Glass savours the antique charms of an historic Paris hotel
There are no flowers in the cellar. Fragrant splays and bouquets line the hotel’s other avenues. And rose petals, young Burgundy in colour, are artfully scattered on the linen of tables 46ft above, where menu covers feature depictions of bamboo. One concierge once loaded a customer’s suite with 6,000 roses to court an heiress. They demanded 10,000, but the maximum available from Paris’s flower market of 6,000 still worked, nonetheless …
Reached via a claustrophobic lift, this rough hewn chalk cavern was quarried in part to build the Arc de Triomphe. Lit by scentless candles, 47,000 bottles slumber within. Still wearing a pristine label, a magnum of Château Petrus awaits the diner who will consider €60k a fair price for its liberation (equating to €1,176 per year of evolution). On a flatter wall, a timeline of empties attests to the premiere Bordeaux’s popularity.
Young sommelier, Vincent excavates near indestructible Madeira from autumn 1795. It comes from the vines of a vintage hailed 70 years before the King that gave the street above his name, and thus that of this grand hotel, was born. Vincent’s steady grip on the hand-blown living museum exhibit proves a sturdy nerve in his young tenure of the role of a sommelier. But Vincent’s favourite bin is less spectacular than most of its subterranean neighbours – it is a stubby bottle, or clavelin. The blotter paper dry Château Chalon 1928, which is one of the hardest wines in the world to match with food, has origins sown in his home region, Jura.
Vincent slickly opens an easier drink – Champagne from Diebolt-Vallois, and pours it into polished crystal flutes at a time worn table – in this setting taking on the appearance of a vinous altar. It is bold enough to settle a graceful freshness across evenly spread, yielding foie gras on toast. As I sip and crunch and savour, Vincent tells me that he went to the same hotel school in Dinard, Brittany – ironically a region bereft of vineyards – as his mentor, Éric Baumard. Baumard’s profession was as a chef until he lost the use of his right arm in a motorcycle accident. But rather than defeat him, adversity inspired him to uncork his energy upon wine’s study. When he was appointed to work at the newly refurbished George V in 1999, just 11 bottles remained, forgotten, in this vault. The rest had been sold at auction two years before. Today’s burgeoning stocks are testament to his resolve to rebuild them.
The foie is the first morsel in an extensive banquet served in the Louis XIV-inspired dining room by another Éric, head chef, Éric Briffard, once sous-chef for Joël Robuchon, and fanatical about Japan (he speaks Japanese). After inhaling cricket ball-sized truffles from the Richerenches, where church donations are sometimes taken in truffles, some time before actually glimpsing them, dinner opens with no fewer than three amuse bouches. The highlight is a perky pumpkin and green tea. Released from a transparent cloche, Maison Bordier butter with potent, anchovy-like seaweed flecks from Saint-Malo proves to be so moreish that my guest begins to swallow the spread neat.
Vincent partners duck pie, layered one centimetre-and-a-half thick with slices of the truffles with chilled Madeira from 1989, its deep, raisined, mandarin fantail of flavours focussed in a slim rimmed Champagne flute. It penetrates the bird’s Rubenesque texture. To follow, sleek, svelte, milky, Nuits Saint George brings a little tannin and feint raspberry fruit to blue lobster with Mercurey sauce, filleted at table.
In the distance, the keys of a grand piano tinkle. Needless to say, this is not a faddish venue, but a calibrated antique, a finely tuned fetish of high-end time travellers. Indeed, even when it opened in 1928, the brainchild of André Terrail, proprietor of La Tour d’Argent (known for its pressed duck dish) it revelled in the palace style – more Versailles than verité.
On sadly accurate account of my gauche, schoolboy French, I am handed an English menu to order dessert while my guest gets the rhythmic and more flamboyantly scripted French version. I notice, and mention to the maître d’, that the Sicilian pistachio and Chartreuse soufflé takes 35 minutes to cook in French, but only 30 minutes in English. He laughs, before gliding to consult a colleague. In half an hour exactly, said soufflé arrives. “Ordered in English, delivered to English time,” he says.
Douglas travelled to Paris on-board Eurostar, which operates up to 18 daily services from London St. Pancras International-Paris with return fares from £69. Fastest journey time is 2hrs. 15mins. For tickets: www.eurostar.com / 08432 186 186