The best place in the world to watch motor racing … Hermitage Hotel, Monaco

I am only tending to write posts here in the event of enjoying something to eat, or cooking something, in an environment which is a little different as I find I have almost entirely exhausted my entire repertoire in the last 3 or 4 years of writing up cooking exploits here, so this seemed a suitable time to write something!

I take myself off every year for a few days to the South of France to attend the Monaco GP, which is still the pre-eminent Formula 1 race in the calendar.  But having gone last year and having found the whole experience rather tiresome and over hyped – wall to wall crowds, hyper-inflated prices and the fact that from the grandstands you see the car swoosh past for about 50 yards and then sit there twiddling your thumbs until they come around again, I decided this year I would attend an event I have always been interested in, but have never got round to attending … namely the Grand Prix Historique de Monaco … and event held about 2 weeks before the F1, but for cars prior to 1980!

This is not a motor racing blog so I will content myself with reporting that it was the greatest Motor racing event I have ever attended. Absolutely phenomenal .. a little like Monaco in the 1980’s … relaxed, refined but not expensive at all!  I do not plead abject poverty (yet!) but to pay £8 for a bottle of Coke and £12 for a poor saldad in street cafe, as I did last year, was a step too far and went some way to destroying my enjoyment of my time there.

This event is spread over 3 days. Heats and qualifying sessions on the Friday and Saturday and the main events on the Sunday.

I had every intention of combining my 2 loves of food  and decent motor racing into one memorable day on the Sunday, and so set about investigating where to have a damn good meal and watch the motor racing at the same time.

There are 3 choices really … or 4 if you include the Metropole Hotel, a ghastly Bling bling place which I discarded as soon as I went in there. The view from their admittedly well-reputed Joel Rebuchon terrace restaurant is frankly awful.. over some barriers and down to the Mirabeau corner.. and as they wanted a damnfool €200 for the meal, I am afraid I told them to shove it! Well, I didn’t … I told them … sweetly.. I didn’t like the view! They seem to have heard that one before!

So the next choice was the Fairmont Hotel which is situated on the STATION hairpin. I highlight that word because the Fairmont Group have insisted on renaming the hairpin the Fairmont Hairpin … it took me years to get used to Loews hairpin, which at least had a slightly exotic ring to it … but Fairmont Hairpin…no!! So no meal there, though I did blag my way into the Hotel and then double-blagged my way onto their ‘exclusive’ terrace to watch some of the qualifying on the Saturday ! Anyway, the place was thick with rich Americans and as I am afraid they don’t go at all with my vision of what a ‘historique‘ race meeting should be about, I ticked it off my list … twice !

The Hotel de Paris was the obvious choice. The central feature of Casino Square which is itself the central feature of the F1 Grand Prix since years …

You arrive into Casino Square with a bit of a flourish knowing the crowds will be watching …. all crossed up and sideways…throw the car through Casino corner and then floor the accelerator as you hurl the thing down towards Mirabeau”  (Graham Hill)

…but as I walked into the Belle Epoque restaurant to make my reservation, I could see that once again the view out to the track was hopeless….you see the cars from behind and anyway, the crowds would make the whole thing a nightmare!  And as they also wanted €180 for the meal, I left with my tail between my legs, though I did return there a few times for a coffee (which they serve for €6 in the lobby complete with wondrous sugared orange peel and hand made chocolates!!) and an hour of the greatest people watching experience on earth ! But that is another story …

And so it was to the Hermitage Hotel. Owned by the SBM – the same State run group that run the Casino and the Hotel de Paris. It is really where the cognoscenti go in Monte Carlo. Those with style and class .. which of course means I was a little out of place, but I can try …! I was at least wearing a linen Boggi suit from Italy, which I bought many moons ago in a Cobham charity shop, so at least I looked the part… kind of!

I walked into the Vistamar restaurant. It was fabulous. All pastel shades, cream walls, light blue curtains … absolutely beautiful. I asked if I could look at the Race day menu. They said it was the same menu as the rest of the week, which I thought a little surprising. I then asked the cost. They looked at me as if I had just walked in from the boondocks, shrugged and told me “The normal’

They had not inflated their prices by one cent just because there were many thousands more people in Monaco for the weekend – €60 it was and it looked fantastic. I booked a table on the spot.

Raceday dawned a little cloudy as I walked down to Casino Square and turned right towards the Hermitage. It didn’t matter but it would have been nice to have had the 2 gloriously sunny days we had had the previous 2.

I walked out on to the terrace where the restaurant is located – with what is almost certainly the best view of Monaco itself as well as of the track… you can see all the way over to the harbour and swimming pool complex, right out to Rascasse and of course the cars as they hurtle up the hill towards Casino Square are about 20 feel below you under the terrace itself. I could not believe my luck!

I had a complimentary glass of champagne shoved into my hand and walked over to the edge of the balcony – which was pretty empty and stood there as car after car roared up the hill below me. It was the best vantage point I could have imagined!

I had met delightful English couple by this point and had started chatting to a few of the others out on the terrace and so we had quite a party going, but soon they called us for lunch and so I walked into the restaurant as, eating on my own – a habit by the way I quite enjoy, but then I know I am odd – I had assumed I would be shoved at the back of the restaurant out of everyone’s way.

Rather to my amazement though I was kicked back outside and shown to what was without doubt the best table in the place, to the amusement of the people I had been standing with 5 minutes previously who were all stuck further back, but at least were guests of the Hotel!  I have no idea why and whose decision it was to put me right on the edge of the terrace with a view to die for – maybe it was my linen suit – but I profusely thanked everyone in sight and sat down, feeling I should at least show my appreciation and order a decent bottle of wine!

So drink for the afternoon was a bottle of Chablis Grand Cru Montee de Tonnerre 2006, from a vineyard I have at least visited in the past.

And so the the meal. First course was a plate of courgette flowers stuffed with a a cream cheese. A beautifully presented plate with a ring of fresh pesto sauce around the edge and some delicate slices of cucumber and some pieces of Buffalo Mozzarella curled on the side. The flowers were uncooked – I have had them lightly dipped in batter and then deep fried… also very good – and so just melted in the mouth. I ate everything very slowly, and at least this course, being cold allowed me to hop up and down and walk to the edge of the terrace and take in the racing with the greatest of ease.

The main course was a roasted fillet of veal with a nice gravy (sorry.. sauce!) with what they called a lasagne of Asparagus. 5 slices of perfectly cooked veal arranged artfully on the place with the sauce over the top and a circle of a light asparagus mousse with some celeriac underneath and a few shavings of raw asparagus as decoration on the top. It was perfect both in quantity and presentation.

At one point I took rather too long hanging out over the balcony watching a particularly enthralling race, and so the wonderful waiters took my plate away to keep it warm until I returned. Now that in my book is good service!

The pudding (sorry.. dessert!) was a ‘boule’ of pistachio ice cream and one of strawberry sorbet on a thin bed of cheesecake decorated with a few tuille biscuits and some fresh berries. What can one say? It was perfection.

By this time the weather had descended into thunder and rain, but we were not deterred and I completed my dessert sitting huddled under an a large umbrella with a couple of other (English!) chaps as we darted back and forth to the edge, rather to the consternation of the waiters who thought we were quite mad, to watch Patrick Depailler’s Tyrrell 6 wheeler, the ex Denny Hulme Yardley BRM or Jackie Ickx driving an age old Auto Union (the prerunner of AUDI – the AU denoting Auto Union) with much panache.

In the end the rain came down so hard we all went into the bar…just in time to watch Sir Frank Williams Formula 1 team take their first vistory in a Formula 1 race (The Spanish GP) since, I believe 1994, on the huge TV screen thoughtfully laid on for us.

A great afternoon and a great, great meal … something I will not forget for ages.

Previous dinner posts from Peter

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