Moon Over Monaco (including the BEST MEAL OF THE ENTIRE TRIP)

Our cruiseship stopped at about six or seven ports on our journey and at almost every one we pulled away at 5:30 or 6. There was one exception to that and that was Monaco. After Sardinia, our ship sailed to Monaco and “made history” as the largest ship ever docked there. Instead of the mandatory 5 pm return-to-ship instruction, we were given the whole night: the boat pulled away the next morning.

So here’s the view from deck:

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Actually there are better pictures that show the Grand Casino and lots of the architecture but this gives you a sense. I was excited for Monaco because we’d be eating two meals off ship. While our ship food was good, as the cruise went on the food became less and less fresh and I craved something authentic and ripe and seasonal. Little did I know, we were about to have the best meal of the entire trip.

Which meal was that? Well we had two reservations: our lunch reservation was at a place called “Il Terrazzino” and our dinner was at Joel Robuchon’s Monaco outpost. Joel Robuchon is, of course, one of France’s premiere chef’s. I looked forward to our meal there with great enthusiasm. I’d never heard of Il Terrazzino–my mom’s friend suggested it–and I brattily dismissed it as a bad choice. “Who eats Italian food in Monaco,” I said affecting worldly airs although there’s really no reason NOT to eat Italian food in Monaco since it’s so close to Italy.

Well boy did I pick the losing end of the argument. Because without question the best meal of the whole trip was at Il Terrazzino. I still harken back to it in my sleep, remembering those deep ceramic bowls and the warm hospitality of the waitress and the chef and the owner…

But we’re going to reverse order this. Since Il Terrazzino was the best, let’s start with the second best: dinner at Robuchon.

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The Ritzy Francophiles on our ship went to dine at Alain Ducasse at the Hotel de Paris:

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I’ll confess there was a tiny part of me that wanted to experience Ducasse for the first time, but we have Ducasse in New York (still haven’t been) and we don’t have Robuchon. So Robuchon made sense. And while the Hotel de Paris is more ostentatious than Zsa Zsa Gabor in a solid gold bathtub, Hotel Metropol–where Robuchon’s located–is way cooler.

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See that entrance way? Wouldn’t you rather stay there? And check out the path to the front door:

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I’d say that’s pretty welcoming.

Once inside, they sat us outside on a terrace overlooking Monaco and facing the water. As you take in this picture, notice the glassware on the table: it’s way cool. (They sell at the MOMA store here and it’s $60 for 6 glasses. Though the MOMA’s version isn’t two-toned.)

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You’ll also notice that the restaurant isn’t packed yet. As someone once pointed out in the comments here, Europeans don’t dine before 9. That proved very true but even at 9 this place didn’t fill up even though a woman from our cruise tried to walk in and they wouldn’t seat her or her family. She saw us and said: “You must’ve made a reservation” and huffed her way home.

One of our main regrets at this meal was not having cocktails at the really cool bar. We didn’t want to rush our meal so we ordered cocktails at the table–Kir Royales (I observed other people drinking that so I suggested it)–and yet they still rushed us along. Here’s our drink:

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I was a huge failure that night when it came to ordering wine. Dad’s usually handed the wine list and he defers to mom but this night dad handed me the wine list and I studied it. Everything was wildly expensive and the only reasonable wine, really, was a Gwertztraminer from the Alsace region. I remember Gwertztraminer because when I was a waiter we’d always have a wine special and I remember having the hardest time pronouncing that to my tables. “Today’s wine special is a gaVERTZtremmynoirier,” I’d say. And even though I sold Gwertztraminer, I never tasted it. Because it was reasonable I suggested it and the sommelier approved my selection. “Very good sir,” he said.

No, not very good. Wayyyy too sweet and fruity. “This’d be fine for dessert,” said mom, “but it’s too sweet for dinner.”

Oh well. I like sweet and fruity so I lived. And then an amuse was presented:

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Avocado and apple pureed in layers. Very pretty, I’ll concede, but no one at the table loved this. Kind of like fancified baby food.

The bread was cool, though. And the butter very European and very delicious.

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As you can see all the presentations were artful. Like that tiny dot of balsamic in the middle of the olive oil. And check out my appetizer of crab and avocado presented in a ceramic egg shell:

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Lift off the top and…

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Behold! “A light summer dish,” mused our waiter. Yes, very light. Avocado on top of a layer of crab. We all had this for our appetizer because our waiter said it was the best but it was really just ok. Again, kind of like the amuse. Too baby food esque for our tastes. (Though I did like the complexity of flavor.)

My entree was a winner but definitely the wrong season for it:

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That’s spit-roasted pork with a side of Robuchon’s famous mashed potatoes. For those not in the know, Robuchon makes what are considered the world’s best mashed potatoes: his secret is like 50 parts butter to one part potato. They were indeed extraordinary and we all got some on the side. Mom got some with her fish too:

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And dad and Michael with their blurry chicken:

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(Ha, I called it “blurry chicken” because the photo’s blurry but wouldn’t that be a cool name for a dish? Or a band?)

All of us ate our food gladly but none of us were drooling with primal satisfaction. I can’t really tell you why: it was all prepared perfectly, it just didn’t dazzle.

What DID dazzle was this dessert. It was called chocolate seduction or chocolate explosion or chocolate SOMETHING and it’s playfully reminiscent of something you’d eat from a Good Humor truck:

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Beneath that hard chocolate layer was a chocolate mousse and other types of chocolate and we all fought bitterly over this, ignoring the other dessert the waiter suggested:

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That’s basil sorbet in a pineapple soup. Typically, I was left with this while everyone else licked the chocolate bowl clean.

At this point it was nighttime and the moon shined brilliantly overhead. Check out this unprecedented picture of extreme magnificence which provides the title of our post:

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That’s not a postcard. That’s really a picture I took from our table. I did it by putting the camera in night mode and resting it on the ledge to balance it while it “over exposed” the “film.” (Not film, because it’s a digital camera.) I love that picture.

So we really liked our dinner at Robuchon, just didn’t love it. I loved how the bathroom was hidden behind this bookshelf:

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That was a fun touch. It was a fun meal. We went back to the boat completely overstuffed not just from that, but from the gigantic miraculous lunch we’d eaten earlier in the day. The lunch I call the best meal we ate on the trip.

What’s funny is that I had no real culinary expectations from Monaco. I really don’t understand it historically or geographically. I know Grace Kelly was a princess there and that Prince Rainier just died but I don’t know at all what Monaco’s cultural contribution is to the world. It’s not really France, it’s definitely not Italy. People speak French. There’s a nice casino and pretty stores. Here’s mom shopping yet again!

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It did feel a bit like Paris from the little I remember of Paris in the sense that it was so fashionable and so chic. All those fashionable chic stores: Hermes (Oprah was banging on the window as we walked past), Gucci, and fancy jewelry stores. Mom really enjoyed herself.

I was having a similar reaction to Monaco that I had in Capri: a shopping mall on a mountain. Except here the meals totally redeemed it. I’d go back to Monaco if only to eat. Especially here–it’s time to unveil the best meal of the trip.

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Il Terrazinno is so obscure, so hidden that we were one block away and shop owners had no idea what street we were talking about. All of us were a bit dubious about mom’s lunch choice. “What is this place anyway?” we asked.

But as we walked in I noticed fresh tomatoes heating in the sun and I suddenly had a good feeling about it:

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The room inside was bright and colorful. Here’s Michael and dad to show you the room:

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It must have been a slow day in Monaco because next to us there was only one other duo, two men on a business lunch. Otherwise the place was empty and there was SO much food spread out on a buffet. Would this be a buffet lunch like the one we had in Capri?

Soon a boisterous Italian man came to our table. “Bonjourno!” he said (at least I think he said unless that’d be inappropriate to say in which case he said something more appropriate for the time of day.) “No menus here,” he said, “I take care of you.”

Oooh, I liked this.

“I bring out some antipasto and you tell me when you’re full and I bring out pasta and if you’re still hungry we go from there.”

He was all smiles and all enthusiasm and I rubbed my hands together in anticipation. The first thing to come out was this fresh tomato bruscetta:

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Lots of oil and lots of fresh tomatoes and we lifted it to our mouths greedily. Compared to the antiseptic food we were mostly having on the ship, this was such a welcome starter to the meal. Fresh, bright, delightful…

And then came a mozzarella caprese with fresh homemade ricotta in the middle:

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That ricotta was unbelievable. Truly. Dad hates cheese and even he loved it. It tasted more like a cloud than anything I can imagine. And then he brought out a baked ricotta too:

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Equally delicious but with a different texture. Crispy on the edges and fluffy in the middle.

Then melon and prosciutto:

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Melon in summer is already perfect and paired here with prosciutto (a combination I’ve had before) it was transporting. Could it get more simple than melon and proscuitto? And yet it was soooo perfect.

There was more antipasto—too much for me to photograph it all. Eggplant, I remember, and…hmmm…see I’m already forgetting.

By the time they brought out pasta we were stuffed. And this pasta–the one you’re about to see–is my single favorite dish from the trip. It’s the simplest thing you could imagine, rigatoni in tomato sauce with fresh basil.

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Why did this taste so good and so summery and so sweet? Look closely and you’ll see the answer. Did you see it yet? It’s not regular tomatoes they used but CHERRY tomatoes. This was a cherry tomato sauce and it made all the difference. (And, indeed, this was the second and final dish I’ve cooked from my trip since I’ve been back—I’ll post the recipe and results after finishing here.)

After devouring that there was another pasta: ravioli stuffed with the ricotta.

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Again, the sauce was so fresh and lip-smacking. We nearly died out of gladness and fullness.

The woman’s hands you see serving us are the hands of our waitress and she was beautiful and charming and just about the best waitress you could imagine. In fact, she didn’t feel like a waitress–she felt like the Italian sister you never had who invited you over for lunch and wants you to try everything.

“We’re too full for ravioli!” we pleaded.

“No no,” she said, “You try, you like!”

This was what made this meal so spectuacular: the warmth and love of these people running this place. They showered us with food and love. It was magical.

After they cleared the pasta, they thrusted dessert on us. Literally: here’s mom with an entire tray of cannolis.

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“Take as much as you like,” said the waitress.

Then she brought out this big bowl, a mysterious dessert:

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Little pastry mushrooms soaked in a lemony alcoholic sauce.

Plus a fruit salad:

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“What’s that?” asked mom pointing to a sugary cake in the corner.

“No!” we all screamed, “no more!”

But the waitress brought over a few slices for us to try:

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It kind of tasted like perfume but we didn’t care. Then there was espresso in an adorable ceramic cup:

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We couldn’t possibly eat any more. It would be anti-human, anti-life. Protesters gathered outside with signs that said: “STOP EATING!” “PLEASE, THINK OF THE CHILDREN.”

Dad ordered a Tiramasu and we were done for:

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We all fell to the floor dead. They peeled us off with shovels and asked us kindly to leave. But first we paid the check which was half the price of our meal at Robuchon just to give you a sense of value and experience and all that junk. As we left, though, an adorable woman came out of the kitchen and the sisterly waitress said, in a hushed tone: “That’s the chef.”

“Oh my God,” I said, running up to her, “I loved your food.”

“No English,” she said.

“Oh,” I stammered.

“A little Spanish,” she said.

“Oooh!” I cheered. “Me gusta su food-o mucho!”

“Gracias!” she said.

“UN photograph?” I requested, “Por me website.”

“Si!”

Here we our together, master chef and eager fan. Aren’t her glasses cool?

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Thank you, whoever you are, wherever you are in Monaco, for the best meal ever.

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