[dropcap size=small]F[/dropcap]rom the air, the French Riviera – with its clusters of quaint houses in burnt orange and yellow – resembles a length of intricate vintage lace stretched against a sea of cerulean satin. Within this largely homogeneous stretch is a small section that positively gleams in the Mediterranean sun, seemingly bejewelled. This is Monaco.
This first glimpse of Monaco as you approach from the Nice airport via helicopter tells quite a lot about the principality. (We recommend this mode of transfer not just because it is rather stylish to arrive in one, but also by virtue of its speed – the journey takes seven minutes, but about an hour on land.) It might be all of two square kilometres, but it is packed with supercars, uber-luxe pads including the world’s most expensive apartment at Tour Odean, costing a sweet $300 million euros (S$460 million), and celebrity residents such as Michelin-star chef Alain Ducasse and sports royalty Novak Djokovic. Of course, it also has its very own royal family.
In a place like this, can one be faulted for expecting every meal to be a pompous show of the most expensive of luxury ingredients, served on gilded plates and covered in gold leaf?
Of Farmers and Fishermen
Yet at our first meal at the sun-bathed L’Hirondelle restaurant of Thermes Marins Monte-Carlo, what graces our table is quite the opposite. The panier de crudites de nos jardins aux trois saveurs may sound fancy in French, but is really an artfully arranged basket, heaving with raw vegetables – sticks of celery and carrots, heads of artichoke, shards of endive, balls of baby radish, brown mushrooms – served with three savoury dips. The same sits front and centre on just about every other table at this restaurant, patronised by the decidedly posh clientele of the exclusive spa complex connected to the hospitality institutions Hotel de Paris Monte-Carlo and the Hotel Hermitage Monte-Carlo.
Perhaps this is something created specially for the health buffs who come to luxuriate in the complex’s heated seawater pool, or for a rejuvenating state-of-the-art cryotherapy treatment. After all, chef Jean-Claude Brugel of L’Hirondelle has certainly put effort into designing a menu that is aligned with a 500 kcal-per-meal diet. Yet the rustic vegetable basket is really an updated rendition of a traditional Monegasque home-style dish.
“You must remember that, 150 years ago, before the casino was introduced, the people here were fishermen, farmers,” reminds Eric Bessone, the head of Societe des Bains de Mer (SBM) Press Department, which manages Hotel de Paris, Hotel Hermitage, Thermes Marins and the Monte Carlo Casino, among others. “They ate simply, with whatever they harvested or caught. They were connected to nature,” says the proud Monegasque whose family history in Monaco can be traced back to the 1800s.
Even today, beneath its glamorous facade, Monaco beats with a green heart. The public buses run on biofuel; every tree that is cut down for area redevelopment is replaced with another tree of equal oxygen-producing capacity. In fact, one of the first acts Prince Albert took upon becoming sovereign in 2005 was to draft a plan to cut the principality’s carbon emissions.
In June 2006, the Prince Albert II of Monaco Foundation was established to address environmental issues and contribute to environment protection and the promotion of sustainable development globally. To engage visitors in their eco-movement, establishments under SBM and hotels such as Le Meridien Beach Plaza have rolled out various green initiatives. Bessone reasons: “Indeed, thinking green is a global trend, but in Monaco, it is actually the will of a country, and it is one that stems from our roots.”
So it is natural that Monaco is home to Elsa, the world’s first Michelin-star restaurant that is fully organic – right down to the water used to boil your soup. Nor should we find it surprising that the most talked-about dining hotspot in town right this moment is not a ritzy French restaurant but Eqvita – a hip vegan eatery opened by Djokovic and his wife, Jelena, in late April 2016. And on our visit, the meals, which feature plenty of fresh catch from the Mediterranean Sea and seasonal vegetables, are delicately flavoured and lightly cooked.
You certainly can get chateaubriand with all the trimmings at swanky meat atelier and restaurant Beefbar Monaco, or salmon with caviar and gold leaf at Restaurant Yoshi – Joel Robuchon’s very first foray into Japanese cuisine. But even at the iconic Le Louis XV – Alain Ducasse a l’Hotel de Paris, with its dining room heavy with rich tapestries and ornate Rococo-style frescoes, the menu is light with offerings such as locally caught fish, simply baked with celery and olive from Nice, and a delicately textured blue lobster with its naturally sweet flavours lifted with myrtle berries and ginger.
And at Monte-Carlo Bay Hotel & Resort’s one-Michelin-star Blue Bay, rising chef Marcel Ravin brings his Martiniquan roots to the table in the form of rustic island flavours jazzed up through unexpected pairings. The ingredients he uses are down to earth, with a strong focus on seasonal produce he is able to purchase from farmers’ markets around Monaco. For spring, think tender baby trombettas, crisp garden peas, refreshing Menton citrus, and tart passion fruit, matched with plump seafood, exquisite caviar and other luxe gourmet delicacies.
It seems that, despite the city’s affluence, the grounded sensibilities of Monaco’s food heritage has – thankfully – prevailed. And the chefs are proud of it. Listed on the menu of Le Louis XV is the stocafi , a Monegasque fish stew of red wine and tomato. And apart from the showy adaptation of a crudite platter at L’Hirondelle, we find many renditions of barbaguian, a traditional snack of a deep-fried pastry pocket stuffed with spinach – now reinvented as a dainty amuse bouche – at Michelin-star establishments Elsa and Le Vistamar. The latter is a landmark restaurant situated on the roof terrace of Hotel Hermitage. And ask just about anyone to name their favourite Monegasque dish and their answer will be the humble socca – a crepe-like pancake made of chickpea flour.
A World of Choices
True luxury isn’t just about over-the-top extravagances, but also about the availability of choice through diversity. In Monaco, it isn’t merely about having the option to dig into cheap and cheerful bites for lunch and dressing up for dinner at a world-class destination restaurant. With people of some 125 nationalities making up the 35,000-strong population, it’s little wonder that the culinary landscape is as exciting as any cosmopolitan city’s, with offerings spanning authentic Vietnamese and Chinese restaurants to Italian trattorias and fine French establishments. Recent years have also seen high-profile additions such as Yoshi and Song Qi, Monaco’s first Chinese fine-dining restaurant, opened by Alan Yau of Hakkasan fame. It is not just about opportunistic restaurateurs cashing in on the global mix of tourists that descend upon the city, but about what the people living in Monaco want.
This revelation comes during a cooking class-cum-dinner conducted by executive chef Laurent Colin of Le Meridien Beach Plaza. Within the intimate group are well-coiffed ladies, loyal attendees of the evening of culinary fun and gastronomic enjoyment. The persuasive trio in 2015 convinced Colin – who had worked in Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai and the Middle East – to create a series of cooking classes on world cuisines.
And on this evening, they constantly quiz him on Chinese cooking techniques – never mind that the ingredient focus of the session is the quintessentially European ingredient of white asparagus. While tucking into a creamy soup of asparagus, one asks, bright-eyed: “Can we do a class on wok-cooking techniques, please? I have a wok at home which I would like to use more.” And just about everybody in the class looks eagerly at Colin, excited by the idea.
So we learn that even in the land of caviar and gold leaf, people crave more. And often, it is simple, down-to-earth pleasures that they wish for. In Monaco, happily, whatever you wish for is the market’s command.
Quick facts and travel tips for you to hit the ground running.
[dropcap size=small]4.1KM[/dropcap] That is the total length of the 2 sq km principality’s coastline. You might not guess it, looking at the number of flashy cars on 77km worth of roadways. Its compact size (it is the world’s second-smallest independent state after The Holy See) and mild weather all year round make Monaco an excellent location to discover on foot. It is also delightful to discover the many “secret” lifts and escalators that link different levels of the hilly areas. So pack your dressiest footwear for those fancy dinners, but don’t forget your walking shoes, either.
[dropcap size=small]FRENCH[/dropcap] This is Monaco’s official language, with almost half the population speaking it. (Monegasque is spoken by an estimated 16 per cent, according to the CIA World Factbook.) That said, the city is such a cosmopolitan hotchpotch of people from all over the world that you can get by speaking English just about anywhere.
[dropcap size=small]89.52 YEARS[/dropcap] The average life expectancy of the Monaco population, which currently stands at the top spot in the world. In fact, the life expectancy of women in Monaco is 93.58 years – the good life clearly is also a long life here.
[dropcap size=small]SAFETY FIRST[/dropcap] Monaco is widely regarded as one of the safest places in the world, with over 500 police officers serving a population of 35,000. This gives it the world’s strongest police presence per capita and per area. It is also interesting to note that the prison on the island was converted from a historical reservoir – and comes complete with a magnificent view of the Mediterranean Sea!
[dropcap size=small]DAILY FLIGHTS[/dropcap] by Turkish Airlines takes Singapore travellers to Monaco via Nice. The journey involves a stopover at Istanbul Ataturk Airport, but with a sprawling business lounge covering almost 6,000 sq m featuring live culinary stations, private bedroom suites, a movie screening area, a billiards room and even a golf simulator, the layover is one well worth looking forward to!
His Own Man
Awarded his first Michelin star in 2015, Marcel Ravin of Blue Bay captures our appetite – and attention – with his unique, world-class cuisine and his big personality.
When Marcel Ravin was awarded his first Michelin star in 2015, Prince Albert II, the reigning monarch of Monaco, came in unannounced, went straight up to Ravin, and gave him a huge hug – the Michelin star was a long time coming. Locals who have patronised Blue Bay at the Monte-Carlo Bay Hotel & Resort for years long wondered why the star eluded the chef. (Many assumed it was because the establishment, which also serves as the hotel’s breakfast venue – though beautiful with a view of the sun rising from the sea – was not “posh” enough.) But Ravin simply pushed on with his cuisine.
His is a unique style of cooking. A nondescript-looking calabash bowl of white foam topped with a pinch of beetroot sponge: It reveals deeply intense and earthy flavours of a piglet stew. A sous vide egg and caviar with an unlikely combination of cassava cream and passion fruit foam: The acidity of the passion fruit foam, though sharp at first taste, blends with the buttery cassava cream to delicious effect. And, when mixed with the silky egg white, luxuriously runny yolk and little pops of briny-sweetness from the caviar, each mouthful becomes an exciting melange of flavours. Some dishes surprise with the use of spice blends that reveal their latent heat only as a lingering, warming finish; others delight with lightness and delicate textures.
“I come from the French West Indies, where the cultural influences come from far and wide. In my food, just about everybody can taste a bit of their own culinary background – which is comforting; yet at the same time, each dish is also a catalyst for them to discover something new,” shares Ravin, who hails from the island of Martinique. That said, the chef who cut his teeth at various Michelin-star establishments around France admits that his training was rooted in classical French, and that he started infusing Martinican flavours only in recent years, as he gained confidence as a chef holding his own ground. We think his food is also a display of his big, warm personality. The tireless chef rises early to trawl the markets around the Riviera for produce and is the last to leave the kitchen, but he always has a smile for one and all, at any time of day. And, while he is now a Monegasque by choice, his heart still goes out to his kinfolk in Martinique. Established just in 2016, La Table de Marcel at Simon Hotel is not just a business venture, but a social enterprise. Through it, Ravin employs local youth at risk and teaches them culinary skills, so as to give them a better future. “I also would like to use it to showcase Martinican crafts and also the natural materials sourced locally – such as volcanic stoneware. It’s not just about putting local produce on the plates, but also nature back on the table.”
HAVE FOOD WILL TRAVEL
Monaco is undoubtedly a culinary hotspot, with its high concentration of Michelin-star restaurants within an area of two square kilometres. But short drives (and, sometimes, walks) away can also yield gourmet surprises. Chef Marcel Ravin shares his favourite eats, from the super luxe to the down to earth.
The Condamine Market, which opened in 1880, continues to be a congregating ground for Monegasques, both young and old. Apart from getting a slice of local life, here is also where you can get a slice of traditional socca. Crisp on the edges yet with a toothsome bite, this thin chickpea powder pancake cooked on an iron skillet is surprisingly flavoursome and moreish – and is also one of Ravin’s favourite snacks.
15 place d’Armes Monaco 98000
Phone: +377 9350 8020
With seats for just 20 persons, one chef in the kitchen and one server on the floor, Le Comptoir is a tiny, bustling streetside bistro patronised by locals and those in the know. The menu changes according to what the chef can get from the market that day, but some excellent mainstays on the list include a very fresh beef tartare and a well-executed pata negra steak.
11 Avenue du 3 Septenbre, Cap d’ail
+04 9335 2754
A TALE OF TWO CITIES
“He is the first Japanese chef in France to be awarded a Michelin star. It is interesting for me because chef (Matsushima) is man of humble background who just works hard to make his dreams happen. I like that,” shares Ravin. Here, Matsushima, who moved to France from Tokyo when he was just twenty years of age, serves up his unique brand of fine contemporary French cuisine infused with hints of Japanese influences.
BLUE IS THE WARMEST COLOUR
The endless stretch of azure waters outside the floor-to-ceiling windows might be breathtakingly beautiful, yet they are no competition for your attention once the cuisine of Mauro Colagreco arrives at your table. A delicate yet flavoursome and aromatic assembly of the region’s seasonal best, each plate at this two-Michelin-star destination restaurant is a show-stealer. Ravin, a close friend of Colagreco, is also in awe of how he managed to build an international F&B empire (Colagreco also has outposts in the Middle East and Shanghai) from scratch. Ravin says: “People like him inspire me.”