“We’ll always have Paris.” But which Paris? The one where the beds are sized for toy poodles? Where the doorways are tinged with stale smoke? And threads of steak remain laced through your molars hours after a meal, like wayward threads of floss? As hard as we’ve tried, that’s been part of my Paris. Of course there’s been the awe that comes from the tower, pleasures of the Louvre and the gentle cushioning of crepes, but it’s never been anything like this.
It’s 8.15pm when the refrains of ‘As Time Goes By’ tinkle from a piano across Le Relais Plaza, in the Hôtel Plaza Athénée. I’m here with the spouse, aka The Hungry One. His moniker is about to come in handy.
We’ve spent most of the afternoon cosseted in one of the Plaza’s 45 suites. It’s larger than our flat in London. Both the bedroom and the sitting room are blessed with chandeliers. The desk is gilded and worn. The carpet is thick enough to buff a shoe. There’s a pucker of pink tea roses on the table. Cuddling up beside it is a bottle of Alain Ducasse Champagne on ice and a giftwrapped box of pears.
This is a lounge room best suited to brides or those settling affairs of state. Ghost-set into the mirrors are televisions. Embedded inside the televisions is a juke box, programmed with music. We opt for a classical selection to accompany us as we throw open the felt-lined silk taffeta curtains.
And then, there’s the view. Beyond the bustle of Jaguars and Phantoms up Avenue Montaigne, above the hotel’s classic hedge boxes of red geraniums, there’s the most clichéd of Paris sights. Watching the sky around the Eiffel Tower streak pink while you sip Champagne on your private balcony. This is such Paris as wistful sighs are made on.
There are other things to love about a suite like this: the two wash rooms with judiciously clear instructions on how to operate the shower; the white-tea scented toiletries; the most recent issues of Vanity Fair and, believe it or not, a heated toilet seat with a built-in bidet spray.
And then there are the closets. The walk-in wardrobe shames my small carry-on. My dress for dinner is dwarfed by a hanging space large enough to fit an entire summer collection.
It would easy to wile away an afternoon in the suite. Yet there’s much more of this side of Paris to explore. The gym downstairs in the Dior Institute is a destination of choice for The Hungry One (he has to work up his appetite somehow). The prospect of free bicycles to adventure into the neighbourhood is another charming option. If we’d arrived three weeks later then the courtyard would have been transformed into a holiday ice rink . It’s kind of the hotel to create a space beyond the privacy of their suites where adults can twirl in glee.
Instead, I park myself at the bar. Designed by Patrick Jouin, disciple of Philippe Starck, it’s sleek in a way that makes the rest of the hotel feel more ornate than ever. The cocktail list is offered on iPads – the source of some sticky situations if you over indulge in their signature Royal Rose (a blend of raspberry and Champagne). What holds promise for me is the option of a ‘Thierry’s Mind’; after a brief consultation, Thierry Hernandez, the manager of the bar, will create a bespoke cocktail just for you.
The Hungry One and I meet again at dinner. He reports on the gym: “white and shiny; the television is the size of a SMART car, but the weights machines are better suited to pilates-toned lasses” is the pithy summary.
Luckily he’s managed to work up an appetite. This is a good thing. If the Alain Ducasse is the shining gastronomic jewel of the Plaza Athénée, the Relais Plaza is the comforting robe.
It’s refined, but there’s nothing stiff or precious about it. The restaurant boasts an art deco charm and its plush burgundy carpets and fawn leather banquets wouldn’t be out of place on an elegant ocean liner.
Since the restaurant opened in 1936, the staff has perfected the art of polished service with a smile – from wine suggestions right down to filleting sole tableside. The menu traverses French bistro classics. The Relais also has access to the 35,000 bottles in the Athénée’s wine cellar.
While we nurse our half bottle of 2008 Chablis we take note of the crowd. Next to us are eight beautiful young things, remarking on their white Burgundy: “That’s the problem; the new world will never be able to get this kind of complexity in a wine this light.” Welcome to another chapter in #firstworldproblems.
Across from us a gentleman is treating his ageing mother to a meal; she’s the image of Barbara Cartland, sporting a furred Jane Fonda headband. Next to them are senior gentlemen who sincerely like the menu, but what they’d really prefer is a simple roast chicken. Could the chef provide that?
Like everything else here, it’s not a problem.
A parade soon commences across our table, from cheese pastry straws that crackle like autumn leaves to a tasting portion of artichoke velouté that’s a sermon on the gilding qualities of butter and cream. As more and more and more black gold is shaved onto our risotto, I grasp around for the appropriate collective noun for truffles. An ‘embarrassment’ seems apt.
Main courses move from game birds with chestnuts to fillet mignon, cooked so it’s as pink as a pinched cheek. A half bottle of Château La Tour l’Aspic 2003 is a gentle companion, fat with cherries and a whisper of black pepper.
The fireworks return with dessert. The ‘L’Oreade’ is the prize winner from the 2005 Pastry World Cup. It’s a glorious combination of raspberry purée caught in a sugar cylinder, suspended over raspberry and vanilla, praline mousse and chocolate. On top there’s gold leaf. It’s more artwork than edible treat. Similarly beautiful is the ‘chocolate finger’, combining chocolate mousse and the delicate citrus of yuzu cream. But the showstopper might just be the rum baba. It’s a mound of brioche as pliable as a pillow, a pot of Chantilly cream, speckled with vanilla like a soiled swan and a squat jug of aged rum.
After a meal as steadying as that, sleep comes easily. Particularly when you’re cosseted in a king size bed with Egyptian cotton sheets.
The only difficult thing is leaving. It’s dark when we rise for the train back to London, but there are still lights twinkling near the tower beyond our window.
These are the memories that stay with you.
From now on whenever the husband wistfully says “we’ll always have Paris”, this is what he’ll be talking about. I think we’re ruined for life. In the best sort of way.