are hotels, and then there are mythic hotels. I ride my bright
red scooter through Paris, down the Champs Elysees, past the
Rond Point just beside the Seine. I buzz past the Tuileries
Gardens (the Louvre in the background), glimpse the majestic
Madeleine, and head in the direction of the flag in front
of the American Embassy. I park in front of a palace built
when Louis XV commissioned architect Jacques-Ange Gabriel
in 1758 to create one of the most magnificent facades in Paris
and bought in 1788 by the Count de Crillon. This is the Crillon
Hotel, a 5-star palace of luxury and a temple of French cuisine.
And when you're staying in a hotel that you enter by walking
in off the Place de la Concorde, that is a mythic hotel.
here for a meal in the restaurant Les Ambassadeurs, and to
get the full feel of the Crillon experience I'm staying the
night. Which means the first Crillon experience, checking
in at a Louis XV desk (with a 2004 computer on it) and then
being escorted to a room in which one could comfortably land
a small plane. During check-in, I meet an exquisitely lovely
German woman dressed entirely in Chanel, blond hair perfectly
coifed. This is Franka Holtmann, the hotel's general manager.
On the job since September 2003 (after five years at the Ritz
in Paris), Franka is actually the first female GM of a 5-star
hotel in history. It's quite a job; the luxury hotel sector
in Paris is intensely competitive, and yet she manages this
masterfully. We discuss Chef Jean-François Piège , to whom
Franka has decided to entrust the hotel's gastronomic restaurant
and whose cuisine I will try later.
about Jean-François Piège is that he originally
wanted to be a gardener. He's from the Drôme region
of south-eastern France, known for the quality of its fresh
produce, "And as a child," says Piège, age 34, "I would help my
great uncle do the gardening. I loved having that kind of
relation to food: being able to say, 'I grew it, and now I'm
eating it!'" He's had the typically peripatetic career of the
professional chef, ranging from time at a ski resort to a
stint in the kitchens of the French presidential palace, a
(previous) position at the Hotel Crillon under Christian Constant,
learning the art and technique of hotel cuisine, and then
Monte Carlo, under Alain Ducasse.
Now, he's back at the Crillon as a major player in Paris.
Travel & Leisure magazine recently wrote, "Paris hotels
are hitching themselves to celebrity chefs faster than the
guides can deal out stars," and they've put Piège name
on the front of the menu and he's fortunate to have a completely
redesigned stage in which to work. As I enter via the Winter
Garden Tea Room with its garden-like feel and take my seat,
I can see the vast change that has been made here. This room
is not all that large, but it has a hugely spacious feel given
its vast ceiling height, and gone now are the heavy dark blue
curtains that used to cover its tall windows. You'll never
be able to change the fact that the decor will always be ornate
(it has, someone said, more marble and gilt cherubs than a
cathedral). But actually the Baroque atmosphere is fun, and
the champagne-coloured curtains lighten everything, with beige
lamp shades that reflect the lighter colors of the marbles.
my table I can see the traffic on the Place de la Concorde,
plus any number of well-dressed Parisians and their foreign
lunch companions. We get down to business. I'm not ordering;
I'm letting Piège send me his creations as he sees fit. We
start with Osetra Caviar and Langoustines (which, I should
mention, is 100 Euros). It is served on a liquid white sauce
that contains the fragrance of the ocean, yet that fragrance
is muted; this is not strong seafood but rather a delicately
light dish that uses seafood ingredients. Next is a creation
made of the flesh of "sea spider," a large crab-like crustacean,
in a frothly emulsion of Manni olive oil. The froth is amazing,
as if the crab had suddenly exploded and generated this foam.
He finishes this dish off with a lemon basil sauce that gives
a tang to the crab taste.
third course is called in French Blanc 'Manger D'oeuf, and
it is, honestly, a little strange. Essentially this is a very
light, whipped mousse of egg as light as a cloud. Piège
puts in girolles, very expensive mushrooms, and uses a ciboulette
oil to finish, and the result is like eating, well, cloud.
An odd sensation. But then he changes gears and sends out
an Homard Bleu, a blue lobster, on Spaghetti Carbonara (again,
note that this dish costs 95 Euros). Blue lobsters come from
Brittany, and the delicate taste is terrific with the Italian-style
pasta, which is tumbled together in the various tastes of
the light carbonara sauce. The last dish is a young lamb from
the Limousin region of France, with herbs, eggplant, and parmesan
cheese. The meat course: it is always surprising how much
richer than seafood red meat is, and this is no exception,
the herbs and cheese bringing out a heavier, more filling
feeling to this dish. The herbs are quintessentially French;
you can taste the mountains and the air, and it's a mixture
that isn't Italian.
I almost can't lift a fork at this point, but then he sends
out the dessert. This, I must admit as I taste it, is perhaps
my favorite part of the whole meal, a cluster of wild strawberries
hidden under a cloud of cotton candy. The strawberries are
sweet and tangy and fruity, the cotton candy even sweeter
and melting in the mouth.
after lunch Piège sits down at my table and talks with
me about his cuisine, he proves to be a very practical guy.
His approach is simple: Use the full flavour of the raw materials,
and if you can, make sure that the diner's memories will be
triggered, making the dish richer and more layered. He's very
precise: "Sometimes you cook at high heat, sometimes at low,
simply depending on the flavour you want to create in the
products," he says. He uses only the best products; that Manni
olive oil is one of the most expensive in the world; Piège
has one of the waiters brings some out, pours a small amount
on a plate, and has me taste. It tastes as smooth as velvet.
He's quite happy to be here at the Crillon, he says, a place
where a French chef can truly exercise his culinary arts to
the fullest degree. Although, he admits, the job keeps him
rather busy. And then he's gone, back to the kitchen to prep
10, Place de la Concorde 75008
Tel. 33 (0) 1 44 71 15 01
Fax 33 (0) 1 44 71 15 03