As I stand in L’Hôtel Le Bristol’s neatly preened inner garden on that crisp winter’s day in Paris, all I can think about is how, exactly, I’m going to get him up to my room without causing a stir. His big blue eyes flash in the dappled sunlight, his long arms stretch out insouciantly in front of him: so inviting. I stroke his soft, auburn flecked hair and he literally purrs with contentment. But then he reveals the true aloofness of his species: he pulls away from me, shakes his head, and with one twitch of his ample whiskers, is gone.
Oh, Fa-raon, you tease. The object of my affection, you see, isn’t some well-heeled playboy flaunting his bulging thigh muscles in a pair of neatly tailored tennis shorts (though in the summer, you’ll see plenty of those here). I’m talking about what Le Bristol refers to as its “Empurrer”: its in-house cat. The fact that this legendary five star property on the Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré has its very own pet – a soft, white and ginger fluff ball that could have been plucked right out of a Sheba advert – tells us much about its mode of comfortable, approachable luxury.
It may be one of Paris’ most famous premium hotels, but it’s one with a refreshingly homely – albeit stately homely – kind of grandeur. The property was officially awarded “Palace” status in 2011, and palace is about right: it’s almost anti-urban in its plushness, rich with paintings, antiques, space, light, and taste.
The room, designed by Pierre-Yves Rochon, is light, pleasingly classic, and dripping with exceptional tableware. (The Christofle cheese trolley alone cost €30,000)
This is the hotel that Woody Allen chose as the base for the main character, Gil (played by Owen Wilson), in his film Midnight in Paris. It’s the elegant, present-day counterpart to the thrillingly glamorous bars and restaurants frequented by Gil’s accomplices Ernest Hemingway, F Scott Fitzgerald and Gertrude Stein – and it’s a setting that just begs filmic references. My sleek, marble bathroom has a white wicker chair where I sit to sip champagne while my bath runs, and pretend I’m Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady.
The family responsible for the property now, and which provided the more than €100M for its recently-completed extensive renovations, is the Oetker Group: famously rich thanks to one Dr Oetker, who invented baking powder in the 1890s in Germany. Today, as well as having a significant stake in the frozen pizza market, the family run some of France’s most delectable hotels, including Château Saint-Martin in Vence, on the Côte d’Azur, where we are headed via TGV in the morning.
But first, dinner in Le Bristol’s three Michelin-starred restaurant Epicure, manned by chef Eric Frechon. The room, designed by Pierre-Yves Rochon, is light, pleasingly classic, and dripping with exceptional tableware. (The Christofle cheese trolley alone cost €30,000.)
After a beautiful amuse of foie gras parfait with a fresh, airy sorrel emulsion, our first course of plump, sweet langoustines with lake water caviar (less salty, and more subtle than regular caviar), is served – the langoustines resting in a celeriac and Japanese lemon cream. The bread that accompanies it is the stuff feverish coeliac dreams are made of: a buttery, savoury brioche with chorizo, Comte, Italian ham, tomato and black olive. One warm, melt-in-the-mouth wedge is probably the equivalent of an entire tasting menu’s calories, but it’s so addictive I eat three chunks.
After a balletic flourish of sparkling silver cloches, the main course of nori-crusted milk-fed saddle of lamb is served – the butter-soft meat a deep, bloody crimson which is given an iodine kick by the seaweed, and matched with some fresh herb flavoured green gnocchi. It’s doused in a deep, exquisite cabbage-infused jus.
While I’m eating I notice an elegant middle-aged woman sitting alone on a red velvet banquette opposite our table. She’s smiling wildly to herself, rolling her eyes back as she carefully dissects her chocolate dessert: a stunning-looking hollow sphere of wafer thin chocolate encasing a gold-coated cocoa sorbet. When mine arrives, I can completely understand her ecstasy.
Morning whisks us from the bosom of Paris luxury into the comparatively beige tones of a TGV carriage, which is converted into something altogether more indulgent thanks to the hampers of fresh pastries, cakes and petit fours packed and provided by Le Bristol. Tartines of fresh, syrup-glazed strawberries and raspberries, multi-coloured macarons and cream-filled mille-feuilles lull us into a sugar coma as we doze our way to warmer climes.
The first three hours down to Provence fly by, but then it’s another three-hour crawl through the local stations until we finally reach Vence, and a further half-hour drive to the Château. As we pull into the driveway beside the crumbling, original Medieval walls (the hotel is built on the site of a 12th century Templar castle), we’re surrounded by hills lush with lavender bushes, roses, rosemary and olive trees.
A hotel since the 1950s, the Château retains the old school glamour that was first experienced by the jet set who flocked here for a slice of the Riviera in its golden age, no doubt also attracted by its proximity to the legendary Medieval village of St Paul de Vence, which now boasts some of the most expensive real estate in France. Inside the hotel, the walls are hung with 18th century tapestries and gilt-framed paintings, its communal spaces filled with antiques, and each of the 51 bedrooms have balconies with panoramic views over the Mediterranean coastline. I can only imagine the long, louche summers enjoyed here by the blue bloods, drawn to the area, like the impressionist painters before them (Chagall is buried in the St Paul village cemetery), for its beautiful light and Medieval charms.
After a game of pétanque, and gin and tonics in the grounds, we’re treated to a wine tasting, hosted by sommelier Geraud Tournier, in the lower bowels of the Château’s two wine cellars. He guides us through some buttery 2009 Saint Veran white Burgundy, followed by a beautiful 2007 Dalmasso from Bellet: a small, “secret” Provençal appellation, which tastes of blackcurrant with hints of pepper.
This place bleeds history: the gloriously tumble-down dining room is casually hung with paintings by Picasso, Matisse, Modigliani, Chagall, and Miro
All that “tasting” leaves our palates well and truly perked for what turns out to be one of my most memorable meals of the year. Yannick Franques, a Relais and Chateaux Grand Chef, has form under Alain Ducasse at his Monte Carlo restaurant, and spent eight years with Frederic Frechon at Le Bristol. We’re treated to his tasting menu which best explores his creative, classical-cum-contemporary French food. It’s served to us in the restaurant’s spherical tasting room, whose walls are lined with wine fridges.
Franques tries to cook with local and organic produce as much as he can, and an amuse-bouche of melon emulsion, with cubes of melon, fried breadcrumbs and feta has fresh Mediterranean flavours. The following first course is something much more indulgent. Franques, rather hilariously, calls it “The Mystery of the Egg” – it’s the brilliant bastard child of île flottante and a chicken Kiev, but in a good way. A sphere of impossibly light, brioche-crusted egg white foam, filled with golden runny yolk, floats on an intense cream of parmesan, punctuated olive oil and cubes of parmesan. When I cut into the thing, the yolk spills out into the parmesan cream – the crispy crumbs providing an intriguing crunch against all the rich liquid: it’s an inspired amalgam of flavour and texture, and matched brilliantly to a rich and citric glass of natural Domaine Jousset chenin blanc from the Loire.
The sommelier pours a glass of Causse Marines 2011 and declares that the natural wine, which uses local grapes, is made by a “quite mad winemaker”
A substantial hunk of john dory, doused in a heady crab bouillon cream, is served with luscious braised pak choi, and matched to a glass of Bellet Clos Saint Vincent 2010. Oxtail is next, in the form of a slow-cooked (for 12 hours), shredded and reformed disc, with a light chervil béarnaise and impossibly rich oxtail reduction. On the side is a light little crispy cracker set with tiny gems of chive and bone marrow. The sommelier pours a glass of Causse Marines 2011 and declares that the natural wine, which uses local grapes, is made by a “quite mad winemaker”. The “mojito” dessert is a refreshing crescendo: baba sponge moistened with lime juice and topped with a mint espuma. Had anything else followed, I might have collapsed onto the beautifully custom made crockery.
The morning brings a stroll around the cobbled streets of nearby St Paul de Vence, the most visited village in France. Art is everywhere: from the sunflower murals set into the cobbles, to the rows upon rows of art shops-cum-galleries and local designer boutiques that speak of a rich artistic legacy going back centuries. As we walk the town’s crooked slopes and stop to admire a small square, I notice a busker in brown canvas trousers playing the guitar. His face is old and wizened, his clothes crumpled and worn, but there’s a distinct twinkle in his eye. If ever there was a fruitful place to busk, this is it.
There are cute (but not twee) little shops where you can taste the grassy notes from locally harvested olive oil while looking out onto the valley and seascape, and if all that walking gets too much, you can head to La Colombe d’Or – the legendary hotel which once accepted paintings from future stars in lieu of payment – for a snifter or lunch. This place bleeds history: the gloriously tumble-down dining room is casually hung with paintings by Picasso, Matisse, Modigliani, Chagall, and Miro. As the mid-morning sun streams through the window, you can sit where once the great thinkers and artists of the 20th century gathered, and look out to the deep blue pool where bronzed but interesting bodies pore over books and newspapers.
As we order espressos – it is only 11.30, after all – I see that the busker from the square is propping up the bar. He’s enjoying the complimentary nuts and a glass of some very nice-looking opaque, rose-coloured Provencal wine, and possibly thinking just the same as me: that there’s nowhere on earth he’d rather be. C
Rosie Birkett is a Brixton, London-based author and journalist. Follow her on Twitter @rosiefoodie