These are images I clicked during my memorable stay in Monaco at the famous Hotel de Paris. And that is the interior of the extraordinary restaurant, Le Louis XV, where my daughter Avantikka and I enjoyed what I rate as the best dinner ever!
GO VEGGIE IN MONACO.....
Consider this extraordinary factoid: There are no less than seven Michelin-starred restaurants in the tiny ( just two square kilometres!), jewel-like Principality of Monaco. While you chew on that, digest this as well: Alain Ducasse, arguably one of the greatest chefs of our time, was once entrusted with a truly daunting task by none other than the late Prince Rainier 111 of Monaco himself! This was in 1987, and Ducasse was 33 years old at the time. His culinary challenge was to earn three Michelin stars ( tough, tough, tough) for Le Louis XV restaurant housed in the magnificent Hotel de Paris. Ducasse was given four years to achieve this feat(it was in his contract!). He succeeded spectacularly in beating all odds in exactly thirty three months! There has been no looking back since then. This superlative dining experience has few rivals in the world. Thankfully, knowing a little about the impressive background, had prepared us sufficiently for the grand, memorable experience that followed. After pulling out the stops and dressing up in all our ethnic finery, my daughter and I wafted into the restaurant (that routinely hosts Kings and Queens, Heads of State and mega Movie stars, Sportsmen and other super celebrities), filled with high expectations.We took our seats at the tastefully decorated table (the restaurant seats no more than 50 diners at a time)and were greeted by a darling little silver sparrow crafted especially for the restaurant by Christofle ( the reputed silverware company established in 1830). The perfectly colour- coordinated roses, old fashioned silverware and crockery urged us to experience ‘the hush’. The hush is something that happens rarely, but when it does, you know you are in a magical place where only delight and nothing but awaits you at every turn. Here at the Louis XV, the indulgent staff is used to greeting awestruck diners from across the world who react like they have just been granted a special audience in heaven with God himself. We were no different. My daughter urged me to put away my camera and stop behaving like a desi tourist. But that’s before we looked around and saw flashes popping from every other table! Dining at Le Louis XV is a pretty big deal – and people like to remember it... cherish every moment. Encouraged, I clicked away happily, even persuading the butterman to pose. Butterman? Yes. At the Louis XV, there is a fancy butter service and you get to choose your butters. The Butterman brings a mound of freshly churned, unsalted butter ( what we Maharashtrians call ‘lonni’) from Normandy, covered by a blown glass cloche designed by Jean Claude Novaro , and serves it in pats, after shaping it with a spoon and it into a special marble dish. There is a great deal of drama involved as the bread trolley simultaneously draws up bearing bran michette nicoise flavoured with olive oil to the small baguettes(3oo are kneaded everyday), some of which are almost too pretty to eat! We are reminded gently that the food served here is ‘respectful of its environment.’ As we nibble on what are referred to as ‘frivolous nothings’( chefs the world over create whimsical ‘amuse bouches which epitomise the very essence of their individual cuisines), we realise just how seriously Chef Ducasse takes his mission. It is pretty evident in the menu we are presented, which heavily emphasises the use of fresh local produce. Since Monaco nestles comfortably between land and sea, amongst the hills of hills of Nice and Liguria, Ducasse has faithfully stuck to his original mission statement which is “to exalt the truth in all produce without impairing them, searching for the source of the flavour.” This original simplicity and fervour are being carried forward twenty-five years later with the creation of the Anniversary Menu, that respects green grocers, farmers, breeders, butchers, fishermen, mushroom gatherers whose unique stories are reflected in the dishes that are presented with such elegance to humbled diners. Ducasse’s dishes are a feast for the eyes before they get to the tongue. With his focus on splashing colour on the table as a visual treat,it is not uncommon for diners to gaze at the paper- like breads ‘printed’ with transparently thin sheets of carrots, zucchini flowers and other attractive vegetables.... wondering all the while whether or not to eat from the Mini Pan Bagna, which is more a bouquet than a bread basket! You also have to remember that each diner here has 40 people at his/ her service, to clear more than 50 pieces of cutlery, china and glassware! Despite these numbers, at no stage do you sense anyone hovering around making you feel hemmed in or self conscious. The seamless service is the hallmark of the restaurant – non-obtrusive, silent and yet attentive to your smallest need.
Ducasse, who runs 27 restaurants world-wide ( three of which have earned the ultimate accolade of 3 Michelin stars) has recently written ‘Nature’ which encapsulates his feelings about food. He said in an interview that we must not ‘demonize’ haute cuisine. Towards that end, he offers dishes from $10 to 400 Euros! He sums up his cuisine in three eloquent sentences, “ Ïf it were a colour, it would be blue just like the Mediterranean Sea. If it were to be defined by just one taste, it would be that of extra virgin olive oil... subtle and aromatic. If it were to be described in just one word... it would be Ëssential”.The menu is described lyrically as a Mediterranean Symphony. It is designed to soothe the senses, not intimidate diners. The choices are simplified and do not bewilder the unwary : 4 courses, 1 cheese platter and 1 dessert. The chef and 20 cooks work in a state of the art basement kitchen. If you are the favoured one, Ducasse himself receives you in “l’Aquarium’, which is a mini dining room inside the kitchen. While the food menu has been refined to an attractively lean one, albeit with an impressive palette of fine fare, the rest on offer is mind-boggling!Let’s talk about water for now! You have a choice of 18 different sorts of bottled water. There are coffees from Brazil to Africa, 15 types of tobacco, and of course, the perfect cigar to end the meal.As for the selection of wines from the Hotel’s legendary cellar, you get to pick from 400,000 bottles, 950 different wines, 40 rare and great vintages, and 16 “fine and exceptional bottles”. Magnums and jeroboams play starring roles here, as connoisseurs will readily confirm.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. We greedily demolish the tiny baguettes...next, it’s on to Ducasse’s internationally renowned “Cookpot of ‘Haute-Provence” This is the sort of inspired vegetarian dish that is worth taking a long flight for. I’m not even a shudh vegetarian, but was I glad I opted for the Cookpot over the lobster tails ( which my daughter was sweet enough to share with me – and they were indeed scrumptious). Bet you’re dying to know what exactly goes into the Cookpot. Since it is Ducasse’s signature dish, let me just say it is bursting with fresh and surprising flavours. Seven seasonal vegetables ( carrots, artichokes,turnips,peas,baby broad beans, asparagus and morels) are meticulously sourced from local farmers. They are coated with Asparagus jus and cooked with a slightly oily but entirely delicious cereal which tastes like cracked wheat but is called ‘small spelt’. To dub it an earthy dish would be a gross understatement. It is a dish so complete, I longed to linger over the after- taste and was actually prepared to skip dessert. Our charming Maitre d’ dissuaded me from even contemplating such an absurd act. Sacrilege! For who can refuse Ducasse’s other masterpiece – the famous Warm Piedmont Hazelnut soufflé? Presented grandly in signed fine china by Pieter Stockmans, the delicately flavoured soufflé rises majestically and gradually melts in the mouth, as the hazelnut gianduja disc placed on top blends smoothly with a side dish of hazelnut ice cream, that induces diners to sigh with pleasure. Sigh deeply. Eyes shut! That’s not where it ends. There is the selection of regional goat cheese which relies on the knowledge of local herdsmen who create the range from whole,unpasteurised milk. The cheeses are served with fennel, baby beans, olive oil and crystal salt There’s also a jaunty sorbet that takes you into the heart of the gardens of the Riviera with its tangy , tantalising flavours of bitter citrus fruit, lemon jelly, grapefruit and Campari. This is pure genius... only a true artist could combine these flavours in as masterful a fashion.
Just as we were gathering our senses ( the friendly,local wine had done its work by then) and replacing our respective dropped jaws into their original place, I spotted what resembled a mobile garden going past us on four wheels. Surely, I hadn’t drunk that much of the Dom Perignon(2002), or the Chateau de Bellet (2010)? I was enchanted and flummoxed, so I asked the garcon to kindly explain. “Oh”, he answered suavely, “that’s just the fresh herbs trolley.... our guests can pick their favourite herb for the after- dinner tea. What would you like ? We have citronella from Madagascar to verbena and sage on our fresh infusion trolley”. I turned to Avantikka and stated with complete authority, “We are in the Garden of Eden – take your pick.”She responded sternly, “No more champagne for my mother!” And marched me out of the restaurant and up to our suite. I held on to my flowing caftan and sailed out with a slightly silly smile on my face. Later,as I lay satiated and blissed out on my king size bed, my head light and loopy, I wondered how on earth I would be in a position to recall one of the most memorable meals I had ever consumed? Aha. Even that detail was taken care of. If the chef has created the menu for you, it is presented as you leave, bearing the date and printed on a personalised Louis XV card. Like many before me, I shall preserve this memento for years to come.