Is there such a thing as the world’s best restaurant? Until a decade and a half ago it was not so difficult to decide. In that era, the only guide that mattered was Michelin which had anonymous inspectors’ award stars using largely French criteria for judging restaurants. Then, the Restaurant Magazine's list of the world’s Top 100 restaurants (sponsored by San Pellegrino) became the rest of Europe’s response to Michelin. Compiled in London using the views of an international jury, the list is the Anti-Michelin and often seems devised only to end the French dominance of the food world. It is this list that decides that non-French restaurants like El Bulli and Noma are the best in the world.
I’m an agnostic when it comes to stars and lists but if you were to take Michelin seriously, then Alain Ducasse is the world’s greatest chef. His restaurants in London's Dorchester Hotel and Paris's Meurice Hotel have three stars (the highest ranking) and his original Paris restaurant at the Plaza Athenee was only just knocked down to two stars. (It had three stars for many years.)
It is generally agreed that the best of Ducasse’s restaurants is Louis XV in Monte Carlo where he first got his three stars. Though Ducasse now runs an unprecedented three restaurants with three stars (it will be four restaurants if Plaza Athenee regains its third star as is widely predicted) the Monte Carlo kitchen is at the core of his operation and is the place where new dishes and concepts are first tried out.
Louis XV was shut for a few months for refurbishment and re-opened only in the first week of April. I went for dinner when it re-opened and though the place had only been serving customers for ten days, it seemed like a smooth and effortless operation.
I had been there before so I was interested to see what changes Ducasse had made. Well, the first major change was that a new counter had been erected in the centre of the room. It was at this counter that the staff hand-cut the bread before it reached your table. The butter was piled up in a golden mountain at the centre and waiters scraped off a portion for each table. Later in the evening, the counter was used for making farewell granitas, gourmet coffees, and salads prepared by a chef to go with the cheese course.
The traditional French kitchen had a clear division between the back and the front of the house. But now, Ducasse is trying to bridge that divide and to suggest that everything -- even the bread basket – is bespoke.
This extended to the amuse bouche. A server brought pieces of marinated raw fish on a bed of hot stones to the table. Then he poured cold water over the stones and placed a cloche over the dish for ten seconds. When he removed the cloche, we saw that the water had turned into steam and cooked the fish.
Other than that, I thought the most significant aspect of the food was that Ducasse was moving away from traditional French dishes (which he still does at his Meurice restaurant) to experiment with lighter flavours. There was not one red meat dish on the whole tasting menu. The ‘meat’ course was an impeccably-roasted slab of guinea fowl. Even his classic shellfish dishes were transformed. Five different shellfish came in a thick soup with chick peas (channa!) hardly the most French of ingredients.
The other interesting development was that Ducasse seemed to playing around with fruit and especially with citrus flavours. He paired two stalks of asparagus with confit lemon and sea bass was served with a fruit called kumquat. In his hands, the combinations worked.
But it required guts to try them.
As a general rule, anything Ducasse tries is copied by legions of his followers. Let’s see if these trends are picked up. And let’s see what the Michelin inspectors think!