A Bright and Shining Star in the City of Lights:
The Hôtel de Crillon
Certain expectations exist for Parisian hotels that
achieve the exalted “palace” category: a locale in a fashionable
arrondissement, a splendid view, a sense of tradition, an aura of
luxury, and a cuisine of such excellence it results in the bestowal of
coveted Michelin stars. The Hôtel de Crillon exceeds them all.
The 147-room Crillon embodies a particular luxe as only
the French can do it. The service-to-guest ratio is two-to-one.
Amenities are by the incomparable Anouk Gital. Plush velvet sofas and
chairs are a deep shade of persimmon that positively glow against
shining marble floors, walls, and table tops of gold, amber, black,
jasper-green, cream, and rust. There are the antique paintings,
sculptures, tapestries, and Aubusson carpets, the Lalique and Baccarat
fixtures, the Louis XV furnishings, and less durable -- but no less
enchanting -- the roses. Of all colors, sizes and kinds, they fill vases
to overflowing in both public and guest rooms. One sees uniformed
personnel walking down the hallways, their arms filled with gigantic
bouquets, a lovely fragrance wafting in their wake.
And yet, in the midst of such grandeur, there is an
atmosphere of warmth and welcome. The hotel has hosted generations of
celebrities -- Theodore Roosevelt, Sir Winston Churchill, Sophia Loren,
Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, Harrison Ford, Bill Clinton, John McCain and
Madonna among them. But every guest gets the same royal reception.
"People often tell us the staff here is more accessible than at other
hotels," says concierge Victor Rego. "Every one of us is committed to
help in whatever way they can. We train our staff that way."
The Crillon is H-shaped with two inner courtyards. In the
summer, one becomes a summer dining patio for picnics prepared by the
kitchen and served in a basket; at Christmas time it is the site of an
old fashioned market that serves hot chocolate and wine. Both stem from
the imagination of Jean- François Piège, the hotel's celebrity chef and
author of "At the Crillon and at Home" (with forewords by his mentor the
legendary Alain Ducasse, whom he worked with for four years at the
nearby Plaza Athenée, and the renowned American chef Thomas Keller). In
the four years that he's been the head of food operations at the Crillon,
Jean François has developed an enthusiastic local following. Parisians
flock to the Sunday brunch he inaugurated in such numbers, reservations
must be made two months in advance.
Press Manager Elodie Tavares
|“Almost all the people at the brunch are from Paris,”
says press manager Elodie Tavares. “I think that’s because they want to
taste Jean- François' dishes but find the price at our gastronomic
restaurant Les Ambassadeurs a bit too steep. In this way, they can
experience a little piece of Jean- François. Having heard how talented
and imaginative he is, they love that idea."
Elodie is young and beautiful, filled with exuberance and
delight in her role which she came to by way of the Hotel Martinez in
Cannes. The daughter of Argentine parents, she was born and raised in
France but has lived in Paris only since taking on her position at the
Crillon in early 2008. We met Elodie in the Winter Garden, the anteroom
outside Les Ambassadeurs where Afternoon Tea, cocktails, and the
Crillon’s famous orange chocolate are served. But Elodie had invited us
to sample the brunch -- from the outside, so to speak. Not having a two
month-long reservation, we could not get a space in the dining room.
From our position, however, we could watch the parade of guests, many of
them young couples with children, arriving for the first of two seatings.
A glass of champagne accompanies the buffet; there is
also a selection of one of four international entrées that offer a
glimpse of the chef's creativity: from the United States, Caesar salad
with lobster; from Italy, pumpkin risotto with black truffles; from
Lebanon, a spicy pita wrap of tomato, parsley and chicken; and from
France, scallops cooked in salty butter with herbs, chives, and
truffles. To start, there is a poached egg with spinach, black truffle
sauce, and yogurt, a seemingly odd offering, we thought. But then, we
had yet to learn the special place the egg holds in the mind and heart
of Jean- François.
|That would come the next day when the chef joined us for
coffee in the Winter Garden. Tall, dark, and matinee-idol-handsome, he
began our conversation talking about his favorite product. "The egg is
the origin of everything, the soul of life,” he said revealing a
philosophical turn of mind we had not encountered in a chef until that
moment. Then quickly, he turned to another subject. “Do you like Woody
Allen?” he asked. “When I was working at the Plaza Athenée, Woody Allen
was often there. He has said his idea of life is to look forward to the
future because that is where he is going to live. That is my philosophy
“Yet I am aware of how much the past is part of the
present. Here at the Crillon, the mood is historic. The rooms are
palatial, traditional. But the kitchen is high tech. There is such a
strong difference between the cuisine and where it takes place. It adds
an element of surprise to the dining experience.”
He went on, “As a chef, I have to move forward. Fashion
in dining has changed over the past 20 years. People care more about
health now, about elegance in the dishes. So we have had to develop a
new type of cuisine where everything is more controlled.
Celebrity Chef: Jean François Piège
“We choose smaller fishes from smaller catches in order
to have greater control over our products and also because it is more
responsible from a green point of view. Quality of ingredients is most
important; all our products come from the best farms.”
When we dined at L'Obélisque that evening, we were
witness to the results of such an approach. Referred to as the Crillon’s
brasserie despite eight stunning Lalique chandeliers in the shape of
leaves that light up the deep rectangular room, L'Obélisque has a street
entrance which makes it a neighborhood as much as a hotel restaurant.
With the American Embassy next door and all the shops and offices in the
area around the Rue du Faubourg Saint Honoré to the north, it draws a
sizeable local crowd especially for lunch which can be long-lasting
especially since the Bar du Crillon is virtually at the entrance.
A Lalique chandelier in L'Obélisque
|But we had come for dinner, and it began with server
Frederic Caillon presenting the amuse bouche: a little tray with slices
of foie gras and parsley and explaining the menu. “There are two
choices,” he said, "the regular brasserie menu and the traditional
We each picked one and never looked back. From the
regular menu, there were six great oysters from Brittany with lemon and
vinegar (“to preserve the taste” Frederic said), and sliced scallops
from Normandy with spaghetti carbonara -- with smoked salmon in lieu of
bacon. (It is virtually impossible to taste the difference, Jean
It was excellent. But the peasant dinner was altogether
something else, an example of the chef’s vision, a marriage of past and
present. “This is an interpretation of the traditional Sunday dinner
that goes back centuries, the one great meal of the week eaten by
country folk,” said Frederic as he presented a rustic cream soup made
with autumn vegetables topped with a slice of foie gras. A beautiful
shade of chartreuse, it was deep and velvety, haute cuisine comfort
food, if you will, and an appropriate introduction to the pot au feu
“This is the dish traditionally made with the meat left
over from the week,” Frederic explained. “For five hours, it simmered
together with onions, potatoes, cauliflower and zucchini in a big pot,
cooking in what is called ‘yellow’ wine, a very strong white wine of a
golden color that can be drunk with certain cheeses like Comte. But
Jean- François has also added some yellow poultry of very good quality,
better than the poultry from Brest. And the meat he uses is also of very
high quality, flavored with black truffles and some foie gras as well.
It comes with slices of conch, which add a little taste of the sea, and
is served with the juice of the meat and some herbs. You can pour it on
as much as you wish.”
This was a dish we never expected to try, yet it was
quite wonderful. The beef was so soft, the poultry so juicy and tender.
“At Les Ambassadeurs, you will discover the cooking of a great chef,”
Frederic said. “But here at L'Obélisque, you discover the cooking of a
country as seen through the chef's eyes. French diners react to this
dish with great enthusiasm. It is the food of their childhood, they
Frederic, who came to Paris from Corsica to study history
took this job while pursuing his studies. “I have my history degree but
this is the profession I want to work in,” he told us. “I've been told
when you're clever you can do whatever you want. So even though I didn't
go to culinary school, I can do well here. And after a place like this,
I can go anywhere.”
Now having experienced the Sunday Brunch and the Peasant
Dinner, we were ready for the main event: dinner at “Les Ambassadeurs”
-- a superb repast and also an experience of sublime theater.
The setting is the former palace ballroom that looks out
to the Place de la Concorde through great windows. A quartet of Baccarat
chandeliers suspended from the ceiling illuminate the brilliant marble
floor of golden and black squares, golden wall panels, and white
bas-relief pillars and mirror frames lit by sconces. On buffet and
serving tables, masses of white roses spill out of fat ewers; in the
center of each of the dining tables spaced around the ballroom’s
perimeter, a small vase holds a bouquet of miniature pink roses.
It is eight o’clock in the evening, and the room is
beginning to fill. A single couple at one table, a group of eight at
another. There is an air of anticipation as if a curtain were about to
rise and a corps de ballet emerge from the wings onto the ballroom
floor. And a company does materialize: headwaiters and servers,
stewards and sommeliers. Over the next few hours, they make their
entrances and exits, gracefully glide about the room executing tasks
with aplomb and precision, cordial yet ever intent on the tasks at hand.
The star, however, would remain backstage represented by the products of
his culinary gifts.
Little silver stands, like miniature newspaper rods, hold
the chief prop of the evening: a menu posted in a small satiny folder.
Sipping glasses of Loren Perrier rosé champagne, we translate from the
French as best we can. “Ah, but you will see – it is a surprise,” the
elegant maitre d’ who comes from Nantes tells us. We begin.
Overture: “The Egg”
Jean- François’ favorite product appears in a pair of
preparations: egg whites flavored with chives and fresh black truffles
in truffle juice; two boiled eggs served with spinach, crayfish in
Act One: “The Amuse Bouche”
An elongated tray carrying small platters of mini
appetizers is borne aloft by several servers. They sail down the floor
to the appointed destination and place the platters in perfect position
before the diners. Contents, from left to right are described, along
with stage-like directions. To be drunk: a tiny glass of lemonade with
carrot salad. To be eaten in a single bite: a cake of chicken liver and
roasted crayfish covered with an emulsion made with foie gras and
enclosing a crispy fried pastry filled with creamy codfish puree. An
emulsion filled with langoustine. To be spread on the accompanying tiny
toasted baguette: a confection of butter and black truffles. Each item
so delicate, so beautiful, so labor intensive, so marvelous a marriage
of flavors and textures.
Intermission: “The Presentation of Wine”
The bottle, resting on a holder, is wheeled in on a
trolley bearing a single lit candle. In a choreographed ceremony, the
sommelier uncorks the bottle, smells it, pours a small amount into a
glass, smells, swirls the liquid, tastes. He wipes the bottle neck,
presents it to the diner: a 2007 Riesling from Alsace, Cuvé Albert,
Domaine Albert Mann, then proffers a sample to the diner who inhales the
floral aroma, sips. It is moderately chilled, dry, soft and mild. He
smiles approvingly; the wine is poured for the table.
Sommelier David Biraud
|Act Two “The Appetizers”
Scene One: To be mixed together: three preparations of
prawns and caviar. In the center, crispy prawns covered with a filo
dough-type pastry. On one side, a maki of raw prawns covered with
cucumber; on the other, a tartar of prawns and caviar covered with
shellfish juice, lime and ginger.
Scene Two: The Egg Once Again
The white is flavored
with chives and white truffles. Break it: The yolk, very creamy from the
cooking, is covered with black truffles -- a specialty of the chef when
truffles are available. What a combination: truffles and eggs! We are in
luck -- it is the end of white truffles and start of black. Both are
available. The server displays the white; gnarled and ugly, so strong a
smell, so great a delicacy.
Scene Three: An oval plate pointed at either end and set
at a particular angle bears Coquilles St. Jacques. Surrounded by crusts
of toast, they are pan fried with slithers of pumpkin and white truffles
in their combined juices. The blending of pumpkin with white truffles is
a new taste sensation. A natural evolvement of the dishes, one following
another, a continuum.
Intermission: The Second Presentation of the Wine: a 2005
(!) from Burgundy -- Savigny Les Beaune, Domaine Jean-Marc Pavelot.
Aromatic, fruity, a touch of anise and spice.
Sea bass from Brittany arrives in a cylinder which is
cracked open. It is served with braised chicory and black truffles, a
warm salad with mashed chicory.
At the same time, there is chicken breast with cream and
foie gras. White truffles are freshly grated onto the meat. Alongside is
the bladder and leg of chicken and vegetable sushi.
A young woman gracefully wheels in her trolley of cheeses
– the Comte, the Roquefort, the Morbier the Camembert, the Brie, the
range of goat cheeses. She describes, recommends, cuts wedges from the
continuously replenished cart.
A cornucopia of desserts includes a chocolate cookie
(sounds ordinary but, like everything on this menu, it is anything
but), a pineapple macaroon, crispy cake with raspberry jam, little
chocolate straws, a meringue cake with fresh lichee, ice cream, wild
strawberries in a basket of spun sugar.
Throughout, the door to backstage opens and closes as the
members of this sizeable company, all in dark suits, the breasts of some
adorned with medals defining their expertise, enter and exit. Silently,
each creates his own pathway, maneuvers around tables, serves, clears,
replaces, refills, watches unobtrusively. It is a work of streamlined
choreography. All that is missing is a curtain call, an opportunity for
Chef Jean-François and his staff to step out on stage and receive their
richly deserved accolades.
Les Ambassadeurs already has two Michelin stars. Surely
the third is waiting in the wings.
SOME OF THE CRILLON TEAM
Mathieu Foreau, Manager Les Ambassadeurs
Jocelyn Costedont, server Les Ambassadeurs
Frederic Caillon, server L'Obélisque
Concierge Victor Rego
The Crillon is indeed a many-splendored palace, and
yet its essence is defined by where it is as much as what it is. Step
out onto the terrace of one of the historic rooms on the fifth floor,
and the City of Lights spreads out before you. Directly below are the
Obélisque and ferris wheel of the Place de la Concorde. Beyond, the
ornate Alexander III bridge spans the Seine. The glass roof of the Grand
Palais is visible; in the distance the Eiffel Tower is outlined against
the sky. Off to the right the Champs Elysees begins its journey to the
Arc de Triomphe. To the left are the gardens of the Tuilleries and the
Walking back to the hotel from the lovely
neo-classical church La Madeleine, we came down the Rue Boissy d'Anglas
as late afternoon was turning to a pink and blue dusk in that particular
Parisian light. We turned onto the Place de la Concorde. Before us, the
bright brass revolving door into the Crillon beckoned. Is there a more
enchanting city in all the world? Can there be a more splendid place to
Hôtel de Crillon
10 Place de la Concorde
Phone: 33 (0)1 44 71 15 40
Photos by Harvey Frommer
# # #
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.
about these authors.
You can contact the Frommers at:
This Article is Copyright © 1995 - 2012 by Harvey and Myrna Frommer. All rights