“Is that a corkscrew in your pocket or are you pleased to see me?” This was the first line of a scathing restaurant review that marked the death knell for a famous London restaurant client back in my PR days. For several years, I swore that restaurant critics belonged to one of the nine circles of Hell.
It is perhaps ironic that, through my travel writing, I have ended up reviewing restaurants for everyone from the FT Weekend to Zagat. Tellingly, I have tended towards praising culinary excellence rather than decrying ineptitude. However, a decade in Monaco facing elevated prices for mediocre food served with a grimace has worn me down. The time has come to name and shame some of the principality’s icons in the hope that culinary standards will rise to match prices.
Stars‘N’Bars (6 quai Antoine 1er, tel: +377 97-97-95-95) underwent an expensive (yet strangely invisible) renovation recently. Yet this Monegasque legend obviously forgot to revamp the kitchen. Tex-Mex shouldn’t mean tasteless freezer-to-microwave tat. The kids’ menu alone would be enough to get Jamie Oliver in a sweat. When I complained, one endearingly honest waiter admitted that he wouldn’t dine at Stars’N’Bars either. I guess it’s best to stick to drinks at the bar.
The restaurants at Monaco’s prestigious sports clubs, Monte-Carlo Country Club (155 avenue Princess Grace, Roquebrune-Cap-Martin, tel: +33 4 93 41 30 15) and the Automobile Club de Monaco (23 boulevard Albert 1er, tel: +377 93-15-26-00), have one thing in common: cuisine hailing from the 70s with copious dollops of cream infiltrating dishes from starter to dessert. It’s time to update the menu to join the millennium.
La Saliére (28 Quai Jean-Charles Rey, tel: +377 92-05-25-82) and Avenue 31 (31 avenue Princesse Grace, tel: +377 97-70-31-31) are the eminence grise of smart, reasonably-priced lunchtime dining in Monaco. Yet these excellent sister restaurants fall down at dinner. For double the price of the lunchtime menus, diners are subjected to long waits between courses and mislaid orders. The root of the problem seems to be staff shortages for evening shifts as many waiters commute into Monaco from Nice and even Italy so lunchtime shifts are preferred.
Overpriced and Oversexed
Cipriani Monte Carlo (1 avenue Princess Grace, tel: +377 93-25-42-50) is the place to be seen as long as you’re wearing a micro-miniskirt. Luckily the ageing millionaires paying the bill are too busy eyeing up the candy to notice the sub-standard food and supercilious service. To be fair, let’s not forget that Cipriani does have some well-established competition on the overpriced and oversexed front around the corner: Sass Café (11 avenue Princess Grace, tel: +377 93-25-52-00).
Compared to the tantalizing Thai restaurant at the back, the Maya Bay (24 avenue Princesse Grace, tel: +377 97-70-74-67) Japanese restaurant feels like the unattractive twin. On a recent visit, I was treated to a new concept: smoked sushi. The restaurant carries on its smoking-allowed-in-the-garden policy through winter months despite a hermetically sealed plastic enclosure that ensures diners are wafted with smoke from neighbouring smokers. Those who dare to complain should expect a sneer.
Several months on...My Day in the Kitchen
Readers of my infamous food column taking a punch at poor culinary standards in iconic Monegasque restaurants will know that one of the critiqued establishments, Stars ‘N’ Bars, responded by inviting me to spend a day in their kitchen.
Early one frosty February morning, I wander past the superyachts in Port Hercules towards Monaco’s best-known restaurant ready for a similarly frosty reception. I am welcomed by the smiling faces of Stars ‘N’ Bars’ owners Kate Powers and Didier Rubiolo with their energetic manager Annette Anderson. We begin the day by discussing the changes that will be announced in full during their menu relaunch this April. As well as menu additions, there will be a revolutionary menu format combining the feel of a traditional menu with the flexibility of an iPad offering print-free menu changes. Considering the 400 or so dishes that have passed through their menus over the last two decades and the weekly addition of 12 specials, this paperless book-video will fit with their eco-strategy by reducing their carbon footprint.
My morning continues with a whirlwind kitchen tour that gives me an idea of the logistical nightmare of running a culinary operation on a scale that dwarfs most of their Monegasque competition. They run a continuous service from 7am to midnight requiring a rotating staff of over 100 employees. The kitchen feeds around 600 daily diners (and up to a daunting 1,500 people during the Monaco Yacht Show), while the bar drains from 18 to 50 barrels per day.
Yet Kate and Didier carry the stress lightly. The two of them encapsulate a Monegasque success story: behind the façade of glamorous insouciance lies decades of grueling hard work. They both come from culinary-school backgrounds: Kate in Texas, Didier in Avignon. They met at the Roof Club – a celebrity-studded private dining club that Didier used to run. Together they set up Monaco’s first Tex-Mex restaurant, Le Texan. 1n 1993, they created Stars ‘N’ Bars in a three-story, abandoned warehouse with the help of a royal connection or two. In the last two decades, they have worked hard to build Stars ‘N’ Bars’ reputation as a sought-after venue for local families and celebrities alike. Surprisingly given the volume of young families around the principality, it’s the only restaurant in Monaco to run a daily kids’ club. It’s also the place in Monaco where you’re most likely to rub shoulders with Jude Law.
My dedicated tour guide, Didier introduces me to some of their United Nations staff. I watch as longstanding chef Sarath from Sri Lanka teaches a Filipino stagiaire how to make an apple pie, while Vimal from India cooks up a vat of chilli con carne. Then it’s my turn to don a chef’s hat and apron to test out one of the new menu items. I am happy to find that they have taken on board my suggestion to add a healthier salmon option to the children’s menu.
As we cook the salmon together, Didier tells me, “I like everything. When I cook at home, I never know what I’m going to cook until I have visited the market and been inspired by the myriad fresh fish and vegetables on display. There is so much choice here in Southern France.”
As Didier enthuses about food, the secret to their success dawns on me. Instead of merely shooting the messenger, they have faced up to my criticism with open-minded grace. Their willingness to listen and to implement rapid changes not only shows sound business and marketing sense, but also ensures my loyalty. As Annette adds wisely, “We’re best at human interaction”.