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Around the Corner from L'Arc De Triompe:
The Hotel Vernet

Though La Belle Epoque officially ended after the International Exhibit in 1905, its glow lingered into the Paris of 1913. Toulouse Lautrec was still alive, Marcel Proust published “Swann’s Way” that year, and Nijinsky’s choreography scandalized the bourgeoisie at the premier of “The Rites of Spring.” The “Guns of August” were but rumbles in the distance; World War I was not to begin until the following year.

On the Rue Vernet, a few short blocks and around the corner from the Arc de Triomphe, a French aristocrat took possession of the townhouse built for him by the famed architect Selonier. Befitting a residence in the area surrounding the Champs Elysees, Paris’ newest and most elegant neighborhood  -- the first to be lit by electricity, it was opulent in design and materials and featured the newest in twentieth-century innovations. A luxuriant marble entry led to an equally luxuriant marble stairway which wound around a tiny glass-fronted elevator. High ceilinged rooms of generous proportions were punctuated by Roman arches; walls covered with murals and fine fabrics were marked by pillars and detailed with ornamental carvings. But perhaps most splendid of all was the elaborate dining room beneath a glass dome etched with flowers in the latest Art Nouveau design and supported by metal framework from the workshops of Gustave Eiffel whose illuminated tower on the other side of the Seine had already come to epitomize the City of Lights.

The glass dome with ironwork by Gustave Eiffel - click to enlarge
The glass dome with ironwork by Gustave Eiffel

Today, the Hotel Vernet looks much like the private residence it was nearly ninety years ago. The little elevator wrapped by a marble stairway continues to run up and down the seven-story structure. The architectural details and luxurious spaces remain intact.  The glass roof  held aloft by Eiffel ironworks still domes the elaborate dining room. All of which turn a stay at the Hotel Vernet into an experience of living in an enchanting Parisian townhouse – if only for a while.
The level of service contributes to the illusion. With a staff of seventy for a 51-room property, small attentions abound. Housekeepers learn what kinds of flowers a guest wants and how he or she likes a room made up; the room service manager discovers how and exactly when an order should be delivered, three concierges stand at the ready to recommend restaurants, get tickets to the opera or a special exhibition, and miraculously arrange for a taxi to be waiting in front of the hotel when you have that important midday appointment on the other side of the city.

Chief Concierge Claudio Agular: he earned our undying gratitude

By accomplishing this last feat for us – something we thought impossible in Paris -- Chief Concierge Claudio Agular earned our undying gratitude. Enterprising, enthusiastic, and debonair in his gleaming white vest and shirt, the gold keys on the lapels of his black jacket proclaiming his professional rank, the Milan-born Claudio has been organizing Parisian outings for Vernet guests for twenty years now.

He also publishes a slick weekly newsletter that lists exhibits, performances, galleries, antique and flea markets, and unusual shops.

“We have mostly repeat guests so we know each person and what he likes,” he told us. “But when someone comes for the first time, I try to discover what his preferences are. That is the most important thing although it is also the most difficult as every guest is unique.”

Claudio was swift to discover the preference of at least one of this pair of first-time guests: interesting shopping alternatives to les grand magasins. He directed us to such destinations as the Avenue Victor Hugo a short walk from the hotel and the Rue de Passy in the adjoining 16th arrondissement where we found shops unknown to the tourist trade but frequented by fashion-conscious Parisians. His best tip of all, however, was just a few blocks away: Trente-Huit Francois Cote Jardin on the Rue Francois where we found haute couture samples selling for up to 70% off the listed price.

“Because we are a small hotel we can take care of all our guests in such a personalized way,” a beaming Claudio told us after we returned triumphant from a shopping foray. “And perhaps that is why people have been coming here for such a long time. Many are well known. In the 1930’s, for example, a Brazilian president whose name interestingly enough was Washington lived here for an extended period of time.”

Repeat clients include entire families who will sometimes take up an entire floor.  We heard about the Italian contessa who has been coming to the hotel for many years with her cook in tow to make pasta at night, and the British lord whose grown grandson continues the Vernet tradition. We met a financial advisor from California who spends two weeks at the hotel every year after touring Michelin-rated restaurants throughout France and a young-ish couple from Connecticut in for the International Auto Show who opted for the Vernet in lieu of one of the “Big Five Palaces” (the Bristol, Plaza Athenee, George V, Ritz, and Maurice).      

“Statesmen, movie stars, French Open stars may go to one of the palaces for official purposes, but then they will come to us for their personal time because they want the intimacy,” said general manager Alexandre Scarvelis who has been on the job for some six months now. “Here they can be incognito without being anonymous. But every one of our guests, famous or not, is recognized and made comfortable.”

It was Friday evening before dinner, and the darkly handsome Scarvelis, son of a Greek father and French mother, was showing us around the property. In the lobby, he pointed out a landscape he had acquired by Joseph Vernet, the 18th century artist  for whom the Rue Vernet and the hotel are named, and told us of his plans to locate additional works by painters in the Vernet family.

General Manager Alexandre Scarvelis before the Vernet landscape - click to enlarge
General Manager Alexandre Scarvelis before the Vernet landscape

In the Blue Lounge where draperies, upholstery, and floor coverings are dazzling shades of blue, he divulged plans to change fabrics, lamps, curtains, “to freshen it up a bit.” (We looked around amazed – to us the room appeared in optimum condition). We admired the flower arrangements: exceedingly tall vases filled with passion flowers and palm fronds surrounded by an assortment of pumpkins -- so apropos for September, so unique for France. “The old look was too classical; I wanted something more exciting, something distinctive,” he said.

As there are other Vernet distinctions. It is the only boutique hotel in Paris with two restaurants, and the only boutique hotel in Paris with a two-star Michelin restaurant. Le Jaipur, open seven days a week from noon to 2 a.m., is a bar and grill whose Indian theme is captured in a range of curry offerings, background sitar music and a parade of elephants in the wall décor. “It had been a storage area. And finally we decided to do something with it,” Sarvelis noted as we descended to the below-ground level space that had been transformed by Carlos Miguel, a well known designer of Parisian restaurants, into the inviting recess with plush sofas and soft lights that typically draws people who live and work in the Golden Triangle (the area roughly bounded by the Eiffel Tower, the Arc de Triomphe and the Place de la Concorde).

If Le Jaipur represents the trendy, Les Elysees du Vernet epitomizes the timelessness of French dining. “This is a traditional gourmet French restaurant,” Scarvelis warned as we took our seats at a candle-lit table in the beautiful arcaded dining room beneath the famed Eiffel dome. “We don’t care about fusion; we don’t want to be hip. Our mission is to provide the finest flavors of French gourmet cuisine. Nothing but French.”

The beautiful arcaded dining room of Les Elysees

Beneath the famed Eiffel dome - click to enlarge
Beneath the famed Eiffel dome

That was fine with us. The silvery and gilded space where walls are exquisitely painted faux marble and dishes are pearly white Limoges was an ideal setting to indulge in the pleasures of la cuisine. We began with an amuse bouche of  fried ravioli with spinach, zucchini flowers, and pecorino and parmesan cheeses, an apt herald for what lay ahead. Bread selections, all made in-house by the pastry chef, included long flat crisps so delicious to resist them proved an act of great restraint.

We struggled to manage the French in chef Alain Soliveres' detailed menu of six appetizers, five fish, and five meat/fowl selections and so were grateful for the maitre d’s detailed description of each dish to which Alexandre Scarvelis added informed input. “Our menu changes about every two months to take advantage of seasonal specialties,” Scarvelis said. “Now it is the season for mushrooms and langoustine, the small lobster from Guerande in Brittany. The turbot and tuna are excellent at this time as well.”

Our starters were rare red tuna emboldened by sweet marmalade, green olives and parmesan cheese; and fregola, the long pasta from Sardinia, cooked with olive oil with shellfish and small squid; while our host indulged in the undiluted cholesterol-laden delight of foie gras on grilled bread.  Main courses were delectably moist fillet of turbot browned in a pan with carrots, fennel, and mushrooms from Massif Cencran in central France – source of the best mushrooms in France; crisply roasted pigeon enlivened with grapes and chanterelle mushrooms; and John Dorry with lemon and olives in a balsamic sauce.

Sommelier Patrice Vidalier suggested a 1999 red Burgundy from Chambolle-Musigny. Fragrant and fruity, it was worth taking the label and searching for back home. “One of the first things I did was replace our previous sommelier with Patrice,” Scarvelis told us. “He is very informed on the wine list, and he is a very good fellow, willing to explain and suggest.   

“We have something like 5,000 bottles in our cellar,” he added. “That is not very big, but it is all quality. I plan to take away the non-French wines and focus primarily on the Burgundies and Bordeaux, also the Loire Valley wines. They are the great ones. The others are not as sophisticated or as mature; it’s not possible.”

A sweet Madeira accompanied the range of cheeses from mild to strong, and a strong Tuscan white wine melded with a dessert of ravioli with green apples and cream trimmed with almond liquere. There followed les mignardises: a little eggcup holding a brown eggshell filled with tirasmisou, and delicate miniature pastries filled with doll-sized wild strawberries.

The team at Les Elysees du Vernet - click to enlarge
The team at Les Elysees du Vernet

A man of strong opinions and a decidedly traditional turn of mind, Scarvelis summed up his credo: “Nouvelle cuisine has left its impact. Mainly because of American clients, we go lighter on the creams and heavy sauces. Chefs were forced to change their habits, explore new ways of cooking, have new ideas. Still some things don’t change. Everything is about choosing the best ingredients possible, and then cooking the best way possible so that all the flavors and aromas are meeting in your mouth. The sauce is accomplished by the addition of spices that make it so flavorful. No east meets west. This is French cuisine.”

As Parisians generally retreat to the country for weekends, restaurants on the level of Les Elysees are not busy on Friday nights as a rule. Nevertheless, the 45-seat dining room was nearly filled. At the table next to us, four Americans were completing the tasting menu of six smaller courses from the main menu.  They had given in to the urging of one of their party, a retired schoolteacher from Phoenix, Arizona who was determined “to have the experience of eating in this great restaurant,” as she put it, after reading a rave review of Les Elysees in Gourmet Magazine.

“It was a splurge,” she confessed. “One of the guys complained about such an expensive dinner. But from the minute he sat down, he had a fantastic time. We had champagne; there were the beautiful dishes and those wine glasses, and the food . . .” She trailed off dreamily before concluding with firm American practicality: “It was worth it.”

To sit beneath the glass dome built in 1913 in a room that looks like a Parisian garden and dine on Alain Solivere’s complex, sophisticated preparations that incredibly appear to be the essence of simplicity accompanied by a great red Burgundy is to begin to understand what a two-star Michelin rating means. To such features must be added a staff that operates like a little team, advising, preparing tableside, serving, clearing with courtesy, charm, and fluidity. And the details: wine glasses that narrow at the top so the aroma does not dissipate, the amuse bouches and mignardises that bracket the dining experience. They are all of a piece, and the totality is what distinguishes Les Elysees as a gastronomic destination in and of itself as well as part of the experience of staying around the corner from the Arc d’Triomphe at the Hotel Vernet.

Hotel Vernet
25 rue Vernet
75008 Paris

Phone: 01 44 31 98 00

The Hotel Vernet is part of the Royal Monceau group. A fitness center with indoor swimming pool and spa facilities is available at the Vernet’s sister hotel the Royal Monceau, a ten minute walk away.

Prete a porter at Trente-Huit Francois Cote Jardin
38 Rue Francois 1er Montaigne
Paris 75008

Phone: 01 47 20 73 13

(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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