Salle Belle Epoque

Hotel Hermitage, Square Beaumarchais, Monte Carlo

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When a chef leaves a hotel restaurant that has a Michelin Star to join a different hotel it can be quite a risk. In the case of Joel Garault who moved just across the square to the Hotel Hermitage from the Hotel Mirabeau in Monte Carlo in December, it can be considered a calculated move. Joel gained his first Michelin star at "La Palme d'Or" at the Hotel Martinez in Cannes before eventually moving to "La Coupole" at the Mirabeau in 1991. He is decidedly keen to get one back, and judging by what he has already achieved at this new venture, it can only be a matter of time. He works 15 hours a day for seven days a week and in addition will be opening up a new restaurant called Vistamar at the hotel in April serving fish and seafood dishes only. I can attest to his skill is this area even after one example of tasting his cooking.

Garault like most successful chefs is a hard working perfectionist with strong organizational skills who learned the hard way from his mentor, Christian Willer at Hotel Hermitage in La Baule. His style of cooking leans heavily on the freshest produce available in season. "I believe that cooking must have character, be pleasing to the eye, and finally, do justice to all the components that make up a recipe."

The Hermitage in Monte Carlo started out as a tiny inn in 1864, but it had come into its own by 1900 and was heavily frequented by the idle and rich, particularly the English ones! Further face lifts followed without damaging the unique atmosphere of the hotel which has outstanding frescoes, woodwork and furniture. Gustave Eiffel created the glass work in the shape of an umbrella, and the huge central carpet was specially woven in Hong Kong. It won the Renaissance Trophy for the most elegant period decor given by the Gault-Millau Guide through a committee that included the Duchess of Bedford, Paloma Picasso, Baroness Edmond de Rothschild and Karl Lagerfeld.

The restaurant which was originally created by Gabriel Ferrier in 1899 is a fitting setting for the food served there. You glide in under a giant crystal chandelier and there are columns of pink marble everywhere. Many architectural experts consider it the most elegant restaurant in Europe. I knew it was going to be a special evening when I discovered the presence of Jaques Gagantie, the celebrated food critic of the Nice/Monaco Matin, who was in the house dining with his wife.

I decided to go for the special menu that had been selected that day by Joel which is a cross section of the kind of dishes that are available at Salle Belle Epoque. First came an absolutely superb Coque de Nois de Saint Jacques with baby peas and an infusion of balsamic vinegar. Tender as you could ever want, this was superbly partnered by a Pouilly Fuissé La Prairie 1997 from Auvigue- Burrier-Revel. We enjoyed this wine so much that we kept with it for the entire meal. It's always available in the top French restaurants, and the best of it usually spends at least four months in new wood. The emphasis on serving only French wine at restaurants of this quality differs sharply from the practice of many London French restaurants who think nothing of serving wines from other countries without any reservations whatsoever.

Then appeared a real first timer for me - an Artichoke salad with baby rouget fillets, along with a Emince de magret de canard fume in a balsamic vinegar reduction. Rouget are mini red-mullets that are hard to find, very expensive and also one of the tastiest fish of the Mediterranean. If you ever get the chance to try this delicacy in France then go for it, because they possess a lot of taste, at least what there is of them. You will almost certainly have to pre-order this dish because of the rarity of the species.

When the waiter came up with the next dish it looked like a giant Meat Loaf or Cornish pasty, but to my surprise the outside crust was promptly removed to reveal yet another gem. Dorade is a whole fish also from the Mediterranean, and this time it was served with marinated butter, petit pois and caviar d'aubergine. The garnish of tomato, virgin oil and basil blended with the tender flesh of the fish to make a real winner. The closest comparison I could make would be with Monkfish or Orange Roughy, but probably even better tasting.

Showing that the chef's expertise is not confined only to fish, a dish of lamb followed in the form of Cotes d'Agneau de lait fermier au romarin in a jus a la pointe d'ail confit that emphasised the extremely subtle flavours. I rather wickedly asked for some mint sauce, and it was quickly delivered without any fuss or raising of eyebrows. This was a loin chop to die for that appears to be yet another original creation by Joel, as a trawl through a host of classic French cookbooks failed to reveal a similar dish in print.

Yes there was room for dessert which turned out to be Cannelloni croustillant de fraises des bois in a passion sauce and cream panacotta. The proximity of Italy is often revealed as a strong influence on the cuisine of Monte Carlo, even when the chefs are from France. Also featured were baby strawberries found only in the region around Carros, north of Monte Carlo and again entirely unique. This creation was plentiful, a cascade of delight and a brilliant end to the main part of the meal.

The service at Salle Belle Epoque is of course outstanding, perhaps a little imposing to those maybe not used to it, but entirely comfortable if you know your way around top notch restaurants. Tables are also well spaced apart, allowing for discreet social or business conversation. Prices range from 210FF TO 450FF for dinner without wine, which compares very favourably to some of the hugely inflated prices in London - prices that match the equally inflated egos for some of our London chefs!.

Michael Hepworth, April 1999

Tel: 92 16 40 01
Reservations essential
Dress code-Smart but not entirely formal.
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This article reprinted from Dine Online