review: gilt… (louis xv)
I had always thought that Louis XV was an odd name for Alain Ducasse’s temple in Monaco.
And then I ate there.
Louis XV wasn’t exactly the most popular monarch by the end of his reign, when he left his throne, gilded in excess at the expense of his subjects, to his successor, whose head they’d claim for their desperate state.
Come now to the Hotel du Paris in Monte-Carlo, a retelling of that era of wanton opulence that gave birth to the French Revolution. And in this hotel, one of the top tables of the world awaits, dressed with a honey-colored overrun that bids you to sign away your life for one meal as the king of France.
For the common, this is the closest you’ll come to bearing the burden of royalty. Not since my meal at l’Ambroisie (which, to this day, remains the most expensive meal I’ve ever had) have I felt the weight of luxury thrill and oppress with such charm, tempt and guilt with as much grace.
Behold, Louis XV: proud, prodigal, peerless.
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During lunch, a gentleman nearby turned to his lady and said: “My dear, one doesn’t come to Louis XV to eat.”
“No?” she asked.
“No, silly,” came his reply. “One comes to Louis XV to admire the cars.” And he was serious.
From my seat on that marble terrace overlooking the Monte-Carlo casino, I had a front-row view of a magnificent parade of mobile bling: a never-ending carousel of Maseratis, Bentleys, Rolls-Royces, Lamborghinis and more.
Meanwhile, the dining room remained largely empty throughout service, and again that night, when I was told no tables were available. It was summer, and why shouldn’t diners enjoy the splendor of the Cote d’Azur, balmy and bright, under a canopy outside? While I’m sure they fill it from time to time, the dining room seemed kept merely as the most expensively staged contingency plan ever.
I ordered “le Menu pour les Gourmandes,” a six-course, 280€ degustation. The kitchen sent out an extra course, and not to be outdone, so did the pastry chef. Here was what came to my table:
Figs and Jamon Iberico
Shellfish and Seafood
Sauteed – warm and cold – with almond sauce, lettuce, olives.
Riso with Tomatoes
Pimenton and parsley, onions, and Parmiggiano Reggiano.
Mediterranean Sea Bass
Spiked with olives with bouillon, vegetables and basil.
4th Course (Extra)
A delicate stew of stockfish tripe,
Perugina sausage, and lettuce with lemon sauce.
Poitrine de Pigeonneau des Alpes-de-Haute-Provence
Foie gras de canard et pommes de terre nouvelles sur la braise,
jus goûteux aux abats.
7th Course (Extra)
Fraises du bois.
Baba au Rhum
To see all of the photos from this meal, CLICK HERE.
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I had heard others say: there are Michelin three-starred restaurants, and then there’s Louis XV.
I now understand what they mean.
The cooking here was unimpeachable – could there be a more well-constructed tower of “fruits de mer?” Squid, octopus, cockles, mussels, shrimp, and clams, each one perfectly cooked – some warm, some cold – layered with clam shells on a velvety pool of almond milk. Yes, it was delicious. But more significantly, it was a beautiful brag, a flawless first course to notify the interested of just how technically proficient this kitchen can be. And what followed did not falter.
Flavors were big, bold, distilled. Sauces were clean, concentrated, stunning.
The presentation was gorgeous – beyond its magnificent setting and beautifully plated food, Louis XV demonstrated that you can never have too much gold. And that’s a tough thing to pull off.
No detail was overlooked.
The bread was amazing – just look at this folio of semolina bread, each leaf toasted and crispy, the interior a fluffy cotton wonder.
The butter was amazing – they scoop it off of a mountain, table-side, a curl the size of your fist. And if you want the salted version, there’s a slab of that as well, equal to a deck of cards in thickness, and just as wide.
And the thread count was amazing – the linens were starched just so, allowing the occasional breeze to lift the entire skirt off the edge of your table, sending servers scurrying over to weight it down with an ingot of gold.
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Not particularly. This is fairly dated food, if you’re measuring by current culinary yardsticks.
But the cooking here possesses two traits I admire: confidence and generosity, both of which transcend time.
Portion sizes were, by any standard, obscene. And usually, that’s a killjoy. But here, it seemed strangely appropriate; a calculated fawning rather than clueless overkill.
The amuse bouche was probably four bites too large. But that’s an awfully ungrateful way of looking at a beautiful display of ripe figs – the heart paved, and a whole halved – mounted by waxy ribbons of Iberico ham.
For my main course, half of a pigeon cuddled with a cut of foie gras larger than the bird it came with. There was a rich sauce, grainy with bits of offal, and potato coins that were more fat than starch. At course five, this seemed an impossibility – just look at it. But then you might as well complain that your wealthy aunt left you her entire fortune, and a pony to boot.
This was a glutton’s dream.
What’s more: your smothering comes at the hand of luxuries you’ll be hard-pressed to find elsewhere, especially in such quantities.
It wasn’t enough that the pastry chef sent out an extra, off-menu dessert. But over that magnificent mound of mascarpone ice cream, my server spooned a seemingly endless sum of fraises du bois, sapphires of the forest, gently heated with a bit of their own sweet juices. Only at Louis XV.
The cheese cart heartily earned my “Only at Louis XV” seal of approval as well – it carried both 60-month-aged Gruyere and 60-month-aged Comté (yes, sixty months), among other serious specimens.
I’ve never hurt myself eating until this meal.
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Two courses stood out.
There was an unforgettable bowl of “riso” with tomatoes. Each grain was a pearl, each pearl firm, yet tender – hundreds of them, uniform and neat, bathing in a rich tomato soup, high in viscosity, full with flavor. On top were fanned stewed tomatoes, and a nugget of caramelized onion, sweet as candy. Too sweet? A crisp Parmesan tuile, which shattered at the tap of a fork, brought everything back into balance. Finesse never had a finer example.
My captain struck up conversation with me, between courses; surprisingly friendly of him, I thought. So I took the opportunity to ask him where I could find some traditional, home-cooked Niçard food (the local cuisine around Nice). Perhaps it was a coincidence, perhaps not, but I suspect my query resulted in the arrival of an extra dish – salted cod with stockfish tripe, a classic Niçard stew that my friend Sophie Brissaud, a source nonpareil for French culinary history, had urged me to find while in the south of France.
Never mind that the salted cod was unbelievably soft – jiggly even – nowhere near the tight, muscular knot that I often see. Focus instead on the stockfish tripe, unbelievably delicate ribbons of butter, coated in a tomato-based stew, that practically melted away without effort. This was at once rustic, yet regal; simple, yet sophisticated. This was great.
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At half-time, the gold-plated china was cleared and a new scene constructed: the brilliant blue waves of the Mediterranean arrived on ceramics tailored by Pieter Stockmans (on whom I now dote), bringing with them a surfeit of sweets.
So, here’s the thing about Ducasse’s baba au rhum, which everyone who has ever eaten at a Ducasse restaurant pushes: I didn’t care for it, or at least not this one.*
I’m fairly certain that it was correct, perfect even. As a sponge for booze (a rum of your choice), it was a dream – big pockets, big punch. But I found the texture a bit too rough, the grain a bit too large for my liking.
It wasn’t bad – I finished without protest. But if I’m to be a pedant about it, I preferred the baba au rhum at miX, Ducasses’s rooftop palace at THEhotel at Mandalay Bay, or even the ones I’ve made at home based on a recipe attributed to Ducasse, both of which had a tighter knit, a fluffier crumb.
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A shower of pretty little things, a take straight out of Coppola’s Marie Antoinette, swept me to the end: macarons, tea cakes, amazingly peachy marshmallows, chocolates, and whole basket of madeleines, which the server left on my table more as a challenge than an attempt to spoil, judging by the way he sniffed approvingly as he cleared each of the cleaned plates that had come before.
Missteps there were very few, but I will note one incident that I can’t overlook and I think is worth mentioning. No matter how senseless an error, no captain should ever dress down their underlings on the floor. This happened once and it wasn’t, to any keen observer, discretely handled. Take your tussles off stage.
But otherwise, like I said above: behold, Louis XV: proud, prodigal, peerless.
If you can afford it, gild yourself for a day. At the Hotel du Paris, it’s worth it.
Hotel du Paris
* I never ate at the Essex House in New York, when Ducasse had his name on that plate. And I’ve not eaten at either of the Benoits, or at the Dorchester in London, or the Plaza Athenee in Paris either.
~ by ulterior epicure on October 19, 2011.