PARIS, France – “To love oneself is the beginning of a lifelong romance.” And even if that weren’t true, there’s a lifelong romance that was sparked by the author of these lines: Oscar Wilde gave his last breath at L’Hôtel d’Alsace and, since then, the place has been marketed as such. It’s the smallest 5-star hotel in Paris, its restaurant holds a Michelin star – more on that later – and the Oscar Wilde suite can be rented for $1134 CAD per night. That’s what I call contemporary romance…
In this series of articles, Cédric Lizotte visits some of the best restaurants in Europe. From France to Switzerland via the Czech Republic, here are the best places to sample the delights of some of the best chefs on the planet. Follow it with the hashtag #CedricInEurope.
Today, the place is known as L’Hôtel – that’s the name of the hotel, meaning that the hotel is called L’Hôtel – and the restaurant is called The Restaurant. If you were to guess the name of the bar located on the premises of the hotel, you’d probably be right.
But all of the surreal names and history are not what this article is about. It’s about chef Julien Montbabut’s food, for which the Michelin guide has only awarded a single star. It’s about Le Restaurant’s crazy-creepy décor, its hushed ambiance and its fabulous, friendly service. Oh, and it’s about chef Montbabut’s wife, Joana Thöny Montbabut, the pastry chef at the restaurant, and the best lemon meringue pie I’ve ever had.
Le Restaurant de l’Hotel, Paris – Artful to the Bones
The food at this restaurant is all about fabulous plating. It’d be cliché to call the plates “œuvres d’art”, but I’m not sure there’s any other way to describe them. A carpaccio of scallops paired with radishes bounces off the plate with reds, pinks, whites and greens. A crab, avocado and yuzu espuma dish could have looked monochromatic, yet the addition of a violet edible flower and a tiny gold leaf turns this dish into a simplistic fragrant dancefloor for the senses.
The décor is quite the ordeal, too: it’s super dark, in there! Guests are seated on felted fauteuils, chandeliers spout warm orange light, and tables are set in alcoves designed to keep each conversation hushed and private. What an atmosphere! It’s as if speaking in any other way than with whispers would be frowned upon. But by who? Not by the waiting staff for sure, who are all smiles and seem to enjoy every minute of their working hours. There’s nothing ordinary about this place…
A dish combining a cabbage cake and a pigeon breast with a deep dark juniper sauce brought up tastes of coal, blood, veal fond and dandelion. It was combined with a glass of red wine – Domaine de Thalabert Crozes-Hermitage 2008 – that seemed to bring the deep dark aromas in the food back to life.
Of course, there were a few homemade breads, but what stole the show was the seaweed compound butter. That creamy dairy product was so seductively umami that it made whole wheat bread not only palatable, but a wonderful thing to eat. That seaweed butter is the only thing that ever made brown bread as delicious as it smells.
Despite a couple of Japanese influences – the seaweed butter and a yuzu espuma, namely – the food at Le Restaurant is French through and through. All of the precepts of Nouvelle Cuisine are respected, the ingredients presented mostly grow in France and the plating is thoroughly artistic.
Which brings me to my next point: how come does that superb restaurant only hold one star?
We all know that the Michelin guide loves luxury ingredients. The presence of gold leaf and foie gras on the menu should cover that.
We also know that a luxurious setting and fancy service is mandatory. Check and check.
So why only one star?
The only explanation I can find is the simple fact that we are in Paris. And that no one is prophet in his own country.
The competition in Paris is truly ferocious, and great restaurants can be found on every corner.
Yet, according to my personal opinion, the meal offered by chef Montbabut at Le Restaurant is worth a second star.
But this isn’t disappointing to people, like you and I, who are in the know. It’s actually an advantage: only us can go and have pastry chef Thöny Montbabut’s lemon meringue pie. No need for reservations months in advance to have one of the best desserts out there.
The lemon curd isn’t too sweet. The meringue is torch-roasted and crumbles while the lemoncress releases its herbal juices and aromatic pungency. And the sight of the bites left in our plate, covered in gold leaf, brings back a certain “joie de vivre”, the one that reminds us that after all, we’re in the middle of one of the most beautiful cities in the world and a few steps from the banks of the Seine.