that smoking is not allowed and portable phones are not welcome.

For the first course, my wife ordered asparagus meuniere served with a poached egg and mesclun. I ordered something called a croustillant de sardines, Riviera style. What arrived on my appetizer plate was a pair of layered concoctions of Mediterranean ingredients -- well put together, yet not fussy. The bottom layer of raw fennel in a light cream sauce was covered by a razor-thin rectangle of crust. Continuing upward, there was a sprinkling of vividly green fresh small feves (fava beans), sun-dried tomato and a pair of marinated fresh sardine fillets topped by a second crust and more of the beans. A second sauce of light jus de minestrone was loosely splashed around the edges of the plate.

In between my spontaneous sounds of approval, I asked the waiter how it was that fava beans could taste so good. He explained that because so many individual producers have vanished from southeast France, the restaurant buys all of its vegetables and most of its fish from small producers who are more plentiful one country and about 45 minutes to the east -- in Italy.

For the next course, my wife had the fillet of roasted daurade (sea bream) served with a foamy, truffle-flavored emulsion on a bed of risotto and baby peas that were the vivid green of the first shoots of spring.

My course, a roasted loin of pork cooked in a mustard crust with hazelnuts and served with mashed potatoes, wasn't nearly as beautiful. But from the first bite, the dish was a revelation. This was no ordinary pig. It was cooked rare and . . . I will skip trying to describe just how tender it was and move on.

The second glass of wine our sommelier poured was a Saumur-Champigny from the Loire Valley, a dark, lush, corpulent cabernet franc from a little-known family producer.

Before dessert -- vanilla mousse and litchi sorbet, followed by a tasting of macaroons (chocolate, lemon, rose, violet) -- we lingered over the wine. We'd enjoyed it so much, the sommelier poured us a third glass, and a fourth -- prolonging the lunch for hours in the great tradition of the French Midi.

-- Robert V. Camuto

* Keisuke Matsushima, 22 Ter Rue de France, Nice, 011-33-4-93-82-26-06, Prix-fixe menus are about $48 (three courses) at lunch and $89 (five courses) at dinner; prices include tip, but not wine.

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