Good Food Guide editor Joanna Savill has royalty at the next table when she dines at one of the world's great restaurants.
It's not every night you get to dine with royalty. The setting is regal in the extreme: soaring marble columns finished in burnished gold; stiff satin curtains descending in ornate flounces from a six-metre-high ceiling; glittering chandeliers; tiny shaded wall lamps; thick damask tablecloths; mirrors; crystal and much more.
It could be the Palace of Versailles and the court of Louis XV. But while we haven't quite stepped back in time, there is a tenuous link. This is the famous Louis XV restaurant, in the principality of Monaco. And yes, His Serene Highness Prince Albert of Monaco and his consort, Princess Charlene, are there for dinner. And so am I.
Like their royal highnesses, I'm supping on the creations of Alain Ducasse, chef extraordinaire and par excellence. He's the name behind Le Louis XV and its three Michelin stars - awarded in 1990 and retained ever since. Ducasse is a global superstar with restaurants around the world. But this is his flagship.
Dinner, since you asked, is extraordinary. From an unassuming bowl of crudites - crisp, just-picked raw Mediterranean vegetables - to dip in just-pressed (a day earlier) extra virgin olive oil, through to a gloriously rich-pastried game pie, it's a succession of unshowy yet immaculate dishes. The wines are even more amazing, including a 1993 Dom Perignon not even money can buy, we're told. It's a typical Louis XV menu - food that Ducasse's friend, Australian chef Tetsuya Wakuda, describes as "simple and just perfect".
The occasion is the 25th anniversary of Le Louis XV and Wakuda is there, too. In fact, he's sitting on the table princiere - the high table - along with the prince and princess themselves, Alain Ducasse, of course, and his ultra-elegant wife, Gwenaelle.
I'm not exactly with the royal party but I'm just a few metres away on a nearby table and surrounded by blue bloods of every description. To celebrate this milestone birthday, Ducasse has invited a few lucky journalists (merci beaucoup, Monsieur Ducasse) plus 250 of his closest colleagues - some of the most famous chefs in the world today. Culinary royalty, to put it plainly.
The crowned heads of the kitchen kingdom around me include Rene Redzepi from Noma, ranked No.1 in the world; Joan Roca from Spain's El Celler de Can Roca (second in the world); a constellation of three-Michelin-starred chefs from France, including Joel Robuchon and Pierre Troisgros; Daniel Boulud from New York and London and more; David Chang from New York and Sydney; and Guillaume Brahimi from Sydney, Singapore, Melbourne and Perth.
Such is the glamour of Monaco and the pulling power of Alain Ducasse, it was an invitation none could refuse. Ducasse himself was invited to Monaco in 1987 by Prince Albert's father, Prince Rainier III, to see what he could do with the ailing fine-dining restaurant in the glorious Belle Epoque surrounds of the Hotel de Paris.
In less than three years he had established a dining destination that draws visitors year round. Set just off the impressive lobby of the five-star Hotel de Paris, across the square from the Monte Carlo Casino and the gloriously ornate opera house, it's the epitome of princely luxury. (Dishes start from about €55 ($72) and go up to about €130 for lobster. The wine list is something to behold.) I don't mind guessing that the prince and princess are pretty happy to accept the occasional invitation to dine with Ducasse.
It's not hard to find serious elegance in Monaco, the tiny toytown principality on the Mediterranean coast, wedged between the French and Italian rivieras. To float home after dinner to my hotel - the equally atmospheric Hotel Hermitage - you pass Bulgari, Chanel, Prada and more. (There's also a great branch of Zara, for smaller wallets.)
To continue la belle vie Monegasque, try Robuchon's eponymous restaurant in the equally grandiose Metropole hotel, just around the corner from the casino. As global superstar chefs go, Robuchon is right up there, with a dozen restaurants around the world and 28 Michelin stars in total (more, even, than Ducasse).
Robuchon's restaurant is like an intimate living room, with drapes, log fires and hushed service. The "discovery" menu - featuring French luxury classics such as lobster, foie gras, black truffles and sea bass - is a discreet €199 a person. The Metropole also houses Robuchon's modern Japanese eatery, Yoshi, with a terrific sake list.
So where else might the prince and princess be tempted to dine? With all the state dinners, charity galas and formal receptions that appear on their schedule, it's hard to imagine they have much of a chance.
They might pop in to Monte Carlo's recently opened Cipriani - from the famous group of Harry's Bar fame - for a club sandwich, the signature Bellini or the original carpaccio.
I could also imagine them enjoying aperitif hour at Le Bar Americain, in the Hotel de Paris. It's a classically atmospheric cocktail bar, dark and woody, gentle jazz, clubby caramel tones, tiny tables. A "coupe" (glass of champagne) comes with an endless succession of bar snacks - nuts, olives, chips, pizza squares and tiny barbagiuan - a local specialty that resembles moreish, deep-fried ravioli. It's a fine place to soak up the Monaco vibe.
And I think I know where Princess Charlene gets her chocolate supplies. Just around the corner from the palace - an obligatory stop on your Monaco tour, along with the excellent Oceanographic Museum nearby - is Chocolaterie de Monaco, a dinky chocolate shop and tearoom "by appointment to His Serene Highness the Sovereign Prince of Monaco". Founded in the 1920s, it sells pretty little open truffles, plus candied orange peel, chocolate almonds and "Monaco crowns" in milk and dark chocolate, released to mark Prince Albert's coronation.
For all its luxe and glamour, though, Monaco is Mediterranean through and through.
It's the quality of the produce - glorious vegetables, fruit, cheeses, olive oils, seafood, lamb, nuts, lavender, mushrooms and truffles - that first drew Ducasse to this part of the world and, he says, keeps him eternally inspired.
In J'aime Monaco, a massive book full of superb photographs, Ducasse pays homage to "the artisans, creators of the simple but essential pleasures of daily life which are also such a source of pride to Monaco". Among others, he mentions the butcher-charcutier Formia, with his array of fresh and aged game meats and smallgoods, and Gerard Rinaldi - a fourth-generation local fisherman - whose catch was served at the royal wedding.
An easy place to see the local producers in action is the Condamine Market, built in 1880 and recently renovated to include a number of cafes and brasseries. It's full of fresh produce plus smallgoods, cheeses and snacks (including barbagiuan, the chickpea-flour flatbread called socca, and a tomato and anchovy tart called pichade) offered by a lively mix of Italian- and French-speaking merchants.
For all Monaco's "haute couture" establishments, as Ducasse puts
it, he claims it's the artisan spirit that counts. I suspect the royals might agree.
At the prince's private residence at Roc Agel, above Monaco town, are an orchard, kitchen garden and dairy herd. Vegetables from the garden were used in the royal wedding banquet. And milk from the Roc Agel cows is used in the ice-cream at Ducasse's Louis XV. Now that's right royal dining.
Joanna Savill was a guest of Monaco Tourism and Alain Ducasse-Monte Carlo SBM.
The fastest and easiest trip from Australia is with Emirates, which flies to Nice via Dubai. See emirates.com.
Le Louis XV — Alain Ducasse, Hotel de Paris, Place du Casino, +377 9806 8864, hoteldeparismontecarlo.com.
Joel Robuchon and Yoshi restaurants, Hotel Metropole, 4 Avenue de la Madone, +377 9315 1510 and +377 9315 1313, metropole.com.
Cipriani, 1 Avenue Princesse Grace, +377 9325 4250, www.ciprianimontecarlo.com.
Le Bar Americain, Hotel de Paris, Place du Casino, +377 9806 3838.
Chocolaterie de Monaco, Place de la Visitation, Monaco-Ville, +377 9797 8888, chocolateriedemonaco.com.
Boucherie Parisienne Formia, 4 Boulevard de France, +377 9330 8550.
Gerard Rinaldi and the Condamine Market, Place d'Armes, Monaco.