�The PS Industry� � a 92-year-old paddle steam-cruiser. The Crillon Experience

CHANDLER BURR, the UpperCrust's New York-based food and travel writer, visits Paris' Crillon Hotel, a 5-star palace of luxury and a temple of French cuisine.

There 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.

I'm 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.

The thing 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.

From 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.

Our 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.

When 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 for dinner.

The Crillon
10, Place de la Concorde 75008
Tel. 33 (0) 1 44 71 15 01
Fax 33 (0) 1 44 71 15 03

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