Finding Small Pleasures in the Grand Spaces of Paris
“Unbelievable,” I said to my host, as I sank my fork into an exquisite pastry, fashioned to resemble a golden-hued hazelnut with chocolate tendrils.
I was tucked into a quiet table in the bar at Hotel Le Meurice on a rainy fall day in Paris, and had stumbled on a strategy for enjoying this wonderful city: Find the coziest corners in the grandest places and experience the ultimate in both luxury and intimacy!
The first “palace” hotel in Paris, Le Meurice was built in 1818, near the houses of royalty and nobility. In turn, these patrons attracted the finest artists of the day, giving Le Meurice its unique personality as a grand hotel with an artistic flair. Nowhere is this flair in greater evidence than in the extraordinary food being created by the hotel’s talented chefs.
The bar menu maintains a sharp focus on the season. As my visit was in autumn, I partook in a celebration of the foods of the forest, the forage and the hunt. When my starter arrived, a woodsy aroma wafted up from the bowl of sautéed sweet chestnut cepes in a complex dark sauce. This was followed by braised venison on a palette of deep red and golden paper-thin beet slices and melted comte cheese. Then, came the pastry, that exquisite faux hazelnut, a delightful work of fantasy: two contrasting layers of chocolate for the shell, cracked open to reveal airy noisette dacquoise, leading to a center of cream and caramel. I had the pleasure of meeting the 28-year old prodigy pastry chef Cedric Grolet, whose creativity and technical skill have come together at the perfect time for him to lead his 22-person team of culinary wizards.
As the afternoon was cool and cloudy, I opted to linger and enjoy the setting, a blend of the dark, warm feel of a gentlemen’s club with elegant detail that is equally feminine. I took in the rich aroma of seasonal food all around me as I sipped my coffee and sink even deeper into my chair.
Eventually, I made my way back to the Hotel Plaza Athenee, my home in Paris for the next few days. The smallest of the highly prestigious “palace” hotels (there are only six hotels in Paris at this the highest level of distinction), Hotel Plaza Athenee is at the ‘haute couture’ end of an already demanding scale. Incredible luxury is tempered with genuine warmth and extraordinary personal attention. This priority on maintaining the highest standard of personal service is evidenced by the fact that every single staff member was kept on, at full salary, when the hotel closed for a full ten months for renovations. When they reopened, all the familiar faces were on hand to welcome back the hotel’s guests.
I was greeted by name as I returned to the hotel. Making my way through the lobby and the beautiful gallery, I took in the changes that came about as a result of a recent renovation. A collaboration of three top Parisian designers, the renovation maintained the classic soul of the hotel while refreshing the look and feel of the property. I noticed a more open, airy feel that let in more light and exposed the gorgeous greenery from the garden. It was as though the inside and outside had become one.
In my bedroom, I was enveloped in luxury. Shades of warm gold and rich cream created a welcoming atmosphere, and the new furnishings looked lovely against the original features of the historic building. As I drew back the drapes in my room, the Eiffel Tower nearly filled the window frame – it was so close! What better icon of Paris to wake up to every morning? In fact, the next morning, I plopped myself in front of that incredible view, while I enjoyed strong coffee with hot frothy milk and toasted slabs of peasant bread with silky apricot jam.
Later in the day, I continued to test my theory of enjoying the small-within-the-big. I opted for a bar again, this time in the large, luxurious palace Hotel George V. Entering the vast marble-paneled lobby I wondered if a ‘cozy’ experience would be possible. But as soon as I saw Le Bar, tucked discreetly into a corner off the interior lobby, I knew it could fill the bill. Le Bar is paneled in wood and furnished with deep, red leather chairs and a few couches clustered around small tables. My friend and I settled into the comfort, against a backdrop of hushed conversations. The drinks menu, created by the inventive Gregory Hazac, was full of appealing choices. Each cocktail was named for a song and it was fun to work out why a certain drink might be given its particular name. For example, the song “Mack the Knife” was a swinging jazz standard about a shark with pearly white teeth, that had a serious bite! The cocktail of the same name, made with premium Zacapa rum and a secret “V” blend of musky spices wrapped me in warmth. But have no doubt – it’s a drink from an era when cocktails were strong!
The champagne cocktail seemed innocuous – raspberry and champagne melding into a rich berry tone. So why was it called “Sympathy for the Devil” after the Rolling Stones tune? The struggle between good and naughty? We decided that such a temptingly delicious drink fit the name very well!
It was a quick stroll from the George V back to the Plaza Athenee where we had an exceptional dinner in the Art Deco brasserie Le Relais. Since its creation in 1936, this “most Parisian of Paris restaurants” has been a favorite “regular” spot for people from the worlds of fashion, commerce and culture. Designed to evoke the feel of a luxury ocean liner, the restaurant is decorated in tones of ivory with black accents. It is in many ways, the epitome of sophistication, warm in atmosphere yet with a cool vibe. We were greeted by host Werner Kuchler, who has welcomed dozens of celebrities through the decades, and who made us feel equally important.
“Champagne to begin?” was the question, and how could the reply have been anything but yes?
Our starter was the most tantalizing dish of smoked salmon, glistening small cubes sitting pertly on the plate with bright green spinach puree. Two fish entrees, the signature sole meuniere and the day’s special sea bass, were expertly deboned at tableside and served with seasonal vegetables. For dessert, we shared another specialty of the house, La Religieuse. It’s a classic French pastry, so named because some say it looks like a chubby nun. This one was divine combination of choux pastry, filled with crème patissiere and salted caramel, covered in chocolate sauce.
After such a decadent evening, the obvious choice the next morning was the Dior Spa, in the lower level of the Plaza Athenee. The beautiful amber smell that characterizes the hotel rose up to greet me. A space of serenity and calm, the spa offers a wide range of services from full massage to simple manicures. I had a facial, and I was happy to discover that it included a wonderful upper body massage. The practitioner was expert in every way and I found myself in the deepest state of relaxation. Then, using an array of wonderful products, she gently worked through the stages of cleansing, exfoliation, seaweed and floral essence mask, serum, cream, and finished it off with a light touch of make-up. I couldn’t believe the refreshed face that greeted me from the mirror!
In my spa-fuelled reverie, I reflected on the wonderful experience of finding the small pleasures in grand places... and as I drifted off to sleep, I decided it was a strategy well worth pursuing!