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Paris When It Sizzles

Paris When It Sizzles

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Palace Hotels Lead the Way in Haute Cuisine

The French hotel ranking system is an eccentric one, and among both locals and seasoned travelers to Paris, designations like stars and diamonds do not qualify as currency. When discussing the top accommodations in Paris only one category matters, that of the "palace hôtel"—a class reserved for the pedigreed likes of the Ritz, the Crillon, the Meurice, the Plaza Athénée, the Bristol, and the Four Seasons Hotel George V. According to the Dictionnaire Historique de la Langue Française, the English-French phrase was coined in 1903 to refer to the extravagant hotels that were then emerging to satisfy the influx of well-heeled British tourists. Today the category no longer refers to novelty, but instead denotes a sense of history and an exquisite degree of refinement. Though there is no formal membership or qualifying process, everyone seems to agree that these six compose the rarified top tier of lodgings in the City of Light, a height so exalted that it justifies the continued use of this special, century-old term.

But as legendary interior designer Pierre-Yves Rochon once pointed out over dinner at Le Cinq—the restaurant he created for his masterpiece, the Four Seasons Hotel George V, in 1999—Parisians have long cultivated an aversion to hotel dining, no matter how beautiful the setting. Hotel dining was never "in the education of the French," Rochon said. There were far too many spectacular options to sample beyond the hotel doors, an embarras de richesse. More recently he explained to Lexus that "from an operating principle, quality is always a challenge" when a hotel is charged with serving three meals a day. But a new sensibility has emerged, in part prompted by the unprecedented success of the George V, considered by some to be the world's finest hotel, and its gastronomic crown jewel, Le Cinq.— Drew Limsky

FOUR SEASONS HOTEL GEORGE V

When billionaire Saudi Prince Al-Waleed bought this legendary Art Deco hotel in 1997 and tapped the revered Four Seasons company to redo and manage it, Parisians were apprehensive. This was the George V, after all, which, despite being in serious need of a makeover, had been a beloved haunt of European society since it opened in 1928. The sniffing stopped when the two-year, $125 million facelift was unveiled in 1999: the finest features had been restored, the guest rooms enlarged, and the art collection expanded; important amenities (pool, spa, highspeed Internet) were now in place. The 10,000 to 14,000 fresh flowers delivered each week become monumental displays in the hands of innovative florist Jeff Leatham.

AT THE TABLE

Anyone who says that French cuisine has lost its luster has not dined at Le Cinq. Rather than revert to fail-safe classics, or misstep with the avant-garde, chef Philippe Legendre lets pristine seasonal ingredients guide him; his dishes are lovely to look at, and they explode with freshness and flavor. The watercress soup studded with Sevruga and the roast venison with chocolate almond and green apple chutney are standouts. From the first amuse bouche (offered even at breakfast) to the last homemade marshmallow, this is modern French food at its finest, served in a spectacular antique-filled room.

ENTRE NOUS

Four Seasons likes to pull a chef from within the ranks when they open a new hotel, but for the debut of the George V, they wanted a chef emblematic of the hotel’s grandeur. They found him at the then three Michelin–starred Taillevent. At Le Cinq, Legendre earned three stars each year from 1999 to 2003; he lost one in 2007. But never mind what Michelin thinks: it's hard to imagine food more flavorful than the fricassee of Dublin Bay prawns with lasagna and aged Parmesan, or a room more refined than this show place created by designer Pierre-Yves Rochon. Many restaurants could learn from Le Cinq's service staff, poised perfectly between professional and playful. (www.fourseasons.com/paris) —Julie Mautner

HÔTEL LE BRISTOL

With the discreet atmosphere of a plush private home, the 161-room Bristol—opened in 1925, with a refurbishment completed in 2007—captivates with quiet European elegance. Persian carpets, Gobelin tapestries, and 18th century antiques create a serious, sophisticated air, while guest rooms are large and beautifully lit, with lush fabrics and pristine Carrara marble baths. The sixth-floor pool and vast courtyard garden make this a world-class hideaway. A new wing of guest rooms is slated to open in 2009.

AT THE TABLE

Two-star chef Eric Frechon looks to France's evolving culinary culture for inspiration, giving classic dishes a modern spin. When it comes to the signatures of haute cuisine— lobster, foie gras, caviar, truffles—his budget for delicacies seems limitless. It's all served up on gold-rimmed Limoges by a battalion of bilingual servers. Cheeses and desserts are superb and the wine cellar ranks among the finest in France. In summer the tables set in the garden are among the most coveted.

ENTRE NOUS

The 44-year-old Frechon has impressive credentials—Taillevent, Tour d'Argent, the Crillon, and his own restaurant—and he takes pride in such signature dishes as rack and saddle of suckling lamb with turmeric-cooked carrots and chick pea purée. For those who want to eat late, light, or in casual fashion, the bar offers an all-day menu of light meals. (www.lebristolparis.com) —Julie Mautner

HÔTEL LE MEURICE

Located on Rue de Rivoli, Adjacent to the Tuileries Garden, the Meurice, which dates from 1835, has all the trappings of grandeur-mosaic floors, ornate chandeliers, a fresco of Fontainebleau in the bar. Dubbed the "hotel of kings and queens," it truly was: guests included Queen Victoria and the Maharajah of Jaipur. Among the Louis XVI–style rooms, the aspirational jackpot is surely the Belle Etoile penthouse, with its 3,200-square-foot terrace overlooking the Tuileries and the distinctive mansard roofs of Paris.

AT THE TABLE

Chef Yannick Alléno, at 38, garnered his third Michelin star in February 2007. The consensus is that he's a superb chef who creates flawless iterations of the French classics (like roasted veal sweetbreads or Bresse chicken served four ways) with just enough of a maverick spirit to keep things lively (such as a little Japanese yuzu with a classic chocolate dessert). Alléno refers to Le Dali, the hotel’s more casual restaurant as his "playground." Everything from sensible soups to total indulgences are on the menu.

ENTRE NOUS

The grand rooms of the Michelin-starred Restaurant le Meurice have just been relooké, as current Franglais slang would have it. Designer Philippe Starck has done a brilliant job of letting light and air into all the hotel's public spaces, while respecting the historical classification that prevented him from changing certain design elements. The crowning touch: a ceiling mural by the designer's daughter, Ara. (www.lemeurice.com) —Anne Glusker

HÔTEL PLAZA ATHÉNÉE

Dripping with chic and set opposite Louis Vuitton and Christian Dior on Avenue Montaigne, the Plaza Athénée, built in 1867 and inaugurated as a hotel in 1911, is sashaying confidently toward its centenary. Its aristocratic architecture—a happy mix of Louis XVI, Regency, and Art Deco—was refreshed with verve at the turn of the 21st century.

AT THE TABLE

Alain Ducasse's restaurants (which have earned 13 Michelin stars in all) are about the impeccable transmission of the master's impeccable techniques. Chef Christophe Moret runs the stoves at Alain Ducasse au Plaza Athénée, turning out exquisite, seasonal, playful cuisine. The "jokes" are delightful: scallops are dressed in a curry sauce that refers, sublimely, to French Antilles flavor. Enjoy the festive, crystal-bejeweled dining room while seated on a Regency-style Corian chair with pull-out handbag shelf. ENTRE NOUS In tune with the hotel's fashionable reinvention, the old reverent hush has been swept away. Today the clientele is arty-establishment and sleekly corporate by day, glossily stealthwealth by night. These insouciant spenders wouldn’t have been seen dead here pre-Ducasse, when the menu, venue, and service were preserved in 19th-century aspic. (www.plaza-athenee-paris.com) —Sophie Dening

HÔTEL DE CRILLON

In 1758, French king Louis XV commissioned architect Jacques- Ange Gabriel to design two magnificent limestone buildings to overlook the Place de la Concorde, the magical square that serves as the open-air salon of Paris. Today one of these sumptuous mansions is the Hôtel de Crillon; its guest rooms boast elaborate moldings, spacious marble bathrooms, and exquisite 18th century–style French furniture upholstered in the finest silks.

AT THE TABLE

With its fanciful 18th-century frescoes depicting cherubim constructing the hotel, and tuxedoed waiters performing a minuet of service worthy of a court dance, Les Ambassadeurs counts as one of the city's most opulent dining rooms. Somewhat unexpectedly, Les Ambassadeurs also serves some of the most avant-garde haute cuisine in Paris today, including dishes like a deconstructed, two-course "paella."

ENTRE NOUS

Chef Jean-François Piège, 34, is probably the most talented and original of all the chefs trained by star chef Alain Ducasse, which is why Ducasse handpicked him to be head chef in his eponymous restaurant at the Hotel Plaza Athénée. Piège decamped to the two-star Les Ambassadeurs in 2004, and his arrival as head chef continues the Hôtel de Crillon's audacious tradition of gastronomic innovation. (www.crillon.com) —Alexander Lobrano

HÔTEL RITZ

Upon arrival, you discover what la vie en rose smells like—the Ritz's special ambre fragrance is subtly diffused throughout the hotel by blotting paper placed in its ventilation system. The message: when you arrive at this Place Vendôme property, which was opened by legendary Swiss hotelier César Ritz in 1898, you do so on a cloud of perfume. Spectacular suites are named after famous guests, including Coco Chanel, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, and Ernest Hemingway. All rooms feature such signature comforts as bedside lamps with hand-stitched, tulipshaped, peach silk shades that were designed by Ritz himself to cast his guests in the world's most flattering light.

AT THE TABLE

With its trompe l'oeil ceiling of fluffy clouds floating in a cerulean sky, and windows dressed in heavy fringed yellow silk, L'Espadon breathes Old World luxury even before the tuxedo-wearing waiter arrives with a silent trolley of champagne on crushed ice. This dark horse of a restaurant serves traditional French haute cuisine, and while foie gras and truffles may rule, chef Michel Roth insists that "Haute cuisine can be healthy." Dishes like his grilled scallops with leek ravioli and baby leeks prove just how deliciously right he is.

ENTRE NOUS

The fact that L'Espadon has just one Michelin star invariably comes up during a typically brilliant meal here. Roth, a modest man who is obsessed by the quality of the produce he uses, isn't bothered by the guide's capriciousness. "The reason our foreign clients are willing to sit in airplanes for hours is because they want to eat traditional French cooking at its very best," he rightly says. Having worked at the Ritz twice in his career, this winner of the Meilleur Ouvrier de France (the highest national award bestowed on a chef) knows of what he speaks. (www.ritzparis.com) —Alexander Lobrano

HAUTE HOTEL CUISINE AROUND THE WORLD

The Big Apple has achieved the hotel dining trifecta with the opening of Alain Ducasse's Adour (www.alain-ducasse.com) in the opulent, long-shuttered space in the St. Regis that used to house the esteemed Lespinasse. Ducasse's David Rockwell–designed eatery joins two other hot off-the-lobby venues in midtown. The intimate Atelier de Joël Robuchon at the Four Seasons Hotel (www.fourseasons.com), designed by Pierre-Yves Rochon, opened in 2007 to replace the former 5757. Diners feast on roast Japanese hangar steak with sautéed shallots at one of 20 coveted counter seats or at one of the few table seats overlooking the open kitchen. Just blocks away, the Ritz-Carlton Central has debuted BLT Market (www.bltmarket.com), where noted chef Laurent Tourondel oversees daily blackboard specials served in a country French setting.

LAGUNA BEACH

It's a tasting festival at Stonehill Tavern in the palatial St. Regis Resort Monarch Beach, where exalted San Francisco chef Michael Mina dazzles with dishes like lobster, scallops, and tuna, each prepared three ways. (www.stregismb.com)

LONDON

Claridge's new specialty suites designed by Linley—some traditional, some Art Deco, others an eclectic blend of the two styles—have renewed this palace hotel's relevance. For fine cuisine, Gordon Ramsay has no peer, as he delights with such dishes as pan-fried fillets of lemon sole with almonds. Enjoy them in a space freshly updated by Thierry Despont. (www.claridges.co.uk)

SYDNEY

The Establishment Hotel's casually elegant est. is still the hottest table in town, as chef Peter Doyle scores with such mains as steamed Murray cod fillet on sand crab, chives, cucumber, and squid ink capellini. Doyle wins raves for his modern Australian cuisine served in a white, iron-columned dining room. (www.luxehotels.com) —D.L.

Reprinted Courtesy of Lexus Magazine

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