I was recently in Monaco to indulge in one of my favourite things, namely watching insanely fast cars drive round a track. And when the Formula 1 circus comes to town, there's no better place to watch it than in Monte-Carlo, where the absurd speed and noise of these machines is in stark contrast to the perilously narrow and usually genteel streets of the Principality.
I'd taken an early morning flight from Oslo and was due to meet up with some friends travelling from London on a later flight. So, I landed at Nice airport at noon without a clue as to what I'd do to pass the five hours until the rest of the gang arrived. Of course, with my other passion being food I found myself in the baggage hall hesitantly telephoning the three Michelin-starred Le Louis XV restaurant in Monte-Carlo's Hôtel de Paris to enquire if they possibly, maybe, pretty please had a table for one available for lunch in an hour. The answer, to my amazement, was yes.
So after a pleasant bus journey from the airport (maybe not the most glamorous way to travel to Monaco, but it's cheap, scenic, and is often empty) I was dropped off, luggage and all, at Monte-Carlo's iconic Casino Square. As it was Grand Prix weekend, the main square was closed off, so I arrived at the Hôtel de Paris' back door where I was handed a laminated hotel day pass attached to one of those lanyards that seem to be the height of fashion in Monaco during the Grand Prix weekend. Navigating the back hallways of the hotel, I found myself in the main lobby where the entrance to the restaurant can be found.
Although it feels ancient, the restaurant is, surprisingly, 'only' 25 years old. In 1987 Alain Ducasse was tasked by Prince Rainier II of Monaco to turn Le Louis XV into the world's first hotel restaurant to be awarded three Michelin stars. Ducasse was given just four years to realise the prince's ambition and, remarkably, it was a feat he achieved just 33 months after opening the restaurant's doors. It has held this accolade ever since.
However, it's fair to say there are 3-Michelin-starred restaurants and then there's Le Louis XV. On entering the restaurant via the relatively unassuming reception area I challenge anyone not to be stunned into silence by the sight that beholds them; Ducasse's flagship restaurant is nothing short of a jaw-dropping marvel. A dining room of such lavishness and grandeur that it appears to have been transported straight from the Palace of Versailles itself.
A room some 10m high stood before me. I struggled to take it all in as I gazed up at the vast chandeliers, crystal candelabras, marble columns, intricately carved cherubs and ornate frescoes. Everything, but everything was splashed with a liberal layer of gold (even the cutlery and plates would turn out to be gold plated). The centrepiece of the room was an arrangement of fresh flowers that towered above my 1.86m frame. Below, my shoes rested on the thickest and plushest of carpets. The hands of the intricate clocks in the room were all set at the same position, and what's more they didn't move. At Louis XV time literally stands still. Anywhere else this overt ostentatiousness would be ridiculous, but in Monte-Carlo it seemed to make perfect sense. It was simply amazing.
|Gold-plated plates and cutlery and a mystery utensil|
Overseeing the kitchens at Le Louis XV is Nice-born Executive Chef Franck Cerutti, a Ducasse lieutenant described by the maestro as "having olive oil running through his veins." He was the man tasked by Ducasse 25 years ago to create his vision of "middle class Provençal cooking." Working alongside Cerutti is Head Chef Dominique Lory, another Ducasse protégé, who moved to Le Louis XV from Ducasse's Plaza Athénée in October 2011.
The menu at Louis XV is described as "Riviera Cuisine" and features French/Italian Mediterranean dishes made with predominantly local ingredients. The menu is split into sections titled "The Vegetable Garden," "The Sea," "The Woods, The Rivers," and "The Farm." There's no distinction between starters and main courses, but a few dishes are offered in half portions, although you won't get much change out of €100 per dish.
|My dining companion|
I didn't realise it at the time, but my lunch would coincide with the Formula 1 practice session. As the restaurant overlooks the track, I would have a ringside view of one of the greatest modern sporting spectacles. To say I was excited would have been more than an understatement. I think the exact words I used rhymed with "duck" and "bee."
And those quaint little words were repeated when the first Formula 1 car screamed past. I cannot possibly describe the noise; it's a visceral thing that shakes every fibre in your body and makes the hairs on the back of your neck stand up and the fillings in your teeth rattle, and as I was without earplugs my ears were going to feel the full force of a Formula 1 engine at 18,000rpm. The food was going to have a tough time competing with this.
|How thoughtful – there was even a large screen to follow the on-track action|
I didn't want anything too heavy for lunch but I did want to try a few different dishes, so I decided to go for the "Les Jardins de Provence" menu, a six-course menu comprising solely of local vegetables priced at €210. I had chosen to sit inside the main restaurant, as this after all is one of the main reasons one comes to Louis XV, however the terrace just outside was open and I was free to wander out between courses and watch the carbon fibre chariots roar past. The cars got so close I could have touched them were it not for the wire fence separating me and my lunch from an errant flying tyre. Given that the best grandstand tickets at the Monaco Grand Prix cost around €450, it dawned on me that lunch here might actually represent good value of sorts.
The waiters were clearly well practiced at competing with the roaring machines outside and timed their visits to the table with remarkable precision. Orders were taken and dishes brought out just as there was a lull in the noise. It was really quite remarkable how well orchestrated it was. Perhaps not too dissimilar to the balletic organisation of the teams competing just outside. Also, given the formality of the room (jackets required at all times, gents) the service was surprisingly warm and friendly.
To begin the meal some crisp flatbreads pressed with vegetables and black olives were brought to the table. Simple, yet elegant and tasty to boot.
Technically this is as close to flawlessly executed food as you're likely to get. Each individual element of a dish has been honed to perfection – take another look at how those asparagus spears have been trimmed for example. Yet for my tastes, the food seemed a little dated and underwhelmed as a result. Yes they may be as perfect an example of asparagus as you're likely to find, but they're still just spears of asparagus, is it too much to expect more in a 3 Michelin-star restaurant? Lunch at Louis XV is certainly not cheap. My solo lunch came to €385 including service and half a bottle of a rather delicious and complex 2007 Jacques Prieur Puligny-Montrachet Les Combettes (taken, incidentally, from the incredible onsite wine cellar of over half a million bottles of some the finest vintages).
However, with or without the Formula 1 circus in town, a meal at Louis XV is an exercise in absolute unadulterated luxury. At its core Ducasse's food stays true to its simple Provençal origins, yet here it's elevated to a level of execution beyond the comprehension of us mere mortals. However, the real star of Le Louis XV is the sheer scale and grandeur of the setting. If there were a Seven Wonders of the restaurant world, then Louis XV would certainly be near the top, and that alone is reason enough to make a pilgrimage to this anachronistic temple of pure opulence.
Food: 9 / 10
Service: 9 / 10
Ambiance: 10 / 10
Le Louis XV
Hôtel de Paris Monte-Carlo
Place du Casino
Principality of Monaco
Tel: +377 98 06 30 00