The great Anthony Burgess used to live in Monaco. He was friendly with Princess Grace but wasn't wild about the Porsche-posing throng who hung out there. Asked how it felt to be "one of the Beautiful People", he replied, "Beautiful People? I have no time for those irrelevantly gilded with adventitious photogeneity".
A shameless interest in the fortunes and physiognomies of the rich and beautiful does, however, draw the rest of us to the French Riviera from time to time; just as the fleshpots, cocktails and topless bathing in Cannes and San Tropez attracted our parents' generation. And since Monte Carlo is currently celebrating 150 years of posh-gambler style, we thought we'd help by visiting the best hotel in town.
The Hotel de Paris is a baroque palace built in 1864, and it's got a lot of class in an unclassy neighbourhood. A massive bowl of white orchids dominates the lobby, while an equestrian statue of Louis XIV features one shiny (royal) knee because so many nervous punters have rubbed it for luck before entering the Casino.
In the cosy, terracotta-walled 1950s-ish Bar Americain, a chanteuse sings "You Make Me Feel So Young" to a piano-sax-drums combo while we drink our cocktails: the 150th-birthday 'Celebration' is a decoction of Beefeater gin, grapefruit juice, limoncello and egg white. It tastes like lemon-meringue pie and leaves your upper lip looking as if you've been attacked with one.
On the top floor, where Le Grill is housed, you look down over the rooftops of the Opera Garnier and the Casino. On the terrace, you can inspect the whole lit-up harbour and the massive yachts, expensively moored and brooding on the water like 300-foot pedigree Salukis. The dining room is gorgeous too, an 18th-century nautical theme apparent in the mullioned windows, seafaring lamps and undersea-fern design in the carpet. On warmer evenings the ceiling opens up, displaying the stars to the clientele of Italian and Russian men with their sulky Kazakh girlfriends.
A dramatic open kitchen displays a giant rotisserie, fuelled by wooden logs and manned by a balletic cove who danced about like Nijinsky throughout our dinner. The waiters, in their black tailcoats, white bowties and waistcoats, were friendly and attentive and good at pouring wine – we tried a bottle of Cote de Provence and a half-bottle of 2002 Margaux.
The six-course set menu is studiedly old-fashioned, nodding to Escoffier without trying to recreate his sauce-heavy complexity. But sometimes it felt as though they could have tried a little harder. A white eggshell-full of pea purée featured a smidge of garden peas, a fingernail of crunchy bacon, and an excess of cream. Foie gras de canard confit was smooth and unslimy, served on explosively crunchy toast, but was irrelevantly (as Burgess would say) accompanied by slices of pear poached in red wine. There's a place for such a classic pudding at dinner – at the end.
Brittany lobster was cooked in an aromatic broth with Chardonnay, 'primeurs' (early vegetables) and coral sauce; the result hovered somewhere between salad and soup, the lobster chewily al dente but a touch ordinary. Turbot cooked 'sur la braise' (over the coals) was sexily charred and flavoured with onions, fennel and pesto jus. Roast duck came with none of the classic French fruit accompaniment: no orange, no cherries, no redcurrant. Its main selling proposition was that the leg and breast were different colours. "We used to hang the 'ole duck on the rotisserie," explained our charming Moroccan waiter, Abdul, "but by the time the breast was done, the legs were burnt. So now we roast the legs separately in the oven." And very fine they were too, with pommes nouveaux and sylvestre mushrooms.
The climax of our meal was the pudding – an old-style soufflé, served the way the Hotel has served them since 1898. From a dozen options, Angie chose the chocolate, and pronounced it "like chocolate fondant pumped full of air". How shall I describe my Grand Marnier soufflé? It was like eating a lovely, alcoholic, orange-flavoured cloud, soft and unearthly.
Coffee, pastel macaroons and hotel chocolates ended a meal that bombarded us with good things, few of which rose above the level of 'good' except the soufflé, which was sublime. There's lots to admire at the Hotel de Paris but the food in Le Grill comes some way after the sumptuous décor, the night-time views, and the high-level pampering.
Le Grill, Hotel de Paris, Place du Casino, MC 98000, Monaco (00 377 98 06 3000). A la carte menu €130/150. Menu '150 Ans' from €150 without wine
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