There are many surprising things about Elsa Restaurant at The Monte-Carlo Beach resort.
The first is that despite the name, and despite the published address (Avenue Princesse Grace, Principality of Monaco), it is in France. Yes, only a short walk over the lightly marked border, but entirely in France nonetheless.
A second notable fact is that it is the first all-organic restaurant in Europe, and possibly the world, to be awarded a Michelin star.
The vision behind Elsa comes from Venice-born “bio-chef” Paolo Sari. Apparently Sari thinks visually, drawing dishes before he assembles any ingredients, or begins to cook. We’ve been assured he will join us at the table a little later, so I add a note to ask to see his etchings.
Until then, there’s time to enjoy the art deco-meets-Riviera ambience (the hotel was completed in the late 1920s), the priceless view across the Mediterranean, and a selection of amuse-gueules presented in a tall glass goblet. They include Barbajuan, a small cheese-and-chard fritter that is a Monégasque staple.
The sommelier brings a bottle of Domaine des Planes, a crisp white from Provence which, like every sauce and condiment on the table, is certified organic. Further, I’m assured that Domaine des Planes was the first white wine in France to achieve the certification.
Breaking with tradition
Sari has recently abandoned “La Grande Carte”, which is to say the diverse choice found in most fine dining establishments. Instead the focus is on four set menus, starting with the Market Menu, a lunch selection of whatever chef deems fresh and interesting, at €55 ($87). The Tasting Menu, another lunch offering, is described as a four-dish “dive into the universe through Paolo Sari” (€95).
In the evening, a six-course Discovery Menu (€120) and an eight-course Tradition Menu (€160) are on offer. All of these vary by the week, and even more dramatically by the season, and can be matched with wines, course by course.
Today we are working through a selection from the four menus, starting with an elegantly arranged medley of every vegetable in the kitchen’s repertoire. These are all raw and chopped to different thicknesses and shapes to give a variety of textures and crunch levels. I’m sure the latter is not the correct culinary term, but you get the idea, and the result is fresh, light and interesting.
The second course is scorpionfish with tagliolini pasta and “slightly spicy” cherry tomatoes. Again, subtle in taste and exquisitely presented. On the appearance front, the next course is even more of a standout. Described as “Local red mullets as per the Riviera tradition, fava beans purée and baby vegetables”, it comprises a perfect wedge of mullet fillet, upright with tail attached, topped with a neat array of Lilliputian vegetables.
A Sicilian almond soufflé that almost dissolves in the mouth finishes a long and varied meal that leaves this test-pilot satisfied and certainly not bloated.
Unsampled highlights from the various menus include “Gold risotto with black cuttlefish [and] langoustines with saffron” and the intriguing “roasted lamb loin, spinach sprouts, old mustard ice cream”.
If you notice a lack of beef in all this, it’s because of the environmental impact. Sari has banned it in favour of lamb, chicken, pork and a wide variety of seafood. Foie gras? Not on your life. Sari also insists on sourcing all vegetables from within a 150 kilometre radius of Monaco, and has established close relationships with farmers in Italy and France, often buying their entire production of certain ingredients.
Elsa meets the highest of the three organic levels devised by Ecocert International. The restaurant is subject to an annual external audit, examining every practice, and checking every invoice to ensure the supply chain is untainted. The Michelin star was awarded in 2014.
I have been told the previous chef was “very academic”, and that Sari has brought a more flexible and creative attitude to the restaurant (which, it should be noted, is in the hotel with the highest average room rate of any Monaco, or at least Monaco-owned, resort). And here he is now to ask, looking a little tired, but filled with bonhomie. Did we enjoy the meal, he asks, in passionate, almost theatrical, Italian-accented English. Of course.
Sari nods. “I prefer to eat healthy without fertilisers. I believe a chef is like a doctor – he should propose for the client something that is good for their health. Everybody is free to make their own choice, but whenever someone sits on my table, I try to suggest whatever is good for their tastes but also good for their health and good for the planet.”
When asked if he is trying to reintroduce subtle natural flavours that have been lost, the passion of the “bio-chef” (his term) steps up a further notch. “In the past 30 years everything has been lost. Food globalisation has brought big damages to the market and to agricultural systems and society, and to the health of the people and the taste of the people.”
He says long transport lines destroy the planet. “Apples coming from 10,000 kilometres. That is the most stupid thing.”
Sari believes the healthiest approach is for humans to consume seasonal products – in the right season. He then explains enthusiastically the fruits and vegetables that are coming and going, regretting the end of artichoke and asparagus, but looking forward to zucchini, eggplants and the first figs.
And, yes, it’s true that he draws his dishes first. He shows his sketch for “carpaccio d’artichaut”. Surprisingly, it is in black and white. I had assumed drawing the dish first was to ensure it looked good and was as beautifully colour balanced as some of the dishes just served.
“No,” Sari explains, his dishes come from something akin to a daydream, “and you dream in black and white”.
“The importance is the taste, the importance is the ingredients, so some seasons could be monochromatic, other seasons they could be colourful. We deliver nature on the plate, and nature does the rest.”
The writer was a guest of Elsa Restaurant.
NEED TO KNOW
- Elsa Restaurant The Monte-Carlo Beach, Avenue Princesse Grace, Monaco. Tel +377 9806 5005. For more see monte-carlo-beach.com/