Tuesday, 13 October 2015

Caste Dining in Monaco

Sorry, you're just not fancy enough
While I was having my hair done at my favourite salon in Monaco recently, I was chirping away to my long-time hairdresser Jean-Louis about the fabulous lunch I'd just had at a newish Lebanese restaurant in Monaco called Oliban.

It was the third time I'd dined there in 6 months.  The first time was with good friends from Canada, the second was with two fab American friends, and again a week ago with five of my foodie girlfriends for a Vegetarian Supper Club lunch.  They hit it out of the park each time.

Oliban is perched atop Monaco's oldest traditional food market, Le Marché de la Condamine.  It's easy to get to on foot, there's ample parking if you're driving, and four of Monaco's six bus routes stop nearby. All of that convenience aside, I keep going back because the staff are gracious and accommodating, the dining room is beautifully decorated, and they use linen table cloths and napkins, catering to a little ideé fixe of mine that all restaurants should have linens. But above all, the food is outstanding.  To find all of these qualities in one restaurant  in Monaco is truly a miracle to be celebrated, tweeted and shared.

I thought, therefore, that Oliban had a winning formula but apparently not.  Joe, a long time Monaco resident and go-to guy for what's-what and who's-who in the Principality, burst my bubble.

"Jennie," he said with his hypnotic French accent.  I love that he calls me Jennie. "How was the food?" he asked, frowning.

"Excellent" I said.  "It was fresh, delicious, they did a great job on presentation. It was some of the best Lebanese food I've ever eaten." I showed him photos of some of the dishes I'd taken on my phone. While he took a look I added, "The service was great too and it wasn't that expensive."

Oliban's delivery.  Your fresh vegetables have arrived
"Well," he said, looking at me in the mirror, scissors in one hand, chin in the other. "I don't think it will last."

What?  How could he think it wouldn't last? I presented my case.

"The food is amazing, the staff's great, they use real linen, and I saw crates of fresh vegetables and melons being delivered there this morning."  That to me was the best part - I counted six cases of fresh parsley alone.

"Mais, no," he said, "but that's not how it works here. You should know that," he scolded me with a "tsk tsk" noise for effect.

He continued... "You know the nouveau riche, and (he turns up his nose) you know, les snobs would never go there because there's no voiturier, (guy to park your car) it's above the Marché and les snobs would never be seen at any restaurant on top of the market.  It's not chic.  Not the place to see and be seen.  They don't care about the food."

His declaration crashed down on my newly coiffed head and for the rest of the day it slowly dawned on me that he'd made an important point. In Monaco, and probably elsewhere, whether we admit it or not, there's a caste system for most things and dining is one of them.

Excellent Tabouli, good friends and linen
I'd always thought I was more or less an egalitarian diner but in the same way that some restaurants in Monaco aren't my scene because they cater to perfumed Pucci posers, places like Oliban was not theirs.

After my conversation with Jean-Louis I've been thinking about my own food caste system. For example, in Monaco I'd never go to the tourist restaurants, (lower caste) because the food is mediocre and you feel as though you're being processed and taken advantage of.  

Then again, I've dined at roadside chip wagons and food trucks but only if the food is excellent.  In Hong Kong I've sat at a cracked plastic stool at one of the most dodgy looking street food joints you could imagine simply because they served some of the best tofu pudding in Kowloon.  Both definitively lower caste.

Probably the highest caste restaurant I've dined in is Monaco's über-luxe, three Michelin-starred Le Louis XV now "Alain Ducasse at the Hotel de Paris." At first glance, paying €230 for their Menu Jardin, a 4-course Tasting Menu may seem expensive but if you add in all the extra goodies like the amuse bouche, the herbal infusion tea cart, grand finale marshmallow and ice cream course, flawless service and the sumptuous room, it's a steal. I've always left there feeling as though I were floating on a cloud and it had been well worth the price.

I think to be a true food lover is to abandon pretension and a caste system of dining altogether and just eat.  I think the goal of authenticity, good food and service should be what makes a worthwhile dining experience - not if there's a voiturier or if you'll be seen.  We have enough of those. 


donna baker said...

Long time no see Gustia. Linens and good food and service? How could it not succeed unless bad location. Truly wealthy people like a good deal like everyone else. It is the less wealthy, nouveau riche poseurs that have to have only the very best. Some of American billionaires live very normal lives and do not show their wealth.

Loree said...

Interesting take on the dining caste system. I believe it exists. Some people won't be see dead in some places even if the food is excellent. Pity.

Anonymous said...

The food delivery is actual FOOD! I wish the delivery of the kitchen of my children's school was like that...I would have to make a lunch! Happy, healthy feasting even outside the nest.