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It’s not just about the fabulous food, says Andrew L. Urban, after sampling one of the most dazzlingly beautiful restaurants in the world. 

Prince Albert of Monaco walked in to the Bar Americain and joined a small group who were sitting to the left of the door, a few feet from our own table. The Bar, a spacious, restrained room off the lobby of the legendary Hotel de Paris in Monte Carlo, is directly opposite the entrance to the hotel's pride and joy, the Louis XV restaurant. Even among the world's finest restaurants, this establishment is the equivalent of royalty.

We had come from the Festival de Cannes, the altar of cinema; a side trip like no other.

Photo by Andrew L. Urban

One behaves with due nonchalance, of course, and we sipped the house champagne with cool to spare, only glancing at His Royal Highness surreptitiously, so the bar staff wouldn't notice the vulgarity. Drinking the house champagne here is not like settling for the house wine at the corner cafe. It comes from Pommery, the house with a place in history; it was Monsieur Pommery's widow, Louise, who pioneered brut style champagne in 1784, after which the sweet styles were abandoned altogether, and champagne became a drink for any time. Well done, Louise.

"the air of grandeur and luxurious serenity"

Declining a second 'coup', we strolled into the lobby, one of the most elegant, beautiful and awe-inspiring hotel lobbies in the world, its proportions impressive yet so designed that you never feel insignificant. The stained glass cupola, several stories above you, and the discreet positioning of the reception and concierge counters further promotes the air of grandeur and luxurious serenity.

This serenity is never disturbed by the sight and sound of guest luggage arriving and departing, since a separate entrance around the corner is provided just for luggage, which is carried from the side door to the guest rooms in a special lift by the bell boys.

We presented ourselves at the anti chamber that serves as the entrance to the Louis XV, where a hand-carved walnut book stand supports the reservations manual. The door to the restaurant itself is never left open; once inside, you are in a glorious private world, shared by no more than 50 people at a time, at round tables set well apart.

It is immediately obvious why they named it after Louis XV, the French king known as Louis le Bien Aime (the Well Beloved) whose reign (1715 - 74) coincided with the great age of decorative art in the Rococo mode, which in fact has been dubbed the Louis XV style. 

"You could quite happily eat the flowers"

Exquisitely beautiful frescos, chandeliers, giant oil paintings by 18th century artists, carefully chosen pieces of antique furniture and masses of flowers on the tables massage the senses with their elaborate abundance. To the right of the entrance, two sets of tall, richly curtained French windows open onto the terrace which overlooks the square surrounded by the famous casino and the Cafe de Paris opposite. (Cafe by name, but de Paris by nature.)

Despite its name and its ambiance, the Louis XV is not an old, well established restaurant, having been opened only a couple of decades ago. It was designed to feature the creative talents of the then relatively young chef, Alain Ducasse, whose name is proudly displayed on the smart canvas awnings over the terrace outside. The Monagesques take their chefs just as seriously as the French, treating them with the sort of adulation and respect that Melburnians show star football players.

One look at the table setting and it's obvious that you could quite happily eat the flowers and be satisfied, but the waiters will have none of that. They fuss, quietly and professionally, and there is one for every task. The junior waiter holds back the chair, the bus boy undoes the thick linen serviette with a minimal flourish and lays it on your lap, and the sommelier, his solid silver tasting cup around his neck, asks if Madame et M'sieur would like un coup de champagne.

Dizzy from the attention, M & M accept, just to settle things down a bit. Besides, as guests of the hotel, refusal may offend. This was a dangerous notion to adopt, as we eventually discovered after eight courses and three bottles of wine. It is still something of a mystery how we rose to our feet after dinner - perhaps it is the lightness of the Ducasse touch.

"love affair with fresh vegetables"

The maitre d', a charming man whose confidence in his restaurant was palpable, allowed us to gape and worry over the awesome menu for half an hour. Awesome for its variety and imagination; Ducasse has gained a reputation for his love affair with fresh vegetables, using the best available in a myriad simple but innovative ways, and for his clever ideas with seafood.

By the time we had become totally confused over the menu, help arrived, by way of a message from Ducasse: perhaps M & M would allow him to prepare a selection of dishes for our amusement? 

This sounded an exceptionally fine idea, and the sommelier adopted the same strategy, sensing our limitations with the wine list. No wonder; earlier, we had been taken us on a short tour of the magnificent caves beneath the hotel.

Hotel De Paris, Monte Carlo

Here, 250,000 bottles are kept, on 'double rotation' - that means the hotel and restaurant between them sell 500,000 bottles a year. There are, for instance, 270 different Bordeaux, and in one little alcove there are things like some 1934 Chateau Latour, and even a few 1920 Chateau Margaux. Heady to look at, never mind drink.
The two house cognacs (in giant oak barrels) are nothing less than an 1818 Premiere Empire and an 1865 Louis Philippe. Big deal, you could say - until you taste one. Then you can't say anything because it takes your breath away.

Ducasse made two excursions to our table from the kitchen, the first to explain some of the dishes he was preparing, the second to discuss desserts. Yes, plural.

His cuisine is best characterised by a sense of inventiveness, playing with the textures, aiming to draw out the best natural flavours from all the produce, but basically traditional. The portions are elegant, served well spaced out and with style - but not with that showy flamboyance that is so embarrassing.

Most memorable of all are the subtleties he extracts from every single ingredient, so that as you eat, you feel you are tasting familiar things for the very first time. The menu is completely redesigned each season, to maximise on fresh product from the region, but the essential Ducasse approach remains the same.

"an experience, an unforgettable moment, a bit of a fairytale"

Of course, the food is only the pinnacle of pleasures at Louis XV; the fabulous decor, the impeccable service, the secret pleasure of observing other diners in one of the world's best restaurants, and the sense of occasion that all this generates, makes such an evening more than a meal. It's an experience, an unforgettable moment, a bit of a fairytale, something to recall with a beatific smile as we flip through our mental photo album.

Published February 2012

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Photo by Andrew L. Urban

Hôtel de Paris
Place du Casino 
9800 Monte-Carlo, Monaco
Tél. +377 98 06 88 64 
Fax. +377 98 06 59 07

The entrance to Hotel de Paris; Louis XV is on the right, just out of shot

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