Paris in late afternoon is a giant parking lot, an obstacle course that only daredevils on scooters can navigate. But while the car is at a standstill, it gives me the opportunity to admire the landscape. What’s this? Are they improving on the perfection of I.M. Pie’s pyramid at the Louvre? A red neon flash, about 22 meters long, rises from floor to apex. It’s the installation of artist Claude Levesque who had been invited to “intervene” in the Pyramid. Like French cuisine, fashion and décor, designers often “intervene” in perfection: the extra frill, flounce and swirl of sauce. “Ah,” we say, “It is so French.”
It has just begun to rain as we enter the luxurious lobby of Le Royal Monceau Raffles. I’ve been anticipating a traditional two-hour lunch at the Michelin starred Il Carpaccio, but it’s difficult to tear myself away from the fabulous gift boutiques in the lobby. I must have those Philip Starck espresso cups. Inside the intimate solarium dining room, our table overlooks the gardens and swimming pool. Drawing on the Sicilian Baroque style, walls are covered with extravagant shell décor, and chandeliers have been designed with intricate shells. Unusual and charming.
What could be more enticing than fine Italian cuisine filtered through French sensibility. Renowned chef, Roberto Rispoli has spared nothing to source unique products to delight his guests. And delight us he does. Breads, including foccacia, squid ink, multi-grain and baguette, are offered along with a small thyme plant and a pair of scissors. We snip, sprinkle and appreciate. And here is their famous olive oil that hints of apples and grass and comes from an ancient olive grove in the town of Corleone in Sicily. The lunch menu suggests a choice of seven different starters – each one, a must have. Who can resist smoked Burrata of Andria and asparagus crumbed with hazelnuts and almonds. Rispoli raises simple pasta up a few notches with shiny black, cuttlefish ink farfalle, gently folding in scampi, cuttlefish, winkles, mullet roe and the zesty surprise of preserved lemon. Baby lamb shoulder and racks are superbly grilled, and partnered with broad beans and lovely fresh morels. Can people at other tables possibly be enjoying their lunch as much as I am? Service is polished and professional and yet, we feel that this young wait-staff sincerely cares about our dining experience. Outside, rain drops bounce on the pristine swimming pool. At a garden table under a canopy, a very romantic couple enjoy a lunch in the rain. This is Paris.
A Later Lunch
You can’t take two steps in Paris without bumping into history. Montmartre was for centuries the home of artists, dancers and courtesans — the area where aristocracy came to be entertained. Today it is home to massage parlors, sex shops, cafes and bars, as well as the famous Basilica, and the renowned Moulin Rouge.
Tucked into the elbow of rue de Bruxelles, a small brass plaque identifies Maison Souquet. In the early 1900’s it was a “maison close” a pleasure house. Three years ago it was purchased and meticulously restored with antique furniture, lamps and beautiful paintings of sparsely clothed ladies, carefully sourced and collected from Belgium. Each unique suite is named after a known courtesan and has a small sitting room as well as bedroom and elaborate bathroom. If your first impression is that the Salon, with its dark red velvet sofas and huge gilt mirrors looks like an elegant French brothel, you would be absolutely right. The menu quotes La Belle Otero, “Fortunes are made by sleeping, but not alone,” and Le Marquis de Sade, “Dreams are secret movements which are not given their rightful place.” Alcohol free cocktails like Lemon Verbena/Cranberry, or Jasmin/Rose /Coriander with a tapas of a artful duet of Spanish Manchego cheese. Highly addictive, they tell me, is white truffle/milk/hazelnut/golden apple/ seductively capped with Mascarpone chantilly and paired with Manchego and artisanal Italian gelato. For me, from the section Maison Souquet Musts: foie gras and a glass of wine. Like an ageless Parisian beauty, after more than a century, Maison Souquet is still as sensual as a lover’s kiss.
The George V enfolds you in its realm of privilege, of authentic 19th century furnishings, Flemish tapestries, extravagant chandeliers and an explosion of freshly cut flowers. With its indulgent Four Seasons brand of service, it is the Paris “bed and breakfast” for the world’s wealthy and their families.
The dining experience at its Michelin starred Le Cinq Restaurant begins the moment we walk through its wrought iron doors. The room bedazzles with its gold and grey elegance and show-stopping antiques: Louis XIV wardrobes, Louis XV gold chairs and huge sculpted gold leaf mirrors. A precious bottle of Chateau Margaux makes its way to our table from the 50,000 bottle wine cellar, hidden forty five feet below ground. We are in their hands. From an inspirational menu: roasted foie gras refreshed with Gewurtztraminer granita; glazed John Dory with tangerine juice and green mango petals; chicken from Bresse; grouse from Scotland; truffles from Alba. Flaws are non-existent. The cheese sommelier creates a grand finale for us with his brilliant presentation of the cheese trolley: the chevres, Roquefort, triple cremes. There are over seven hundred cheeses in France, and it is likely that he has evaluated them all. There’s more. Hot chocolate sauce poured over a chocolate bomb, melts its crust to reveal more chocolate inside. It’s enough to bring a tear to a chocoholics eye. They will go to any lengths to surprise and delight their guests. Michelin stars are not easily earned. Even in Paris.
Along the Champs Elysees, there are soldiers in fatigues with machine guns slung casually over their shoulders. I want to cross the street, but don’t see an opportunity. Anxiously, I ask a (handsome) stranger for help. He laughs at my discomfort as he guides me across, “It’s okay, this is Paris.”
Sara Waxman is an award-winning restaurant critic, best-selling cookbook author, food and travel journalist and has eaten her way through much of the free world for four decades, while writing about it in books, newspapers and magazines. She is the Editor in Chief of DINE and Destinations magazine.