Château De Madrid
BY TERENCE PRITTIE
Monsieur Artur Sarti, born in a Piedmontese village more than sixty years ago, a chef in his own right and a restaurateur who forced his way to the very front rank in the 1920s in the Pyrenean resort of Bagnères-de-Luchon, grew tired of the orthodoxy of his admirable profession. He decided to “invent"’ a restaurant of his very own, and in so doing, to outdo and outmode the exclusiveness of the most exclusive part of southern France. In 1924 he built the Château de Madrid, as a villa-cum-restaurant, just off the Moyenne Corniche, which runs from Nice to Monte Carlo. He intended it primarily as a home for his family, secondarily as a citadel of gastronomy.
The Château’s architecture is a strange composite, in which Romanesque arches, Venetian staircases, and a Scottish baronial facade predominate. Its geographical position is superb. The Château is reached by a narrow road which runs for about six miles along the Moyenne Corniche. After a couple of hundred yards the road narrows dramatically and runs along a knife-edge ridge of rock to the great bastion on which the Château stands. When dining on the terrace, one looks down on the lights of Beaulieu-sur-Mer, with the two-pronged peninsula of Cap Ferrat to the right, and beyond it the sweeping are of the Rade de Villefranche, and to the west a corner of Nice peeping through a chink in the mountains. M. Sarti chose his site well.
M. Sarti seems to have timed his venture well too. In the 1920s the Côte d’Azur was starting on its most recent, hectic period of development. It was being popularized in print by Michael Arlen and E. Phillips Oppenheim, whose picaresque villains and iron-nerved heroes careered along its littoral — particularly between Nice and Monte Carlo — in their vintage Bentleys and De Dion Bourtons. In 1924 it was scarcely possible to visualize the Riviera of the 1960s with a million seasonal compeurs, its queues on the bathing beaches and longer queues on the roads, and its gems of jostling, claustrophobia-inducing humanity — Cannes, Antibes, the Golfe Juan, and St. Tropez. Yet Sarti may have had this particular vision. At all events he built the Château in a place securely apart from a coast which is today acrawl.
The Château had its ups and downs. In 1929 Sarti was caught up in the world economic crisis and sold the Château as a residence to the wife of a Scottish industrialist. He bought it back two years later, added to it, increased the restaurant’s wine list and its prices. By 1934 he had a large and growing clientele. By 1939 he was supremely prosperous. A year later he was leading a struggling existence, and in 1943 he was a poor man, living as an exile in Monte Carlo by the grace of the reigning Prince Louis of Monaco, whose personal friendship was founded on the solid basis provided in the past by the Château’s cuisine.
The Château itself was occupied by the Germans and turned, prosaically but usefully, into a coastal observation post. Two years later it was being used by the American Army as an officers’ luncheon mess. Little enough profit in this either, but by the end of 1947 the Château was re-establishing itself as one of the finest restaurants in the whole of southern Europe. Today it has probably only one real rival on the French Riviera — the Bonne Auberge at La Brague, two miles north of Antibes.
The gastronomic reputation of the Château de Madrid depends today as much on mechanics as on its original advantage of situation. Its terrace, flanked by fuchsias, geraniums, and a discreetly efficient heating system, seats about seventy people. To serve them there are ten courteous and capable waiters. To provide the food which they eat there are five chefs, generally long-service men. each of whom has mastered a special section of the Château’s cuisine. The grill is in the hands of a single specialist. The staff is alertly directed by M. Sarti and by his 31-year-old son Charles. Madame Sarti is in charge of the caisse; the daughter of the house, Liliane, helps in the office and receives guests.
There are no set menus at the Château, and each dish must be ordered a la carte. It is only prepared after the order is given. M. Sarti forbids advance preparation of dishes; nor will he allow canned food in his house. Every vegetable is fresh, and guests are invited to taste the pelits pois, out of the pod, with their predinner cocktails. The Château is the only restaurant in Europe which grows its own corn.
The Château is a place for those who understand their food, and are ready to pay for it. There is a cover charge, for bread, butter, and table linen, of about $1.20. The costs of entrees range from roughly $1.20 to S6.00; of fish and meat courses from S2.50 to $4.80; and there are dessert dishes from $1.00 to $2.30. Vegetables are extra, and there is a 15 percent charge for service. Three courses, with service, may cost nearly $12. A four-course meal, consisting only of spécialités de la maison, would work out at about $1.50 more. (The charge for a four-course dinner at the Carlton in Cannes would be approximately $6.00.) “We charge quite a bit,”M. Sarti admitted to me. “But we really set out to give only the best — and something special besides. People will always pay for that.”
Something special does not merely mean fresh vegetables and homegrown corn on the cob. I have tasted M. Sarti’s piccata de veau à la crème (veal with pilaf of rice, almonds, ham, Malaga raisins, and a fugitive hint of Madeira) and his steak au poivre (beef hung, cut, and cooked to perfection, with peppercorns and wine). I have sampled his grande spécialité, the délice du Château, a millefeuille pastry of indescribable delicacy, layered with raspberry and gooseberry jelly and flavored with Grand Marnier. Then there are his croustade de langouste and croustade de scampi — dishes of crayfish and prawns, caught locally, kept in tanks until ordered, and cooked in sauces which are among the unconfessed secrets of the Château. There is the talmouse Château de Madrid, an entree compounded of cheese soufflé and fonds d’artichauts, which preserves the individual flavors of both.
“Something special” means perfect salads and cheeses, expert advice on the foods to order and the wines to drink with them, the hard-andfast insurance that your food and drink will be as good for your digestion as they are delightful for your palate and your soul.
“Something special" means an impeccable wine list, with 131 red and white table wines and a grande fine cognac which is one hundred years old. (M. Sarti gave a bottle to Sir Winston Churchill for his eightieth birthday; the Château sells it at S3.60 a glass.) The wine list includes some of the finest growths in recent French history — Château Latour 1934, Château Mouton-Rothschild 1947, Romanée Conti 1952, and the golden Château d’Yquems of 1947, 1949, and 1955. Some of these exquisite wines cost up to $15 a bottle, but it would be wrong to suppose that the Château sells wines at fancy prices. There are château-bottled 1952 Pontet Canets and 1955 Rausan Seglas — sound, friendly clarets — at only $3 to $4, and a good range of red and white Burgundies at little more. There are moderately priced Châteauneufde-Papes and Côte Roties, and the Alsatian Traminer which is Sir Winston’s usual, if surprising, choice on his visits from his Roquebrune villa. There are thirty-three champagnes, and wines en carafe for those who unwisely hesitate to order a bottle (a just dispensation: the latter are not conspicuously cheaper).
The Château de Madrid has enjoyed a continuing heyday during the last fourteen years. In the big summer season, every table is booked in advance for dinner. (The restaurant opens only for lunch in the winter.)
Of course, M. Sarti has his troubles. They are mostly those of every restaurateur who must compete with a rising overhead and a shortage of staff.
Perhaps his chief worry is his quarrel with the Guide Michelin, the thousand-page gourmet’s bible which lists and classifies every hotel and restaurant worthy of the name throughout the whole of France. In 1958 the Guide gave the Château a single star, whereas several dozen other French restaurants were awarded two or even three stars. Sarti wrote to the Guide asking for an explanation. He received a blunt and unconciliatory reply. He wrote again, in dignified terms, disclaiming any desire to have his restaurant listed in the Guide.
“I could give these people dozens of recommendations from acknowledged gourmets,” M. Sarti told me, “but it is not my business to do so. I shall just go on looking after my guests.” He may still be a bit irritated about this affair. His gesture, indeed, is impressively bold, for the Guide Michelin is a real power in the land. But M. Sarti’s dispute with the Guide has a special virtue to commend it. It has made the Château a little more exclusive than ever before, even unique. And it has not detracted from the perfection of the cooking in the very slightest degree.