As with so many others from just about anywhere, I’ll go to Paris on the thinnest of excuses. I flew over for a birthday party once and probably could be convinced to do it again for afternoon tea. These days, lucky me, I do business in Paris, particularly as the head of my law firm’s fashion and luxury goods practice.
In America, business only really stops for prayer, private mourning or national calamity; in France, it stops for lunch. As for dinner in New York: the food is usually good, the service is often so, but as friends who live in both New York and Paris have reminded me, the difference is that, you can get through a social dinner in Paris without anyone once mentioning his job – and you can practically do the same when dining on business.
I arrived this time from a conference in Berlin (as earlier reported in this magazine), full of law and business, but within one hour I found myself seated at a café on avenue Georges V, filling with the aroma of Armagnac, with the sight of breezily elegant men and women and the taste of boeuf bourguignon. That triggered memories, from a youth lived long ago, of enchanted nights with a new, but brief, love at a small hotel on rue du Mont Thabor, and I wondered: how could anyone want to visit anywhere else?
Superficially, Paris looks like it is there for fun, but Parisians are as serious about what they do as New Yorkers; they just don’t complain or brag about it as much. For the next several days, I had productive business meetings the French way: over a good meal.
First came a fine business dinner at Market, a Jean-Georges Vongerichten place just off the Champs Elysées, on avenue Matignon. It was his 11th restaurant when it opened but his first in his native country. The idea was to design menus around what looks best at the food markets that are daily set upon by the staffs of the great restaurants of Paris, with the result that the menu changes as often as commodity prices. Under head chef Win Van Gorp, the restaurant serves up what the markets offer into sophisticated cuisine with strong Asian notes. As a bit of counterpoint on this visit, there were four separate types of pizza, two of which are prepared with seafood.
The next day, I dined with a local legal colleague at the summer restaurant of the Hôtel Le Bristol. It was a quiet night at the Restaurant d’été, meaning the summer restaurant, which is in a glass-enclosed peninsula extending into the courtyard. Each year, in the first week of October, a handover sends patrons to the hotel’s Restaurant d’hiver, for the tastes of winter in an ornate, wood-paneled room.
A demure, two-star meal was served and enjoyed in gentle voices, the fragrances of a summer garden punctuating the air. In restaurants such as this, you understand why, in contrast to those many New York restaurants where, if you want to be heard, you need the kind of headset with microphone that you are issued on helicopter rides, ambience in Paris is as much about the silence as are the taste, the aroma and the decor.
The restaurant served two “grand cru” chocolate deserts, including one made from liquid cocoa, that it called “priceless Nyangbo chocolate.” I think that the word priceless was not inappropriate because, with a tab that came to the equivalent of $350 per head, the night was my “personal best” for an amount spent on an evening meal. All I have to do now is somehow make it up to my French colleague, who actually paid the bill.
My previous record of that kind had been set a couple of years before, at the Alain Ducasse flagship restaurant at the Hôtel Plaza Athénée, on avenue Montaigne, where I ate what was perhaps my all-time best meal in France. It therefore seemed necessary to start there, or nearly there, on this trip by dining in the al fresco restaurant set up in the adjacent courtyard of the hotel.
The Plaza Athénée, as a palais hotel, is grand and traditional, as was the room taken over by Mr. Ducasse. The restaurant, which doubles as the hotel’s breakfast room, has reinterpreted the space, splicing the contemporary atop the traditional in the manner popularized by Rocco Forte. A whimsical touch is a clock that consists of a vertical orange rectangle propped on the mantelpiece. A circular cutout revolves to show the minutes; the explanation is that fine dining should never be about watching the clock, so there is no equivalent of an hour hand. You enjoy, and time just circles by.
La Cour Jardin, the courtyard restaurant, which is overseen by Mr. Ducasse, is quite a different experience. The flavors are Mediterranean. There is much green vegetation clinging to the courtyard walls, which are punctuated by awnings in the hotel’s trademark red. Unseen birds create a songfest worthy of an aviary, and there is something about dining outdoors that, regardless of the seriousness of the food, will modulate any attempt at solemnity.
I was joined by a colleague with whom I used to work in the video-game business, a beautiful French woman named Nathalie. As we scanned our menus, a young couple held hands at the nearest table, and one-by-one, dressed-to-kill young ladies and grande dames appeared from the main restaurant and hotel for a taste of courtyard charm. Our meal progressed from rabbit porchetta to a succulent chicken in a lemon confit juice to a very unique dessert: it was served in what appeared to be a laboratory apparatus – a beaker leaning on its side, with a hole cut out. Inside, a lozenge of rice-pudding-flavored ice cream was to be seated on a nest of cherries, separated by a glass enclosure from the juice below it. (It is a measure of the restaurant’s skill that, owing to my low-fat diet, a strawberry sorbet was seamlessly substituted.) A flame was lit underneath the apparatus, and I got to watch my dessert reconfigure itself as the flames did their work on the sorbet from the bottom and I did mine from the top, our efforts eventually meeting in the middle.
Not Just Any Tea Store
You know you’ve been traveling and spending too much when you are known at shops an ocean away. My favorite tea store in the world is the main Mariage Frères shop, in the Marais district. Perhaps because I’m quite serious about tea – timing the brewing and watching the temperature at home with the care of a medical researcher – that the manager recognized me and took me through his latest recommendations of first- and second-flush Darjeelings (from India) and Yunnans (from China).
When I was buying tea at KaDeWe, in Berlin, the week before, I had to point to the large tins full of tea and trust the salesman: no sniffing allowed. At Mariage Frères, they understand the importance of taking in the aroma, and the manager would pull out each tin, shake around the contents and let me inhale for my approval. A Parisian lawyer who shares my passion for photography joined me for lunch at the small restaurant in the rear of the shop. The manager sent a couple of champagne cocktails to get our appetites going, and we enjoyed a light lunch of smoked salmon before moving on to enjoy the photography galleries of Paris.
I spent the evening at Rech, the Alain Ducasse seafood restaurant. The fact that he was willing to locate in such a classical venue as the Plaza Athénée and bend it to his purpose shows that Mr. Ducasse is not afraid to tinker with tradition. The fact that he took over Rech, which was founded in 1925, shows that Mr. Ducasse is confident in his own vision and reputation. The restaurant retains its period bistro look, down to the seafood stand outside and the bare wooden floors of the upstairs dining room, but it provides a full-bore gourmet experience.
The chef at Rech is a wunderkind whose accomplishments exceed his apparent age. When I first saw Baptiste Peupion (the kitchen is open to view by upstairs diners), he looked too young to be allowed to handle knives without supervision. At the age of 30, he has shown he is quite accomplished in the complete range of seafood, as the meal, which went from langoustine, through daurade tartare, to the hit of the evening, a saumon d’Écosse Label Rouge – salmon in the manner of Jacques Maximin (that is, flavorful and salty) – clearly showed.
It took a long time for a group of Germans to fill a large table near mine. (Why is it that Americans and Germans – and I count as both – always seem to take over a place whenever they occupy it in more than token numbers?) In the course of the evening, diners entered and took up position in pairs at the other seats spaced across the room. There was a rough-hewn couple, the man a bit more casually stylish than the woman; a middle-aged pair done up for their weekly evening out and contentedly weary of each other’s company; and another middle-aged couple, this one of ambiguous dress and sexuality. They all provided ample theater for a long summer night of dining.
Time to Rest
The next morning, I wasn’t feeling my best and asked for an abridged version of the relaxed and finely prepared breakfast I’d had at my hotel the day before. I had to sit down three times in my migration from the native arts and crafts of the Americas to those of Africa, Asia and Oceania. By mid-afternoon, I was in bed with a fever and chills. I was staying at Fouquet’s Barrière, a chic Parisian hotel where your butler unpacks your bags and generally looks after you. No apologies: luxury is a worthy end in itself, but when you need pampering, it becomes a blessing. My butler, Roger, became a first-class nurse, bringing me medicine and water, offering to call a doctor, and generally helping patch me up for the plane ride home the next morning, and I was pretty well myself again by the time I landed.
The moral of the story is that, when traveling on business or on pleasure, you can always overdo it. It’s just that, if you are overdoing it in Paris, as long as you get your work done, you don’t really mind.
Alan Behr, a partner at Alston & Bird, heads the firm’s fashion and luxury goods practice.