A few weeks back I was lucky enough to be in Monaco to indulge in two of my passions; food and Formula 1. It was a glorious spring weekend on the Côte d'Azur and the buzz surrounding this usually staid place was palpable. In such surroundings and company I could have eaten at KFC and been happy (in fact I can generally eat at KFC and be happy). As it was I had made a reservation at Joël Robuchon, a two-Michelin star restaurant located in the fantastically grand Hotel Metropole. The reservation process itself was a bit of a palaver requiring photocopies of passport and credit cards having to be faxed over, but in the end a table at 9:00pm was secured.
The entry to the restaurant is very grand with a long candle-lit driveway leading to the covered entrance. This being Monaco the driveway was lined with the most luxurious cars you could imagine. We were a little early so we decided to have pre-dinner drinks in the wonderfully decadent lobby, which was dominated by a huge central skylight. Just off the lobby was a large bar area with wall-to-wall books, the door to the toilets being hidden behind one such bookshelf, very James Bond. The overall feel was one of timeless luxury; elegant without being gaudy.
The restaurant is run by the very capable Head Chef, Christophe Cussac, a Robuchon protege. Cussac was formerly executive chef at the two Michelin Star restaurant La Reserve de Beaulieu, executive chef of two Michelin Star restaurant Hotel L’Abbaye, and Chef de Partie at the three Michelin Star Restaurant Troisgros, so he has bags of experience and talent in running such a high-end restaurant.
The dining room was designed by Jacques Garcia and was elegant and contemporary. The open plan kitchen is at one end with a sushi-style bar around it which I gather, given Robuchon's Japanese influences, serves as the chef's table. The restaurant seemed busy without being hectic, emitting that pleasing hum of of well-oiled Michelin-starred machine. My only gripe was that the dining chairs were a bit too low for me which, combined with the lack of space to stretch your legs under the table due to a huge central column that restricted the floorspace, made for a somewhat uncomfortable seating experience.
We all opted for the 10-course "Discovery" menu which at €210 per head without drinks was probably the most I have ever paid for food in a restaurant. I also suspect prices were somewhat inflated due to the Grand Prix as the tasting menu is usually €180 according to the restaurants website. However, sometimes you just have to splurge, and Monte-Carlo is hardly the place to visit on a shoestring.
We started with an amuse-bouche of foie gras mousse, salted caramel and Parmesan. This was a fantastic combination, the rich an silky foie gras combined perfectly with the sweet caramel and salty cheese. It had a surprisingly light texture given the heavy ingredients involved. I should also mention the bread. What I though was the cheese or dessert trolley turned out to be full of bread. I had never seen something like this before, but it was a fantastic idea. The butter was stored as one gigantic block under a bell jar and the waitress would create perfect quenelles of salted butter to place next to your chosen bread. A very classy touch.
Foie gras mousse, salted caramel and Parmesan
Next was a visually spectacular dish. A small tin bearing the logo of the restaurant was placed before us alongside a mother-of-pearl spoon. The tin was opened to reveal beautiful, perfect spheres of glistening caviar. Underneath (to the disappointment of my good friend who thought it was caviar all the way to the bottom) was a layer of shellfish jelly and beneath that was crab meat. This was one of my favourites of the evening. The flavours worked really well together, the crab was sweet and perfectly cooked, and the shellfish jelly was like a super concentrated essence of langoustine. I love caviar, and scooping up spoonfuls of it seemed like such a naughty thing to do. What a fun dish this was!
Caviar with crab and shellfish jelly
Next up was probably the most mediocre dish of the meal. Asparagus with morels and shavings of Parmesan. There was nothing bad about it per se, its just that it seemed a tad boring after the opening fireworks. Asparagus is always a good starter in my book and it combined well with the dense, woody morels and shavings of Parmesan. The asparagus was a touch overcooked for my liking though, but I've often found that asparagus in France and Germany is cooked that way, so maybe it was just me.
Asparagus, Parmesan and morels
This was followed by duck foie gras. The foie gras was cooked so that a wonderful savoury crust had developed which yielded to a meltingly soft interior. Again, salted caramel was used to provide sweetness, echoing the amuse-bouche. This was accompanied by vibrant minted peas, which were semi-mushy and incredibly fresh tasting. The menu stated this dish also came with bacon but I suspect this was a typo as no bacon was to be found. Instead it was Arnad lard from the Aosta valley in northern Italy. A wonderfully fragrant lard flavoured with mountain herbs made from pigs fed only chestnuts and vegetables.
Foie gras, salted caramel, and peas
After this was a dish consisting of a solitary langoustine tail wrapped in a basil leaf and then in filo-type pastry and deep fried. Alongside it was a slick of thick parsley sauce. The star of this dish of course was the langoustine which was stunning. Perfectly cooked, sweet, juicy and a nice contrast to the light and crisp pastry shell. I suppose this was Robuchon's take on tempura with a South of France influence. It worked really well and was gone in a few seconds.
Langoustine in a crispy parcel with basil
Then a warm salad of poivrade artichokes, squid and chorizo. The artichokes had been thinly sliced and had a nutty, grassy taste with a hint of bitterness, much more flavoursome than their globe artichoke cousins. Squid and chorizo is one of those food matches made in heaven, and here it did not disappoint. Small pieces of tender squid offset by the robustly smokey chorizo. The whole thing was topped off with shredded Jabugo ham. To be honest, each component of this dish in their own right would have been perfect on their own.
Poivrade artichokes, with squid, chorizo and thyme
The main course was next and it was a choice between quail or lamb. I opted for the lamb while my dear (and misguided) friends chose the quail. The lamb cutlets were just glorious. They had been grilled to perfection and almost melted in your mouth. A bit like a dainty meat lollipop. On the side was some pureed garlic and the waiter came round with a bowl of Robuchon's infamous pommes purée that is allegedly made with equal parts of butter and potatoes. This was my first time trying them and they were every bit as good as I had imagined – a dream dish for cardiologists. Our waiter spotted the jealous stares of my friends and a second bowl of mash soon appeared.
Grilled lamb cutlets, pommes purée
Finally on to desserts. Surprisingly, given our location no cheeses were offered, which is just as well as we were getting pretty full by now. Maybe this was the Japanese influence coming in. For our first dessert we were served a "tendance fraise". I've still no idea what a tendance is or if it's just a descriptive phrase used to name the dish, so if any kind readers could fill me in I'd be grateful. What was served was a some yoghurt and lime ice-cream and a sort of cold square of pain perdu atop some semi-set strawberry jelly. This tasted much nicer than it sounds, with a really intense strawberry taste, but we all agreed that the custardy bread thing was probably redundant.
This was followed by another dessert. This time fresh pineapple and green apples with meringue and a basil and pineapple sorbet. This was easily the better of the two desserts and had such a fresh and clean taste, exactly the sort of thing you'd like to finish a meal with; cool, light and refreshing.
Pineapple, apple, meringue, basil and pineapple sorbet
Finally, along with our coffee a solitary chocolate was served and I'm not sure why this was listed on the menu as a separate course. It seems odd to list something on the menu that usually comes with coffee at most restaurants of this calibre. Portion-wise, to serve one single chocolate for petit-fours seems a bit mean in my book. I know I'm a glutton but where were the macarons, truffles and tuilles? Oh well. The chocolate was delicious though, and was filled with more of the salted caramel (what is with salted caramel at this place? Was there a salted caramel sale going on that I missed?) but alas it was gone all too quickly.
Chocolate with salted caramel
The total bill (including some really decent wine) came to an eye-watering €400 per person. The food was sensational, but at times you felt like the chef was playing it a bit safe with dishes like the asparagus and the lamb. It would have been nice to see more adventurous dishes on the menu but I guess the menu has to cater to its target audience, which in Monaco means a older, super-wealthy person who, dare I say it, prefers a more traditional, conservative dining experience. The cost also seemed a little out of whack, but this is Monaco where nobody asks because everyone can afford it. A place like this certainly wouldn't get away with charging as much in London, Paris or New York.
In summary though, this was a monumentally good meal. The setting was magical, making you feel part spy, part plutocrat and the service was good (if a little stiff). I would definitely come back (after having taken out a second mortgage) and if you're ever in Monaco and feel like splurging then I can highly recommend you pay a visit to Joël Robuchon.
Food: 8 / 10
Service: 7 / 10
Ambiance: 9 / 10 (a point knocked off for the seats being so darn low!)