It is my third day in Monaco, and I am effortlessly getting used to the life here. After all, it isn't too tough to wake up every morning, in a perfectly comfortable bed of a suite in the turn-of-the-century, historic hotel, L'Hermitage. And then, to open the drapes, and see the glittering Mediterranean bay of Monte Carlo, dotted with the most stunning yachts, belonging to the rich and the glamorous.
After enjoying this wonderfully energizing sight, I head to the breath-taking breakfast room, in the "Jardin d'hiver". Literally meaning, "The Winter Garden", this area is a jewel of an area, completely designed in the Belle poque style, and I enjoy a cloud-like egg white omlette, using the season's finest and most delicate herbs; along with a glass of the most delicious strawberry juice.
Yes, this is the life... and like I said, it doesn't take too much getting used to!
For me, the most fantastic element of this trip has been the culinary experience that I have gone through. Over the 3 years that I spent in Paris as a student, I learned a lot about eating, drinking and cooking. It took me some time, but I believe I understand what it is about French fine dining that sets it apart from the food from the rest of the world. And the simple fact is, it is prepared with not just love, but with the highest form of respect. Respect for not just the preparer and the eater; but above all, for the ingredients.
So as I walked into, the Hotel de Paris, home to the world's finest (and let's be honest, most expensive) restaurants, Louis XV by Alain Ducasse; I was filled with a gush of excitement at what this extraordinarily special experience had in store for me. All I knew was that it was going to be very, very fancy food (for my naive palette) and I wondered what code of conduct I ought to follow. Would I find diamonds in my champagne Was the cutlery made of gold Was I expected to bow when I met the chef! I truly wasn't sure. But these myriad thoughts melted away, as I walked into the gorgeous room -- with gilded gold details, frescos on the ceiling and mystical relief work on the walls, exemplary of the Rococo period, the style preferred by Emperor Louis XV.
In 1987, when Alain Ducasse opened the doors to Louis XV, Prince Rainier III of Monaco, daunted him to the task of turning Louis XV into the first hotel restaurant to be awarded with 3 Michelin stars. The deadline given was a maximum of four years, but the 33 year old maverick chef, won the challenge and was awarded the 3* in just 33 months! In 2013, the restaurant turns a quarter of a century old, and I had the pleasure to enjoy 25th Anniversary menu, imagined by Alain Ducasse, Frank Cerutti and Dominique Leroy, celebrating the joys of nature and the produce of that region.
The impeccably laid table, on which we were seated had specially-crafted Christofle cutlery, a curious little sparrow (also crafted by Christofle, exclusively for this restaurant) sits pretty in the center, and watches us, as we make sense of all that is going on. Awaiting us is a bouquet of paper-thin bread, "printed" with vegetables. This seemingly "simple" creation is a work of art, resembling beautiful hand-made paper -- too beautiful to eat. But of course we did, and with that one bite, it felt one had sampled the entire Mediterranean region! Following which, a beautifully presented plate of the freshest, juiciest and most organic vegetables from the Hautes de Provence region, served with black-olive oil. And finally, a perfectly pink Champagne Lanson Ros, to compliment the delicate food.
Yes, the meal had officially commenced!
Then came trolley no.1: The Bread. Only that it hosted over 10 kinds of freshly-made bread, each one looking more delectable than the next. After what seemed like a heavy decision, I chose the olive bread and herbed bread. But before I could attack it, came trolley no. 2: The Butter. And what butter 'tis was! What came was a mini-mound of un-salted, natural butter under a glass jar, which our bearer then carefully opened and delicately curled a perfect serving onto a marble tray and put on our table, thoughtfully providing an alternative of fresh salted butter as well. As if, this was a concern on any of our minds!
I felt no bones about looking quite silly and confused with the menu in my hand, and helplessly asked our severe-yet-kind looking Maitre'd to help me understand what to select. To begin with, the choice was between asparagus (each stalk was like a tiny tree trunk, simply steamed, with a touch of pepper), cookpot of seasonal vegetables, including black morels and young veggies, spring vegetables from Provence cooked with black truffle oil with balsamic vinegar and fleur de sel. And the San Remo Gamberoni, which was a delicate rock-fish gele, served with caviar, which we skipped. For main course, we could choose between, a grilled and limed turbot, a giant snapper (which was good for 2-3 people), ravioli with asparagus and black truffles with a light sauce to accompany it with, and a suckling lamb roasted in the fireplace....
These courses passed by in the happy haze of the Ros champagne which we continued with; perhaps surprising the sommelier as we didn't try one of his 400,000 special wines. We couldn't believe the amount of veggies we had consumed, each being surprised at the freshness, legerity, and tastiness of eating such lightly prepared veggies.
Time for Trolley no. 3: The Cheese. We saw the other guests, sampling the variety of fresh goat cheese. And going by the cheese and the level of appreciations on their faces, it must have been really good. But alas, something had to be skipped and cheese it was.
Finally, dessert time had arrived, which we all had thoughtfully chosen and allocated some "space" for. I had a milk ice-cream, sandwiched between 2 caramel crisps made with fleur de sel. There was a fabulous chocolate preparation, as well as a warm Piedmond Hazelnut Souffl. The winner however, was the outstanding Tiramisu, which was presented in an extremely original fashion, along with a granita of iced coffee. Delice!
As if sensing our urgent need and aid for digestion, the gentle server asks us for our tea/coffee order and now comes Trolley no. 4: Tea Garden. By far the most memorable moment in the meal, the Tea Garden is a selection of over a dozen tea plants, and depending on one's mood and preference, he recommends and then carefully selects the right bud to nip off the plant, all the while using a gloved hand and using a golden scissor to do the cutting. Now this is love, is it not
Sipping my heavenly tea, I thought to myself, God is in the details and this held true at Louis XV. It goes without saying, that the 50-seater restaurant was very lovely. Every element of the table dcor was thoughtful and simply perfect. This meal could have easily been an extremely uncomfortable, overwhelming and embarrassing experience for me; given my lack of experience in this part of the culinary world. But it wasn't so at all and that is due to the discretion and attention of the wonderful team.
The staff at Louis XV was nothing short of impeccable. The Executive Chef, Frank Cerruti, shyly greeted us at the beginning, even humbly posed for photographs with us. The knowledgeable and quiet Maitre'd who oversaw the entire meal, kept an eagle's eye over us all the while, but always maintained a respectful distance, allowing us the privacy. And of course, our young and passionate server, who took great care of us, answering our seemingly silly questions, and explaining the various little ceremonies, in the world of Louis XV.
Before the meal ended, we were presented with a coffret of exquisite Alain Duccase "petit fours" and chocolates and each of us received a personalised menu, bearing details of the food had by each of us. For me, this was one of the finer touches of the afternoon.
There are so many ways to spend one's money. This is a place where one enjoys a luxury experience, worth bragging about. It is a restaurant that stands in such high esteem not for merely serving "rich people's food", but because it is a place, which is so very special in the fact that you leave it feeling utterly delighted and highly respected. And as I said in the beginning, life is all about respect.
Let's drink to that - Sante!
The Anniversary Menu is available until December 2013, and is priced at 280 Euros per person, and an optional selection of wines costs an additional 145 euros.
The Lunch Menu, which includes wine is priced at 140 euros per person.
Gardens of Provence Menu, available at lunch and dinner, costs 210 euros per person.