Le Monument – a delicious 14-stop art deco voyage through Portugal’s regions

 In Food and drink, Hotel, News, Travel

Holidaying in Porto and fancy being immersed in 1920s and 1930s Deco glamour? Then the city’s Le Monumental Palace hotel provides the perfect experience together with a culinary journey across Portugal at its Michelin star restaurant.

Text: Chris Graeme Photos: Supplied

May 8 was not admittedly the ideal day to visit Porto to discover the delights of a Michelin star tasting menu by French chef Julien Montbabut at the recently inaugurated Le Monumental Palace Hotel.

For starters, despite being a stone’s throw from the place, we emerged from the city centre station onto streets quite literally mobbed by thousands of university students celebrating the last day of the traditional ‘Queima das Fitas’ which had run all that week, but was all the more packed because it was the 100th anniversary of this academic street parade.

The two main thoroughfares cutting through the city centre’s main avenue Avenida dos Aliados had been fenced off to allow colourful floats to file past, from which hung half-sloshed singing students in top hats and dark gowns adorned with faculty badges.

Le Monumental Palace was tantalisingly within distance on the other side of the street, but no, we decided to be swept along like leaves on a current to the top of the avenue buried in the throng, and away from the hotel, until we reached the metro, purchased tickets to take us one stop in the opposite direction only to find out we could have simply used the metro underpass to access the hotel all along!

Which is why on entering the lobby feeling exhausted and a tad stupid, there was immediate relief and a pleasant surprise. We were greeted with glasses of refreshing herbal tea, and while waiting to be checked in by incredibly polite staff, I had the chance to soak up the atmosphere and look of the lobby and spacious restaurant glimpsed through the glass doors beyond.

A silver screen entrance

Two 1930s classic silver screen films immediately spring to mind when describing the elegant Art Deco inspired décor. ‘Grand Hotel,’ the 1932 romantic drama set in Berlin at the height of the Weimar Republic with Garbo (“I vant to be alone”) and Crawford, and the 1934 ocean liner romance with Crawford and Gable, ‘Chained’. If you have seen either of these classic films, you will get the gist of the overall look and flavour of the place, whose grey granite exterior affords no clue to the glamour that lies within.

Immediately, we are whisked away to the cocktail bar which also sports 1930s Deco elements and lighting which recall the famous London 1920s cocktail bar within the Brasserie Zédel in London’s Piccadilly.

Here we meet Julien Montbabut and in true Blue Peter fashion get to design our very own bottles of vinaigrette with a range of herbs, spices, and flowers artfully arranged along the cocktail bar, and is our first stop to ease us into a gastronomic experience not to be hurried and certainly never forgotten.

In the best tradition of homemade pickles, we get the chance to confect our own salad dressings using various kinds of cider and wine vinegars before adding fruits of the forest and citrus, bamboo, elderberry flowers, fennel, cloves, cinnamon, ginger, black peppers, and chilli pepper. The plan? To let all these ingredients infuse for eight months.

A voyage of delicious discoveries

We are led through to the elegant Le Monument restaurant to embark on a tasting menu that takes the diner on a 14-stop magical trip from the North to the South of Portugal and across the seas to the islands of the Azores, and beyond to the sweet exotic flavours of Brazil – all, however, infused with an unmistakably French foundation, and paired with lovely Portuguese wines.

Our ‘Journey around Portugal’ begins with ‘Feel Português’  – puff bread with salt and olive oil; ‘Awaken your Senses’ – pork with bamboo and lilies, would you believe?; ‘Água Viva‘ – trout and salmon from Cinfães, prepared with almonds, black garlic, drizzled with herb sauce; and journeys on to ‘Pastoreiro’ with grouper fish, pumpkin and cheese from Serra da Estrela; ‘Classic’ spider crab, mustard dressing and yuzu; a locally inspired dish ‘MatosinhosMy Favourite Market’ with John Dory fish, white asparagus and pil-pil sauce; and finally arriving in Brazil in time for desserts and ‘Da Joana’ with Douro oranges and strawberries, Campari, and chocolate from Brazil. And there were many other culinary stops in between to delight the taste buds in an immersive gourmet experience that lasted at least three hours, but in the mist of wine-hazed conversation you somehow never wanted to arrive at your ultimate destination — bed!

A romantic Atlantic crossing

We retire at midnight to rooms that are accessed along corridors that from their decoration could be straight out of the SS Normandie or the SS Île de France. Gold and green carpets lead the way past a succession of glowing golden lampshades to the bedrooms in this mythical 1923 building that once served as offices during the tumultuous times of Portugal’s 1st Republic.

The 1930s’s style décor with graphical motifs, pastel and gold fabrics, dark lacquered furniture and deco carpet designs contrast with the white marble shot through with mottled grey in bathrooms fitted with elegant historic chrome fixtures lending a luxurious, yet intimate feel of pure comfort.

Portugal-inspired creations with French finesse

In the morning, over breakfast with a startling array of buffet selections resplendent with a wide range of fresh fruits and meats coupled with freshly made to order omelettes with cheeses, cured hams and wild mushrooms, I get the chance to chat with Chef Julien Montbabut who notched up experience in several French resultants; all of them in Paris, and all with Michelin stars; including Pavillon Ledoyden, Jamin and Le Restaurant.

Chef Julien moved to Porto in 2018 when he became the resident chef at all the hotel’s kitchens including Le Monument which received its star in 2023.

He says that the culinary concept at Le Monument is French bourgeoisie which is classic French cuisine, or the home cooking of middle-class families as distinguished from elaborate restaurant cooking, haute cuisine, or cuisine from the traditional cooking of the regions, the peasantry, and the urban poor.

Covid-19 proved to be a significant challenge, but Chef Julien used the time when the hotel was at a standstill to prepare the menus, find suppliers and contract staff. Now they have around 35 suppliers from the North to the South of Portugal including Madeira, the Azores, and the Algarve.

“The idea was to create a theme of a foreigner coming to Portugal who travels around the country experiencing surprising food made from fresh ingredients from local markets and fine Alentejo, Douro and Azores wines – all serving as the base of these creative dishes.”

And it really was Chef Julien’s story, arriving in Portugal with his knowledge and menus from the restaurants he had worked in in Paris, not knowing where to buy anything and in the beginning resorting to bringing in a lorry load of produce from France every week.

Of course, that was not sustainable and did not make sense. After all, he did not want to live and work in a French bubble separated from the people and the tastes surrounding him. “When in Rome, do as the Romans do. You have to be open to new cultures, people, customs, and flavours”, he says.

“From the starters to the deserts that make up the 14 culinary moments we try to catch the essence of the flavours of Portugal with a French twist based on my culinary background,” he explains. In other words, mixing Portuguese flavours with French techniques.

Chef Julien says that just opening a French restaurant in the hotel would not have made sense since there are already restaurants that do this very well. But on the other hand, not having a basic training or in-depth experience of Portuguese cuisine, he felt he did not have the experience to offer this either. This is why the fusion of the two has worked so well, creating something unique, a surprising blend of both worlds, the success of which is the main reason he secured a Michelin star after just four years.

He started young having been brought up in a large family of five siblings. He used to spend hours with his mother watching and helping her in the kitchen.

Inspired, Julien went on to study classic French cuisine at the prestigious Ferrandi school where Gilbert Isaac mentored him, and then began his professional life as one of the chefs under Christian Le Squer at the three Michelin star Pavilion Ledoyen and later under Benoit Guichard at the two-star restaurant Jamin.

Julien then became a sous chef in 2008 at the one-star Le Restaurant before going on to the Pavillon de la Grande Cascade, returning to Le Restaurant in 2011 as head chef.

A husband-and-wife team

His charming wife who is the hotel’s Chef Pâtissière, Joana Thony Montbabut had worked for almost 10 years at L’Hotel in Paris, one of the most famous hotels in the French capital, nestled in the heart of the Left Bank, amid the cultural riches and high fashion of St Germain-des-Près.

Joana tells me that she had enjoyed cooking at home when growing up, and had dreamed of being a dancer, but when the time came for her to choose a career decided she wanted to do something using her hands, like architecture or interior design.

However, she realised that cooking was very hands on and went to cookery school and later specialised in patisserie because it is artistic and creative, and because she could “play with colour, form and texture, and use of moulds.” Joana also insists that French patisserie is her favourite “without a doubt” because it is more varied and balanced.

“French sweets and desserts use different types of pastry and cream fillings, and lots of different fruits which make it very balanced.”

When it comes to Portuguese sweets, she likes custard tarts and cheesecake pastries ‘queijadas’ from the Azores, but she feels that the traditional Portuguese egg yolk and sugar-based convent sweets are “too sweet for my taste.”

That is not to make a criticism, but French cuisine, which often uses the same amount of sugar, by employing biscuit and crème makes desserts more smooth, silky, and balanced in the mouth.

Both Joana and her husband have considered opening up a restaurant or even a cooking school one day, but say that for now they have their hands full working at Le Monumental Palace Hotel, but admits that doing the same kind of cuisine that they do now would be very challenging without the support of a hotel behind it.

Overall, a stay in Le Monumental Palace is a beautiful and romantic experience that echoes facets of Portugal in the 1920s and 1930s, art deco inspired interiors blending practical simplicity with rich gold and earthy tones that feel luxurious but never fussy or overdone.

As we gather in the lobby to await our transport you can imagine elegant women in coats with high fur-trimmed collars, their faces framed with cloches, and men in Ulster overcoats, two-toned shoes and fedoras milling around. It is all wonderfully Agatha Christie, but the mystery will not be a body found in the hotel’s art deco library with its books and sofas; the real mystery begins in the dining room where you can investigate the tastes, colours, and textures of Portuguese flavours with that twist of French finesse.