Song for your Supper

The time of year has come for lounging upon a beach recliner with a book. My current read is about Quantum Physics. I’ve just finished a chapter on wave-particle duality: the theory that light can behave as both a wave and a particle. In other words, light can be both at the same time*.

Being two things at once brings me to Song Qi, the brainchild of serial restaurant entrepreneur Alan Yau. On the one hand, Song Qi is the perfect restaurant. Everything works seamlessly from the smiling waiting staff to the stylish interior decor. The dining room resonates understated affluence from the chartreuse-velour seating to the marble tables and central crescent of golden poles. Even the black-lacquered ladies’ room feels luxurious.

My partner and I went recently for lunch and ordered two 29-euro lunchtime set menus: a dim-sum menu and an all-in-one menu with a salad, a dim sum and a cooked meat or fish. Everything was served up at the same time and we were presented with a mouthwatering feast. Highlights included a so-tender-that-it-melts-in-my-mouth beef dish and a kale salad with pine nuts, and goji berries that made me feel like a superfood goddess with just one bite. The food was washed down with a glass of red wine that’s included in the menu price. We finished our meal with a sorbet followed by a white jasmine tea served up with chocolates. I always judge a place by its chocolates so the fact that they were darkly sumptuous was a good sign. I left feeling elated. It had been an exceptional meal for a reasonable price.

On the other hand, Song Qi is a disappointment. Our second visit was over dinner. Our green velour seats made us queasy as we browsed the dinner menu with prices rising to 98 euros and the wine list with prices breaking into five figures. Over kobe beef shumai and Chilean seabass dumplings, we watched a couple on the next table make out in full view of other diners (suddenly the gold poles reminded us of a pole-dancing club). We collected our flagging spirits over crispy Peking duck pancakes and a glass or two of Chambolle-Musigny red wine, followed by a melting molten-chocolate dessert. While my head confirmed Song Qi as one of my favourite addresses in Monaco, my heart still left feeling deflated and a couple of hundred euros poorer.

Back home, I reflected upon my dining oxymoron. I first met Alan Yau two decades ago through a family friend. He had just set up his third Wagamama branch in London. His reasonably-priced dining concept had taken London by storm. The concept was simple: fine fusion cuisine combined with laid-back communal dining for fast-food prices. Finally Londoners could eat like an emperor outside China Town for under £10. Working on tight profit margins, Yau made money through the crowds of diners that queued around the street to get into his restaurants. I tried out his Bloomsbury branch and have been a loyal fan every since.

It dawns upon me that the problem is not the legendary Yau. I could quote Alain Ducasse where main courses range up to 160 Euros or Joël Robuchon with royal spiny lobster for 162 euros. The problem lies with nighttime dining in Monaco. Internationally-renowned chefs such as Ducasse, Robuchon and Yau are famed for the quality of their ingredients and the meticulousness of their preparation. The profit margins on their lunch menus must be slim so they rely on the heavy dinner pricing to make a decent profit. And these are just the top names. With some notable exceptions, night-time dining in Monaco follows a familiar trajectory: overpriced or mediocre. The principality has created a dining dichotomy between golden-chequebook fine dining and cheap kiosks where you struggle to find anything but frozen pizza or a tired tuna salad. The pricing of rents in Monaco stops creativity in its tracks.

Where are the up-and-coming chefs that flourish a few miles away in Nice where low rents furnish talent and encourage inventiveness? Monaco is perhaps a victim of its own success. Our beloved principality is as popular as ever. Property prices in Monaco continue to rise, while those in neighboring France continue to fall. This is the right time for Monaco to dream up new ways to entice young and talented chefs here. How about a bi-annual competition for up-and-coming chefs where the prize could consist of a ten-year rent subsidy?  I’d welcome your ideas.

In the meantime, I urge you to book for lunch at Song Qi as soon as you can before the crowds start lining up around the street.

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