6 June 2012

Le Louis XV, Monte-Carlo – Restaurant Review


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.
Noise

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.
Next came the impressive show that is the bread service. A huge cart was wheeled over creaking under the strain of ten different kinds of bread. In addition to this, another cart arrived bearing a bell jar filled with what is probably the EU's fabled butter mountain. A quenelle of unsalted Normandy butter as big as an orange was expertly formed and placed in front of me. For good measure a separate thick ingot of salted butter was placed next to it.

My choice of semolina bread looked more dramatic than it tasted, its evenly baked leaves fanned out with military precision. Better, though, was the borage bread – a soft green doughy roll with a gentle cucumber-like aroma.
An amuse of Provençal vegetables and goats' cheese arrived next. Perfect specimens of tomatoes, peppers, olives and salad leaves had been individually dressed with oil and vinegar and sat on a disc of crisp bread. It looked quite mundane, but packed a colossal punch of flavour. Each component was damn near flawless.
To follow was a warm soup of peas, served with a soft ricotta gnocchi and a garnish of lightly simmered vegetables. It tasted like you'd expect an intensely flavoured pea soup to taste, but again, the devil is in the details, and I marvelled as I discovered each pea to have been skinned and cooked perfectly à point – tender but with a toothsome bite.
The next course was presented with great fanfare that seemed to contradict the dish's simplicity. A tray arrived (again with the gold) bearing a napkin concealing the contents of the dish. The tray was presented to me and the napkin lifted to reveal three fat pristine spears of asparagus. The waiter then proceeded to plate up the dish, dressing the asparagus with a fluffy sauce of soft-boiled egg, shallots, vinegar, and olive oil.
The quality of the asparagus was quite possibly the best I've encountered. The acidic sauce was thick and voluptuous and perfectly matched with the sweet, grassy and tender stems. The mystery utensil that had been placed on my table in preparation for this course turned out to be none other than asparagus tongs (gold-plated, naturally) – only in Monaco.
To follow came a dish of Provence garden vegetables and black truffles that were dressed with balsamic vinegar, "top quality" salt and Terre Bormane olive oil produced with handpicked olives from certified Taggiasca groves. This was another simple and perfectly executed dish, the truffles adding more of an earthy bass note rather than their typical pungency.
The next course was asparagus, morels, ricotta and morel ravioli and "velvety sauce." The sommelier enquired if I'd like a red wine to go with this dish, but I declined. I can see his point though, and given this was a vegetarian dish it had such richness to it. The morels in particular had a texture and meatiness not dissimilar to that of wagyu beef. The ravioli were light with the pasta rolled impossibly thin, and the asparagus was served both steamed and in thin raw slices for texture. This was probably the best dish of the meal.
The cheese course came next and again another mammoth cart bearing local and regional cheeses arrived. I can't remember the names of the ones I tried, but I think there was an Époisses and a local goats' cheese. These were eaten the French way, on their own with knife and fork.

As part of the tasting menu, I was free to select any dessert from the à la carte menu. However, I didn't even need to see the menu to know that I would be having the Baba au Rhum, quite possibly Ducasse's defining dish. An elaborate golden dome arrives housing a sweet yeasty cake that has been glazed in orange, lemon and vanilla syrup and split down the middle to reveal its fluffy interior. You're then offered a choice of rum from over half a dozen bottles, which is then liberally poured over the cake. The waiter recommended an Angostura 1919, an 8-yr old rum from Trinidad & Tobago that had a very smooth finish with notes of honey, nougat and spice.
To go with the cake was a pot of fluffy whipped vanilla cream. This was a good dessert, but perhaps not as mind-blowing as I expected (that's the problem with lofty expectations), but the main fun comes from the sheer drama of how it is served.
Finally, to go with the coffee was a beautiful parade of mignardises. A basket of warm fragrant madeleines was offered, then pieces of marshmallow were cut from longer ribbons, a caramel or two, chocolates, macarons, and little lemon tarts. My idea of a light(ish) lunch just went out of the window.



And if you wanted to make a night of it, there's a cognac trolley that looks like this:

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
MC 98000
Principality of Monaco
Tel: +377 98 06 30 00

9 comments:

  1. Great post, i had a similar if not quite as grand an experience at Les Ambassadeurs in the Hotel Crillion in Paris a few years ago. Were they cool about you taking photos??

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    1. Thanks. Yes, they were totally cool with me taking photos (I asked first). In fact, I was quite surprised by how friendly the service was in general. I wonder if the atmosphere there is more stiff when the Formula 1 circus isn't in town?

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  2. Well done! Love the post! I will try to check it out next time in Monaco.
    Love the fact that you point out the obvious "over the top" soroundings.... Im not sure if I think it is "passé" or if it is OK since it is located in Monte Carlo.

    Looking forward to the next post!

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  3. Superb review! ...'twas a vicarious experience,complete with regal settings ,precise cooking and formula 1 thrills! Again,you've showed that you're one of the best anywhere in presenting photo-laden richly articulate restaurant descriptions.

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  4. I was just there 2 weeks back, great meal! Did you have your SLR in there? You have great shots. Mine are mostly from my iPhone and point and shoot :(

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  5. I got full just reading the review. Nice job.

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  6. We were planning on going to Monaco to the Grand Prix in May. Seems like a cool idea and a bargain to have lunch or dinner at Le Louis XV and watch the race from the hotel. Could you expand on the experience. Can you watch the race before or after your meal from the hotel? What does the hotel day pass provide access to? Any other details would be appreciated...
    Thanks.

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