The Taste With Vir: Paris may be among the world’s most expensive cities but with great chefs and cutting edge designers, the French have much to offer
I am always a little scared of going to Paris. I don’t know if it is psychological but in my mind, Paris is the world’s most expensive city. Everything costs a lot. The taxis can be even more expensive than London’s and they are harder to find. Good restaurants can cost a fortune. The labour laws make it expensive to run a high-quality establishment so, despite sky-high prices, most three-star restaurants don’t make much money ---- they are relieved if they can break even.
I wondered, as I sat down to write this, if Paris hotels are really as expensive as I imagined. So, I did an internet search for rates on Monday 21 October. The Bristol, one of nicest hotels in Paris, offered its cheapest room at Rs 1.07 lakh. The Royal Monceau (with rooms designed by Philippe Starck) started at Rs. 88,000 and went up. In contrast, The Ritz in London offered rooms at Rs. 49,000 per night while the Paris Ritz (different owners and a marginally grander property) sold its cheapest room at Rs 87,000. Even within the big chains, there were variations. The Park Hyatt in Paris was at least 10 per cent more expensive than New York’s much grander Park Hyatt, the group’s flagship property.
There are cheaper hotels, of course. The four-star Hilton Opera will cost Rs. 25,358. The Westin will set you back Rs 30,000. But even these are hardly inexpensive. And so, I try and steer clear of Paris and its hotels.
As is true of many European cities, rooms can be tiny. When my son was small, I took him to Disneyland Paris. On our way there we stopped overnight at the Meridien Etoile (Rs. 21,000 on Monday ) and the room was so small that there was room for either us or for our suitcases.
It’s always hard to find a decent room in Paris at a reasonable price. I have stayed in a good-sized room (but not much service) at the four-star Hotel Banke (Rs 30,000) near the big department stores, which is a conversion of an old bank. (Hence the name.)
And this time I was intrigued to stay at the one-year-old Hotel Brach, a small but central hotel (just 55 rooms) designed by Philippe Starck. I was not sure what to expect because while Starck made his reputation in the 1980s with New York’s Royalton, his next hotel for the same company (Morgan’s run by Ian Schrager) went for a different look.
Starck invented the design style of today’s modern hip hotels, all dim lighting, dark colours, designer lobbies, bespoke furniture etc. His style has been copied and adapted so often (most famously by Jacques Garcia at Paris’s Hotel Costes) that it is hard to tell whether a hotel has been designed by Starck or an imitator.
Post-New York, Starck has changed track. The Royal Monceau (run by Raffles) in Paris is as idiosyncratic a design as, say, the Royalton (there are acoustic guitars in the suites!) but it is much cheerier. So when I heard that Starck had designed Brach, as a small intimate space at lower room rates than his usual properties, I was intrigued. (Brach costs Rs 30,000 or so. The Royal Monceau is around Rs 80-85,000.)
As it turned out, I was hugely impressed, both by the hotel and by Starck’s new aesthetic. Black is out. Bright is in. The rooms have lots of light, both from the sun (during the day) and from the numerous fittings. The furniture is comfortable and there are no awkward elements: no light switches you can’t find, no fiddly shower settings, etc.
I liked the little touches. The minibars were full, not just with the usual drinks but with small bottles of pre-mixed cocktails and loads of food from protein bars to unusual crisps to chocolates. Near the top of each wall was a rack packed out with pictures, art objects etc.
It was a significant departure from the style that made Starck famous and I imagine it will also be as widely copied as the original.
I liked the public spaces too. The restaurant was always full of Paris trendies but it had a relaxed, unhurried air to it with soft furnishings and shelves full of books. The lobby (on the first floor) opened out to a large terrace with armchairs and tables where you could get service. And most spectacular of all was a terrace garden with terrific views of Paris where they also grew vegetables. I saw a chicken coop near the tomato trees so I imagine that they have no difficulty in making a good coq au vin.
Most surprising of all was the service: friendly, warm, efficient and gracious. This is not something you associate with hip hotels. If you are in the hospitality business, you should check out Brach. It is at least ten years ahead of anything we have in India.
I ate twice at the Brach restaurant (they kept tables for hotel guests though it was always packed). The food comes from a trendy open kitchen, is North African-influenced and can be hit and miss. For instance, it was never clear to me why they destroyed a perfectly good Morrocan-style tenderloin tartare by dousing it in truffle oil. Surely truffle oil is not an essential ingredient in North African cuisine?
Because I had time for only two proper meals in Paris, I thought I would go to the oldest and the newest restaurants I could find.
The oldest was easy. Bofinger is a 134-year-old brasserie in the Marais district and claims to be the oldest continuously-running brasserie in the world. It has three different areas including the main room with a magnificent dome and though it is huge, it seems to be always full.
Most foodie destinations in Paris are full of camera-phone wielding Chinese and other tourists but because Bofinger is outside the centre (in the Marais district), few foreign tourists venture there, despite its fame. At least ¾ of the guests were French and some seemed to be regulars. (It’s not family-run or anything, though. Since 1996, Bofinger has been owned by Jean-Paul Bucher who has also bought La Coupole and many other historic Paris restaurants.)
Bofinger has some specialities. Regulars order the onion soup and so did I. But I found it kind of pheeka and a huge cheese-heavy crouton unbalanced the soup. The Alsatian choucroute is famous. The dish consists of sausages and other kinds of pork products on a bed of cabbage and the Bofinger version is pretty much a classic. My dessert, another brasserie standby, the Floating Island, was also made in the classic style to a very high standard.
Bofinger is a Paris experience. But going once is enough.
The newest significant restaurant in Paris was harder to find. Yannick Alleno is one of France’s most celebrated chefs. He has had three stars since 2007 when he was at the Hotel Meurice. In 2014, he took over Ledoyen, a famous Paris institution in the gardens off the Champs-Élysées and Michelin gave him three stars again. In 2018, he opened a small sushi counter in the Ledoyen building and within six months, that got a Michelin star too.
On October 7, he opened Pavyllon, a counter-seating restaurant in the same Ledoyen building. When French chefs have experimented with counter-seating (as many of them did after Joel Robuchon opened his first L’Atelier), they have generally treated the counter outlets as places for simple food. (Though L’Atelier in Hong Kong mysteriously has three stars: the one time I went there, it was one-star food at best.)
Alleno’s place is more ambitious. He uses the chefs from his main restaurants and the service staff are told to conform to the standards of the main Ledoyen. Prices can be low (the cheap lunch is under 100 euro) or they can be high (a sprinkling of white-truffles on your cheese soufflé can cost 94 euro); it is really up to you.
I had no idea that the restaurant was opening when I asked my friend Bruce Palling, the British-Australian food and travel expert, to recommend a place for lunch in Paris. Bruce suggested Ledoyen and connected me to Alleno’s assistant. She wrote back to say that though the main restaurant was not open for lunch on the one day when I was free, they were about to open Pavyllon. Would I like to eat there instead?
I said yes and so, a week after the restaurant opened and before the reviews had appeared, I found myself at the counter. There had been little publicity, only word of mouth and the other guests were largely French people who were regulars at Ledoyen.
From the very beginning, the service was clearly patterned on the main three-star restaurant. I had a glass of champagne as an aperitif and the sommelier came to the table with a bowl of small kalamata olives and an empty plate. He had found, he said, that this champagne (Pierre Peters, Blanc de Blancs) went well with Parmigiano and olives. He then brought over a huge block of cheese and, with a sharp knife, scraped layers of Parmigiano on to the plate. (Yes, it was a perfect combination.)
I ordered one of the set menus (in France, this is usually better value than a la carte) with the wine pairing. The sommelier re-appeared and said that there was no set pairing. He spoke to each guest and then chose the wines. What kind of wine did I like? I explained that when I talk to sommeliers at his level, I don’t waste time showing off and discussing my taste in wines. I always put myself in the sommelier‘s hands and ask him to surprise me with wines I don’t know.
He did just that and served several unfamiliar wines (a sweet wine from Cyprus, a dry wine from the Tokai region of Hungary which is better known for sweet wine, a wine made in tiny quantities by Chapoutier in the Rhone valley for Alleno etc.) all of which he discussed in detail.
The food was outstanding. Intensely flavoured pigeon, fresh mullet, a delicate salmon tart, a warm Comte cheese soufflé with cubes of foie gras, a brilliant pistachio dessert and more. Throughout the meal, they kept up a steady stream of vegetable tempura (made with different kinds of mushroom, artichokes etc.) that were crisp and delicious.
Later, at the end of the meal, when I chatted with Alleno, he said he was pleased with the tempura idea (his own, I presume) because it was important to have vegetables in the meal but he did not want to do them as side dishes. As for the food, well, he had tried to simplify his cuisine, but...
I loved the experience. In any case, I love sitting at a counter in front of an open kitchen. I liked it when Alleno’s chefs came up and explained each dish. (Though many of them did not speak English so the French guests were at an advantage.)
Will the food remain this good? At present, it is better than one star and near two stars in quality. But this is the opening team. Alleno was there himself. The chef from the Japanese restaurant was at the pass and so was one of Alleno’s most senior chefs who had formerly run his Dubai restaurant. The desserts were overseen by the group’s Corporate Pastry Chef. The real test will come when the big guns move on.
But one star is assured in the next Michelin. And as the food stabilises, another should follow.
It’s a breakthrough for counter dining in France.
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