Monaco’s Place du Casino has had a change of clothes. All but a handful of the shops that were trading from temporary pavilions while the Hôtel de Paris was being lavishly renovated and the new One Monte-Carlo project was under construction now have permanent homes: Louis Vuitton, Bulgari, Lanvin, Bottega Veneta… actually, it would be easier to list the brands that are not part of the redevelopment of perhaps the world’s most high-octane hub of luxury.
Skulking behind the shopfronts are some excellent restaurants too. These include Omer, a new restaurant from Alain Ducasse, who became head chef at the Hôtel de Paris in 1987. It occupies the ground floor and terrace of the hotel’s new “Rotonde” wing, and designer Pierre-Yves Rochon has created a handsome room that has more than a soupçon of a luxury yacht’s interior about it.
This is entirely appropriate, since Ducasse’s (and head chef Patrick Laine’s) menu takes diners on a giddy tour of the Mediterranean, dropping anchor in Greece, Turkey, Lebanon, Egypt and Tunisia, among other places. Freshness was a hallmark of my lunch, evidenced first by crudités – radicchio, cauliflower, cucumbers, peppers – that seemed to have left the chopping board moments before; dunked in a yoghurt, feta, mint and pepper dip, they were simple but sublime. Sweet little calamari were paired with a pesto made with marjoram; vine leaves were stuffed with rice, pine nuts, raisins, mint and lemon confit; kibdeh – sautéed chicken livers – were nicely crusted with spice, pickled turnip and beetroot lending crunch and savour.
But the highlights were a superb smoky aubergine – like baba ganoush, but with its soft innards left intact – and a sparklingly fresh carpaccio of seabass scattered with black olives, wild rocket and tomato confit. Ducasse has the enviable knack of letting things taste of what they are, and this was the perfect example.
There are main courses too – an excellent gilt-head bream, served with Swiss chard, rosemary, capers, anchovies and pine nuts, or a splendid version of chich taouk, the Middle Eastern speciality of spiced roast chicken – but you could graze contentedly just from the smaller meze dishes. And it is one sign of a great meal that, looking back, you realise it was rather healthy: lots of fish, olive oil and vegetables, but nothing that felt unduly puritanical. In any case, there is always the dessert menu, a highlight at every Ducasse restaurant. Pain perdu is made with brioche and an exotic lick of saffron; local lemon sorbet is flavoured gently with basil and served in the fruit itself.
New restaurants usually take time to find their feet, but Omer has the feeling of an instant classic – and as a refuge from the rigours of retail therapy, it is absolutely perfect.