A well-traveled friend once shared a bit of advice. When visiting one of the great cities of Europe, go to the top hotel in town for a drink. Whether it's a cosseted bar or lobby lounge, you're assured of the ultimate in European style.
Europe's grand hotels occupy a special and time-honored place in continental society. They are a gathering place for the elite of commerce, arts and politics, as the palaces of the aristocrats once were. In fact, many of these establishments once were those palaces. The hereditary monarchs are largely gone, but their architectural legacy of opulence lives on in these bastions of privilege. For the price of a cocktail or espresso, you are afforded a glimpse into society that most tourists never see.
On a recent trip to Paris, I modified my friend's advice and chose to eat at the grand hotels. I found a feast for all the senses, with the extraordinary cuisine and unsurpassed service the capital of haute cuisine has to offer.
Epicure at Le Bristol
The lavish Le Bristol hotel steps from the Elysee Palace served as a setting for Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris, and its three-Michelin-starred Epicure is considered one of the top restaurants of the world. Elegant couples and well-dressed families filled the bright dining room flooded with sun from the courtyard garden when I arrived for Sunday lunch. The first course, a checkerboard of stuffed macaroni with black truffle, artichoke and duck foie gras is one of chef Eric Frechon's signature dishes. A superb fish course followed, a pillow of whiting with almonds and spinach flavored with curry and pequillo pepper. For dessert, a trio of chocolate consisted of chocolate mousse in a cocoa pod, with chocolate sorbet infused with lemongrass.
Le Cinq at George V
Sophisticated and imperial, the Four Seasons George V is one of the grand hotels of Europe. The soaring ceilings and resplendent floral displays of the marble lobby set the mood of Old World opulence. You pass through Le Galerie, the lounge adorned with rich tapestries, lacquered cabinets and art objects to reach the Michelin-starred Le Cinq. Golden light suffuses the dining room, slender columns as exclamation points alongside floor to ceiling windows that open onto the hotel's courtyard. Aristocrats of an ancien regime gaze from outsize oil portraits on the prandial gathering of grandees below them. Staff in formal vestments circulate like vicars in a High Church of Gastronomy, with ritual, reverence and paraphernalia, elaborate enameled carts their monstrances offering wine, cheese and pastries for adoration and consumption.
Christian Le Squer's menu employs classic French culinary techniques with newer, lighter cooking styles and fresh regional ingredients. A starter of scallops with litchi and sea urchin preceded an exquisite entree of structured spaghetti with lobster, truffles and cepe mushrooms. Crunchy grapefruit sorbet made a delectable and refreshing dessert.
20th Century history on the menu at The Peninsula
The Peninsula Hotel offers a course in Twentieth Century history along with food, eye-popping Belle Époque interiors and more gilding than you can shake a goldbeaters skin at. White uniformed bellmen greet you in a grand lobby dominated by a chandelier whose eight hundred hand-blown crystal leaves nearly touch the floor. The hotel was formerly known as the Majestic and this is where George Gershwin wrote "An American in Paris." What is now the clubby Kleber Bar is adorned with a painting of a larger than life peacock, and in the 1970s Henry Kissinger strutted here to broker the Paris Peace Accords ending the Vietnam War.
The rooftop restaurant, L'Oiseau Blanc (the White Bird), is named for the French biplane that disappeared while attempting the first trans-Atlantic crossing and was never heard from again, a la Amelia Earhart. A replica perches outside on a bearing headed for the Eiffel Tower. Bistro-inspired fare including scallops from Morlaix's bay, and the glorious views of the Eiffel Tower, make this an unsurpassed romantic dining spot.
Starck Follies at Raffles
Philippe Starck's playful, bold interiors tickle the senses at the luxurious Le Royal Monceau-Raffles. In place of a hotel gift shop, the Royal Eclaireur, part luxe boutique, part gallery, offers a unique collection of curated clothes, jewelry, art and design objects.
The hotel's Michelin-starred Italian, Il Carpaccio, an intimate, tented dining room with garden views, was celebrating their white truffle festival when I dined. Superb beef carpaccio preceded a pasta course, all topped with shaved white truffles. The server tossed tagliolini in a wheel of aged parmesan tableside. For dessert, a perfect panna cotta by pastry superstar Pierre Hermé.
Orchids, Opera and Park-Hyatt
The stunning Park Hyatt Paris-Vendôme occupies a coveted location on the prestigious Rue de la Paix, within walking distance of the Place Vendome and Place de l'Opera. Close to fashionable shops, home to sceney Le Bar and sexy Les Orchidées lounge with a cozy fireplace, it's a favorite for Paris fashion shows attendees. You're guaranteed a first-class crowd as well as first-class cuisine at Le Pur, the Michelin starred restaurant featuring modern French gastronomy. A maritime starter of scallops with sesame seeds and citrus balanced the earthy entrée of venison with red cabbage, gingerbread and chestnuts. Caramel chocolate cake finished the repast.
Speaking of fashion, someone told me about the 5-star Le Burgundy hotel, a stylish little gem around the corner from Coco Chanel's famous shop on Rue Cambon and close to the Louvre. Three uniformed bell-hops were dancing in synch when I arrived. It was for a fashion video shoot, not for me, and it was entirely in tune with the contemporary lobby and the up-to-the-minute vibe of the entire place. The Michelin-starred Le Baudelaire presents a seasonal menu of contemporary French gourmet cuisine in a stylish intimate dining room with interior patio. Chef Pierre Rigothier has creative flair and a weakness for the finest ingredients, seen in the starters of Scottish scallop topped with lemon marmalade and black sesame; and Petrossian caviar with mussels, shellfish emulsion and leek. We came onshore for the main course, venison cooked to pink perfection in a red wine sauce. Roasted fig with salted caramel and almond milk ice cream showcased the able hand and exalted taste buds of pastry chef Julien Chamblas.
Lunch in an ocean liner
Le Relais Plaza, a chic and popular art deco brasserie at the Hotel Plaza Athénée on posh Avenue Montaigne, is an exact copy of the dining room on the legendary 1935 ocean liner, S.S. Normandie. It has long been a favorite of actors, artists and musicians. Marlene Dietrich, Sophia Loren, Ava Gardner, Jackie O, Liz Taylor and Richard Burton are among the glitterati whose photos adorn the wall.
The restaurant's charismatic and charming director Werner Kuchler is a legend in his own right. He recounts being befriended by Marlene Dietrich on one of his first days on the job, lo those many decades ago. Still green and awed by this proximity to celebrity, he asked how she enjoyed her dinner of beef bourguignon. "It was fine," she replied, "but mine is better." She made it a habit of bringing young Werner her home-cooking in Tupperware containers. He said she was a good cook - and it taught him that stars are really no different than the rest of us.
Le Relais Plaza captures this combination of casual and sophistication, and so does chef Philippe Marc's inventive cuisine. Lunch began with a salad of king crab, celery root and granny smith apples - a killer app(etizer). Cod with shrimp, shellfish and chick peas in a sauce of green herbs and fish stock followed. A heavenly lemon citrus mint sorbet provided a palate-cleansing finish for the feast.
Le Relais transforms into a musical soiree the last Wednesday of the month, with Werner crooning standards to the accompaniment of piano or jazz band.
On my way out the door, the debonair Parisian said come back soon and then, with a voice soft as velvet, sang a few bars of Je Ne Regrette Rien.
Tens of thousands of calories later, at the conclusion of the moving and movable feast that is Paris, I can say I regret nothing.