Princely Comforts at
Parisian Dream Palace
The recently redecorated restaurant Alain Ducasse au Plaza Athénée. © Pierre Monetta
We can’t all be born with a silver spoon in the mouth or live in a palace, but, for a taste of princely comforts, a stay in a palace hotel is a good place to start. So, when the chance came to spend a couple of nights as a guest of the Plaza Athénée in Paris, it was difficult to resist the temptation to see how the other half lives.
The French government formally created the “Palace” category in 2010 to enshrine a quality of cosseting a quantum leap above mere everyday five-star luxury. So far, 16 hotels in the country have qualified for the top accolade, eight of them in Paris (two other high flyers, the Ritz and the Crillon, will surely qualify when they emerge from hibernation next year after major renovation programs are completed). Qualification is partly a matter of meeting objective criteria: is there a spa in the house? a multi-starred Michelin chef? It’s also partly subjective, since an expert committee ultimately doles out the gongs, but on any plausible selection basis, the Plaza Athénée is a shoe-in.
Reopened a year ago after a €200 million top-to-bottom refurbishment, it boasts a Dior Institute spa, three restaurants overseen by the triple-Michelin-starred chef Alain Ducasse and stupendous views of the Eiffel Tower across the Seine from some of its €5,700-a-night presidential suites. Oh, and it’s owned by the next best thing to an absolute monarch, the Brunei Investment Authority, manager of the financial affairs of the Brunei sultanate.
Discreetly serviced by a dedicated, security-key-protected elevator and furnished with beds large enough to accommodate a modest harem, the suites have been kitted out by interior decorator Marie-José Pommereau in subtly hued silks, damasks and embroideries from top couture houses. Bedding, in luxurious 300-thread-count cotton, is by the Italian bespoke textile design house Beltrami, while bathrooms are in Italian marble. For guests
The Eiffel Suite. © Niall Clutton
who prize spaciousness, the hotel’s top-of-the-pole 450-square-meter Royal Suite offers four bedrooms, four bathrooms, a living room, a dining room and a kitchen, making it, as the hotel notes on its website, “ideal for families.”
It also comes with a complimentary bottle of Krug champagne. Happily, despite the adoption of strict Sharia law in Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah’s own backyard, his guests do not risk a lashing for drinking it, or indeed for sampling the cocktails downstairs at the bar. This is fortunate, since the bar is the workshop/laboratory of creative mixologist Thierry Hernandez, whose generously portioned, artistically presented concoctions are served in hand-blown Murano glasses styled – touch of whimsy – on Starbucks coffee containers so that young Silicon Valley billionaires feel comfortably at home.
The bar itself, incidentally, is a designer masterpiece, a long, smoothly tactile slab of transparent resin like a slice cut from the
The slice-of-ice bar. © Eric LaignelAntarctic ice shelf, veined with captured alcohol vapors and floating beneath a deep-sea-blue ceiling canopy of ruched fabric – a nod to the Avenue Montaigne fashion world beyond the hotel door.
A silver spoon in the mouth is all very well, but it’s only a starting point for the princely life, worth little unless transporting tasty delicacies to the oral cavity. Happily, the Plaza is not short of delicacies. The Restaurant Alain Ducasse offers a menu that is all fish, pulses and grains, with sustainably grown organic veggies from the royal veggie patch of Versailles – think green lentils with caviar and smoked aspic, followed by king prawns with sesame tofu and carrots, and a dessert of finger limes with kombu seaweed and estragon – compositions that fuse puritan frugality, politico-ethical correctness, gastro-snobbery and sinful self-indulgence in a single plate. In the al fresco garden court restaurant this
The garden courtyard. © Niall Cluttosummer, guest Japanese chef Fumiko Kono served exquisitely melded Japanese and French cuisine in delicately lacquered Bento boxes. And lovers of classic fare won’t find any bistro with a better take on lobster and steak-frites than the Relais brasserie.
But it’s not just the food and the wine, though that’s memorable enough; it’s the setting, the theatrical mise en scene, that takes the breath away. In the garden court, torrents of scarlet geraniums cascade down the walls into a central yard that transforms in winter into a skating rink. In icy counterpoint, the restaurant Alain Ducasse seats its guests in giant pods like silver-chrome fairground bumper cars parked beneath galactic chandeliers, glitzier than a cancan dancer’s feather headdress at the Moulin Rouge. It’s a bit like eating on the set of a TV talent show, minus the canned laughter.
All this comes, of course, at a price. For a taster menu of three half-dishes plus cheese and dessert you can dig into your pocket to the tune of €380 a head, plus unlimited extras on wine, (the hotel cellar, holding 40,000 bottles, is rated by influential food and wine critic André Gayot among France’s top 10, with prices to match, soaring into the thousands of euros). If you’re a prince, of course, that hardly signifies. For those whose purses aren’t so deep, there’s always the alternative of Disneyland’s Dream Castle over in Marne La Vallée. But frankly, it’s not quite the same.
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