I first came to Monte Carlo and the Louis XV two years ago. Back then, it was the first big 3* meal I paid for with my own pocket money. I saved up for half a year and was a little disappointed afterwards. I just wasn’t ready for this restaurant. The grand ambience proved to be the first problem. I bought my very first suit, just to go there. However, what really struck me, was the way, in which my appreciation of the food changed in the weeks following that dinner. From feeling a little disappointed to beginning to understand, what this was all about, it was quite a long way. However, when I was back in the region, last summer, I went back. This time for lunch, my meal cost me about a third of the dinner the year before and was mind-blowing. Never before had I eaten a sea bass of such quality, or a dessert this accomplished (although the desserts I tried on my first visit were on the same level). I had found what I had hoped for: Outstanding, regional products, relatively simple dishes, great service and of course, that slightly blasé room. During my week on the French Riviera in late September, I had planned a return to one of my 3 favourite restaurants in the world.
The restaurant was the first in which Alain Ducasse received 3*. This was a few years ago, and now he has not that much time for preparing stocks and sauces here anymore. That is why he delegates the work to his protégés, Franck Cerutti, who now runs all of the Hotel de Paris’ kitchens and Pascal Bardet, head chef of the Louis XV. Both of them are incredibly nice, passionate chefs, who seem to really love what they do. This kitchen is equally impressive as that of the Plaza Athenee in Paris, as it has roughly the same amount of cooks toiling in it. They are no less than 25 here, including 2 boulangers and 4 patissiers .
On the other side of the piano, one finds the same amount of people, in Georges Feghaly designed suits (which have a very stylish tab collar, a rare thing these days). This Monegasque designer is also the creator of the Parisian services’ « uniforms ». The cellar, one of the most impressive in the world, is in the very capable hands of Gerard Margeon (head sommelier of the Goupe Alain Ducasse and Noel Bajor, sommelier of the Louis XV), whilst the service brigade is directed by Michel Lang. This famous cellar has a whole history of its own, briefly portrayed in the wine list, which has some incredible prices (few bottles cost less than 60).
This time I found the brigade to be much more smiling, personal and approachable, the only flaw I had remarked during my previous visits. I wouldn’t go too far, if I would say that they really know how to pamper their diners. You are in most capable hands when dining here.
The room is one of the most impressive I have seen so far. The different (there were quite a few) maitresses of Louis XV look down on the guests, from their gold-framed portraits, the central flower bouquet is always huge and the amount of gold used in this one, gigantic room must amount to an obscene weight. Over the years, one has changed the chairs, and given the room a much friendlier, warmer, brighter lighting. Some hate such décor, but I must say that in this case it doesn’t bother me in the least.
My meal started with the first few nibbles: Barbajuans and bread crisps. Barbajuans are small, deep-fried ravioli from Monaco, which are filled (in summer at least) with ricotta, herbs and blettes. Biting in to one of these little treats is a pure delight. It is pure, because every single flavour is there, distinguishable, yet harmonious. But, don’t kid yourself, technique is close to perfection here too. Not a hint of greasiness is apparent on these parcels and the paper-thin pasta dough is as crisp as it gets. This is as perfect and refined as local, peasant cooking gets. The bread crisps bid your Champagne some very enjoyable company, that proves pleasant enough, whilst going through the menu. A most amusing, enjoyable start.
The classic, ever-present amuse bouche here is a mix of raw vegetables with a herb and parmesan sauce: Legumes de nos paysans a cru, sauce aux herbes pilees. It is no wonder that this amuse is often causing quite some irritation. Not only does it shock any first time diner with the disarming simplicity, but it also opposes the highly complex creations other chefs serve before meals. I must say that I am starting to like this more and more, for a few reasons. First, it is very regional. A bagna cauda is a classical Nicois dish, which is very similar and traditionally starts a meal in the area. Second, this plate is something you will always be able to come back to, even if the composition changes with the seasons. Furthermore, it features only vegetables, that come from the Riviera itself. Finally, it is a distillation of the philosophy behind the restaurant’s cooking. The predominance of the vegetables in haute cuisine has not begun in Alain Passard’s Arpege during the BSE-crisis, but here more or less 10 years earlier. Ducasse was the first to serve a fully vegetable-based tasting menu in a 3* restaurant, and the first chef to win 3* in a hotel restaurant. Very good.
Bread here is more impressive than anywhere else in this world (at least as far as I have seen pictures or experienced it myself so far). The two bakers produce at least 15 types of bread, twice a day. Even if there are only a couple of tables, the same amount of work is put into it. Obviously, there is not only a huge selection in terms of quantity, but it is also some of the finer bread this world has to offer these days. Among the best varieties were fig and nuts, tomato, fougasse aux lardons and a semolina flour « book ».
The actual meal started with a dish, which is contantly changing, but can be seen as a signature of the house: Salade tiede de cocos de l’arriere-pays, vongole, gamberoni et soupions, jus a l’encre de seiche. On a coco bean (small white beans that grow in the area and in Paimpol, where they even benefit from an AOC) puree and salad is mounted a mix of gamberoni from San Remo, vongole, small squid and poulpe. The whole is then served with a black sauce, made from the cooking juices of the different shellfish and squid ink. Looking at this dish, it is rather simple in preparation and not very inventive. The reasons for its success are mainly the fantastic quality of the produce, the precision of the cooking of every single element and the composition of the dish. The gamberoni, caught nearby and pristinely fresh, had amazingly clean, refined taste and a delightful texture. These are miles away from the stuff one is served in most restaurants anywhere in the world. The rest of the seafood does not fail to impress neither. The poulpe for instance, is caught by the last fisherman in Monaco, who supplies some of the restaurant’s fish and seafood and comes from the rocky coast off Monaco. The preparation is much more time-consuming than one is inclined to think: It is frozen, to tenderise it, cooked, and then marinated for 48h, the perfect length for the marinade, at least if one trusts Ducasse. The beans shall not be forgotten, as they are, just like everything else in this restaurant, of truly memorable quality. Along with the iodine flavours of the seafood, they make for a perfect match. Outstanding.
I have been making risotto from Ducasse’s recipe for years now, and it is the best I have encountered up to this day, so when I was approached with this dish, I was somehow interested to see what it would be like: Riso aux tomates de pays, pimenton et persil plat, jeunes oignons caramelises, Parmigiano Reggiano. You might have noticed that this is not a risotto, but a riso. Since Bardet took over, he changed the variety of rice to arroz bomba (which is used for paella) and changed the cooking method. The latter too, now resembles that of the paella, and thus gives it a completely different outcome. Apart from the perfect (al dente) cooking of the rice, I was most amazed by the incredibly strong, pungent tomato flavour. This was like eating a distillate of pure tomato, enriched by the gourmandise of the riso. The caramelised onions gave it a nice variation, both in terms of flavour and texture and the parmesan crisp provided a much welcome crunch. The difference from this cooking method to that of a classic risotto is the much lighter finishing. Whereas a risotto is traditionally finished with butter and/or parmesan and/or mascarpone and/or olive oil, this is simply bound with a little olive oil. It thus has a slightly more fine texture, that is really quite special. Another simple, but excellent dish.
Lapin de ferme mijote en cocotte aux amandes et truffe d’ete, des panisses. A rather generous serving of rabbit, glased in its jus was served with fresh almonds, summer truffles, a mesclun and panisses. Now this was another clin d’oeil to the area, as panisses are a local chickpea fry, that only consists of chickpea flour, water and a little olive oil. Here they were simply outstanding. Crisp on the outside, creamy, nearly like mashed potatoes on the inside, they would have sufficed by themselves. However, it would have been a pitty not to eat the rabbit, as it too, was a rather fine specimen. The various parts (rack, saddle, liver, kidney and leg) were all cooked and seasoned perfectly and were as tender as it could possibly get. The summer truffles were incredibly tasty for such a thing, I do despise, and added a nice earthy note. The trick here was the heating of them. By heating black or summer truffles in some brown butter, or jus, one will maximise their flavour, and get a totally different effect from simply cold, sliced truffles.Again, this dish was disarmingly simple by appearance, but redefined completely what rabbit should taste like. Outstanding.
On to cheese, The various types here come from Bernard Antony, Alleosse and a regional goat’s cheese producer, who all supply their finest pieces. I tried around six varieties and found all of them to be excellent. The comte, from 2005, is no less good than that of Arpege and is obviously quite impressive. A difference I believe to have remarked the moisture. Whilst Arpege’s and Les Ambassadeurs’ comte is much drier, with more clearly apparent salt crystals, this one was more moist, and slightly different. The local goat’s cheeses were of great quality too. Outstanding cheeses.
Desserts here are easily among the best in the world. Very few patissiers can match the work of Olivier Berger, who is probably one of the most important people in Ducasse’s empire.
My first dessert wer the Figues belones fourrees de crème au miel d’arbousier, d’autres poelees et refroidies, glace au lait. A seasonal, regional dessert, that I served the diners at the guesthouse the day before, made its appearance. The two preparations of belone figs, a variety that grows in the arriere-pays nicois and is particularly tasty and juicy, were accompanied by incredibly powerful milk ice cream and a puff pastry stick. One fig was simply filled with a arbousier honey cream, whilst the other was roasted, then cooled. Both preparations bring out two completely different flavours in the figs, as the baked one has a highly complex, full and rich flavour, whilst the other is given a slightly bitter note from the honey and a much more natural, direct flavour. This really is a dessert anyone can make at home (although the ice cream might be a little more challenging, due to a very particular preparation) and never fails to impress. Excellent
One more highlight was to come: Monte-Carlo au Gianduja, glace aux noisettes du Piemont. An ice cream, made with the renowned nocciole delle Langhe is paired with a coco tuile and an entremets consisting of a crumble, gianduja mousse and crumchy base (praline feuillantine, dark chocolate, praline noisette). The delicate composition was mind-blowing. One didn’t feel this to be a heavy dessert or one that overpowers the diner. The incredibly strong, rich flavours were given a very light repackaging, that felt unreal. It was a pure delight, one that will not be forgotten. It was much more impressive than the (excellent) Louis XV, and should be tried by anyone who is seriously interested in cooking, or patisserie for that matter. One of the best desserts of the last few years for me. Divine.
The mignardises are easily as good as the desserts and were simply outstanding. The tarte tropezienne is much better than the original in St Tropez, and the other parts are far better than any versions I have had before.
This meal was a shock. Not only did it exceed my expectations (based on my previous visits), but it also made me realise how local a restaurant’s cooking can be. Not many were the products that came from further than a few kilometers away (the arroz bomba obviously though). Here was cooking that, isn’t inventive, but that doesn’t claim to be neither. It is an extremely pure, product-based, powerful style, which will not necessarily please someone, who doesn’t know a lot about cooking and products, but that will blow anyone with a serious interest away. Every product, be it a bean or a lobster comes from small producers, fishermen, …, who in some cases only supply only this restaurant. Despite it being a Ducasse restaurant, there is an incredibly personal, individual approach to the producers and guests here. Furthermore, the purity of the flavours and cleanliness of them was most impressive. I have rarely had products of better quality that are given the chance to stand for themselves. This meal did, once more prove that it is often the less great chefs who tend to overcomplicate things and overload their plates with sauces, gels, jellies, airs, emulsions, foams, and whatever you want. In the end my most memorable meals were all in places that have a rather straightforward style (with the exception of Schloss Berg maybe): Louis XV, ADPA, In de Wulf, Schloss Berg, Sportsman.
I enjoyed my meal that much, that I immediately booked a return, just a few days later. I have never done that anywhere else, so this is the greatest compliment I can possibly give a restaurant.