Film Scouts on the Riviera 1999

1999 Cannes Film Festival Diaries
Dīner ("dee-nay", not "dye-nurr") #1: Celebration in Monaco, or Someday a Prince Will Come

by Jim Byerley

Film Scouts on the Riviera 1999 is brought to you by:

Cannes, May 9, 1999

Even with two week's notice, we couldn't get a reservation for Saturday night. Sunday evening was quite all right, though, the friendly receptionist at Louis XV in Monte Carlo assured us. "Be sure to reconfirm," we were reminded. This temple of gastronomy is not to be taken lightly and they could certainly have a waiting list every day of the week. The Monaco Grand Prix is upcoming, so the palatial Hotel de Paris, which houses the restaurant, was swathed in high chain link fences and bumper car barricades lined the streets leading to the place du Casino. Inside, however, all was regal and subdued. All except the noisy group of formally-dressed Americans, who were having a company banquet in the next salon. I didn't recognize the corporate name, but what a nice perk.

One enters the hushed grandeur of the Louis XV, understanding a bit how Marie Antoinette must have felt when she made that "let them eat cake" crack. The Versailles-worthy décor is opulent, to put it mildly. High, high ceilings, swaggering drapes, royal portraits, antique cabinets, marble busts and cushy little stools for milady's handbag remind us that we are not in Kansas anymore. The places are beautifully set with gold trimmed plates, cut glass candle holders reminiscent of Murano, little silver birds and gorgeous flowers. The small tabletop bouquet was a masterpiece, mixing roses and other tiny flowers with artichokes and miniature avocados that first appeared to be limes. The room's central flower arrangement, while innovatively modern in form, perhaps, looked a bit like it had been picked over and some vital parts removed. No matter, we were not here in Monte Carlo to eat the daisies.

Turns out, our Sunday was a special day indeed in this small principality on the Cote d'Azur. It was the 50th Jubilee, celebrating Prince Rainier's ascension to the monarchy. A unique menu had been prepared in his honor, though the Prince and his controversial offspring were nowhere to be seen. Surely they were having room service over at the Palace. The dining room crowd was a show in itself, even with no visiting royalty. Many women were in long gowns, their escorts in black tie. One horse-faced charmer, seated near us, was barely into her slinky dress. She was showing so much cleavage that the waiters and busboys were having a hard time concentrating on which fork went where. On the other side, an American couple attempted to explain U.S. football to a poor maitre'd who was trying his best to look interested. A large table of elderly locals was festive, considering the combined advanced years. The expensively decked-out matrons, who tottered on gold slippers, looked to be down to their last 60 million Francs.

The Jubilee menu for the night cost a princely 990 Francs (sans wine), but what followed was one of the best meals ever assembled. The variety of breads was divine (all delicious) and the butter came in two forms...sans sel and avec sel. We began with a glass of the Alain Ducasse house champagne, which whetted our appetites. Ducasse is the reigning superman of French cuisine. He is the first chef in history to have two Michelin three-star restaurants running simultaneously. There is Alain Ducasse of Paris on the rue Poincairé in the 16th arrondissment and there is Louis XV. He must be amassing beaucoup frequent flyer miles on Air Inter, commuting between the capital and the cote. Hopefully, the technology is being developed that will allow the prince of chefs to be in two places at once.

After the champagne, the meal began in earnest with some bite-sized beignets and a deep fried courgette flower served in a linen napkin ingeniously tied up to make a basket. The taste and texture was superb, no lingering grease taste here. Next up were some tastily grilled gamberoni (shrimp) from the Gulf of Genoa accompanied by a fresh tasting green salad of mesculun and roquette. A spiced dipping sauce was provide in a separate little dish that resembled a Faberge egg. Each succeeding course managed to top the one before, as the meal achieved a dramatic crescendo. The fresh asparagus spears that followed were delicately steamed and served with spectacularly large morilles mushrooms, lightly sautéed. A creamy veloute sauce completed the picture. The fish course had a delectable piece of loup as the centerpiece. It was surrounded by other sea treasures as clams, squid tentacles and supions, all tied together with a pistou of local herbs.

Can we go on? Mais oui! The main course was roasted veal, sliced tablesid, and served with a melange of peas, carrots, onions, and pomme de terre nouvelles. A "vrai jus" (as opposed to what?) and some bacon tidbits completed the dish. Incredibly tender, the dish would surely make Rainier III sigh in delight, just as we did. A rather small cheese selection was presented, but the chèvres were top notch. The first dessert course was a bowl of black cherries cooked with a little kirsch, though there was no lingering alcohol aftertaste. At the center was a scoop of pistachio ice cream. A winning combination. The second dessert seemed a superfluous and was the only element of the meal to slightly disappoint. Don't get me wrong, the chocolate fondant (South American chocolate, no less) was delicious, but, with a crown of gold leaf, spelled overkill. The petite fours and handmade chocolates that materilazed then were quite special. The highlight was a bite-sized frais de bois/meringue combination that was a knockout, even at this late stage in the meal.

Skip coffee (though varieties are listed from Jamaica, Hawaii, Guadeloupe and Zimbabwe) and, instead, have one of " Les Infusions de nos Grands-Meres." A fancy rolling cart appeared from nowhere, carrying ten or so terra cotta pots of fresh herbs. These were hand-cut (by a waiter wearing one white glove on his non-scissor hand) to your specification. The choices included the usual Vervaine, Lemon Mint and Chamomile and the unusual Rosemary, Sage, Thyme and Lavender. The herbs are doused with some boiling water and then stirred into more hot water to steep in individual tea pots that looked like part of the Grimaldi family tea service. Lavender infusion is quite a taste treat, not once reminding me of soap or potpourri.

Congratulations to Rainier and to Ducasse. May they both rule for another fifty years. We could hear the celebratory fireworks booming over the port of Monaco, but couldn't see them from our table. I learned a local phrase this night, which said it all. When something incredible is tasted, the French liken it to "petite Jesus en culottes de velours" or " baby Jesus in velvet pants." That sums up the entire dining experience at chez Ducasse. Don't miss it, but try to find someone else to pick up the tab.

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