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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.

Originally an 18th century palace built for the Duke of Crillon and transformed into a hotel in 1909, it sits in the heart of the fashionable 8ème, directly across from the Place de la Concorde. In one of its salons, Marie Antoinette took her piano lessons. In another, the paperwork that recognized the independence of the United States of America in 1789 was completed. In yet another, the League of Nations was born (out of a spirit that stands in direct contradiction to scenes that took place on the square across the way some 150 years earlier during the infamous “Reign of Terror” when 300 citizens – including Marie Antoinette -- lost their heads).

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 - click to enlarge
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 too. 

“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 - click to enlarge
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 peasant meal.”

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 François maintains).

 

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 that followed. 

“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 say.”

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 truffle juice.

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.

Act Three:

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.

The Finale:

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  - click to enlarge
Mathieu Foreau, Manager Les Ambassadeurs
Jocelyn Costedont, server Les Ambassadeurs - click to enlarge
Jocelyn Costedont, server Les Ambassadeurs  
Frederic Caillon, server L'Obélisque - click to enlarge
Frederic Caillon, server L'Obélisque
Concierge Victor Rego - click to enlarge
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 Rue Royale.

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 stay?

Hôtel de Crillon
10 Place de la Concorde
75008 Paris
France

Phone: 33 (0)1 44 71 15 40

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
Web: http://www.dartmouth.edu/~frommer/travel.htm.

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

 
 

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