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An Evening to Remember at the Restaurant d'Hiver, Le Hôtel Bristol -- Paris

The evening was imbued with the sense of visiting the childhood home of a friend who had long since moved away. How many were the times when we celebrated some special event at La Caravelle (one of New York's great French restaurants that sadly closed in 2008), when proprietor André Jammet would stop by our table and end up reminiscing about the Parisian hotel where he was born. And now, here we were at the 18th century palace that his grandfather had opened as Le Hôtel Bristol in 1925.

It was a brilliant, starry night on the rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré, and the brilliance continued into the gilded and creamy marble lobby of the hotel that sparkled with the light of Baccarat chandeliers reflected in wooden floors polished to a mirror-like glow. Directly ahead was the dining room, as oval as an egg, and tall and wide as a ballroom, its richly paneled walls adorned with antique tapestries and fronted with spectacular floral displays. It was the kind of grandeur the French manage so well, and of a piece -- with Louis XV chairs upholstered in deep rose brocade and draperies of silky topaz gracing ceiling-high windows.

All of which contributed to an ambience well suited to the Restaurant d'Hiver or Restaurant of the Winter. (In the warmer months, the dining scene moves to the Restaurant d'Eté or Restaurant of the Summer which looks out to the fountained, flower-filled garden at the heart of the hotel.) At its helm is the gifted and voluble chef from Normandy, Eric Fréchon, who had worked in Le Bristol's kitchen very early on in his career. Subsequently he honed his craft at other restaurants in France and one in Spain, eventually moving up to such stellar destinations as La Tour d’Argent and Les Ambassadeurs in the nearby Hôtel de Crillon. But ultimately, Eric Fréchon returned full circle to where he began and, in the process, led Le Bristol to its third Michelin star. That it was the only restaurant elevated to the exalted status in 2009 only adds to the distinction.

In contemplating what makes a restaurant worthy of the third star, one would, of necessity, have to begin with the menu and its execution. Le Bristol's "Table d'Hiver" lists traditional French courses like duck foie gras served in a wrap with smoked oysters, braised veal sweetbreads with dried fennel, and a Bresse hen cooked in a bladder with crayfish and black truffles (for two). But there is a contemporary twist in the emphasis on the releasing of natural flavors; a fresh approach to the combination of ingredients, to their infusion with spices and fresh herbs; what appears to be a purity of preparation with many dishes pan- fried, or roasted, or grilled "a la plancha" (like the excellent scallops). There is a simplicity in the offerings: five meat and five fish dishes; seven starters, a selection of fine, aged cheeses, fruit or chocolate-based desserts plus a pair of fantasies labeled "Pure Creations."  

The amuse bouche tray presents miniature portions of specialties: oyster tartar served with cucumber, pork with horseradish emulsion, scallops with mushrooms and black truffles that, happily, have just come into season. They would appear again in the flavorful pan-fried sea bass where slithers of spring onion were slipped between a pair of filets. And again in what was the defining dish of the evening: macaroni, the size and shape of cigars, stuffed with the truffles, artichokes, and duck foie gras, topped with grilled parmesan cheese and served in a chicken sauce and truffle juice. The pleasure this dish gave was so exceptional, it lingers in taste-bud memory to this day. It came as no surprise to learn it is the favorite of a famous and frequent Le Bristol diner, President Nicolas Sarkozy, who recently bestowed the coveted French Legion of Honor on Chef Fréchon.

Only four months on the job, sommelier Marco Pelletier had added 300 new references to the 50,000-bottle cellar. "We plan to build an even more interesting wine cellar," he told us and recommended one of his additions: a white produced near Bordeaux that combined Sauvignon, Muscatella  -- which is like Sauterne but very dry, and Sémillon. It is the last grape, he explained, that adds richness. "The wine is  a 1999 vintage," Marco said. "Having had a bit more evolution, it has more of the hazelnut and fresh almond flavors from the Sémillon. At the same time, the acidity has slowly decreased and become integrated into the wine. With the food you are having, this is a good choice." So it was. The attention, knowledge, and products this sommelier was able to choose from, it seemed to us, figured handily into the Michelin rating. As did the sublime desserts prepared by Head Pastry Chef Laurent Jeannin, another alumnus of Les Ambassadeurs, chief among them, we thought, the coffee-glazed roast hazelnut biscuit in a caramel emulsion.

Sommelier Marco Pelletier - click to enlarge
Sommelier Marco Pelletier

Restaurant Manager Raphaël Courant - click to enlarge
Restaurant Manager Raphaël Courant

And yet the food and wine, while paramount perhaps, are not the whole story. Surely the overall environment entered into whatever thinking resulted in the awarding of the third star. There is the beautiful, well-lit, spacious dining room, the fine table linens, lovely china, crystal and silver, the exquisite floral arrangements. And something more -- the people backstage preparing the food with talent and efficiency, and those on the floor: restaurant manager Raphaël Courant, overlooking the scene unobtrusively but at the same time assuring the perfection of every step taken during the evening, the young woman who handled the cheese trolley, expertly describing each offering, the young man who uncorked the wine -- tasting it himself in a small glass before proffering it, our server who explained every option with expertise and enthusiasm, all of the servers and clearers, their impeccable sense of timing, of knowing just when to remove a dish, refill a water or wine glass, add a piece of flatware, refold a napkin, the sense each possessed of anticipating every need.

Some of the team in Restaurant d'Hiver - click to enlarge
Some of the team in Restaurant d'Hiver

Their participation in the graceful choreography of the evening refined an experience that was relished and will be recalled with great fondness -- dining at the Hôtel Le Bristol, Paris.

Hôtel Le Bristol
112, rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré
75008 Paris, France

Phone: 33 (0)1 53 43 43 00

Photos by Harvey Frommer

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About the Authors:  Myrna Katz Frommer and Harvey Frommer are a wife and husband team who successfully bridge the worlds of popular culture and traditional scholarship. Co-authors of the critically acclaimed interactive oral histories It Happened in the Catskills, It Happened in Brooklyn, Growing Up Jewish in America, It Happened on Broadway, It Happened in Manhattan, It Happened in Miami. They teach what they practice as professors at Dartmouth College.

They are also travel writers who specialize in luxury properties and fine dining as well as cultural history and Jewish history and heritage in the United States, Europe, and the Caribbean. More about these authors.

You can contact the Frommers at: 

Email: myrna.frommer@Dartmouth.EDU
Email: harvey.frommer@Dartmouth.EDU

This Article is Copyright © 1995 - 2012 by Harvey and Myrna Frommer.  All rights reserved worldwide.


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